UND officially will have new homes for its athletic programs in the upcoming seasons.
On Thursday, UND announced it will leave the Big Sky Conference and move most of its athletic programs to the Midwest-based Summit League starting in the 2018-19 season.
Also, school officials said UND football will become a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.
The move realigns UND athletics with its regional rivals -- North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State.
“This is a big, big day for UND athletics,” UND athletic director Brian Faison said. “There’s no question for us that these leagues are a great fit both geographically and competitively. It brings rivalries back, and more importantly, in a conference setting.”
Summit League commissioner Tom Douple was on the UND campus to make the announcement along with UND President Mark Kennedy and Faison. The three were joined at a head table at the press conference with football coach Bubba Schweigert, women’s basketball coach Travis Brewster and volleyball coach Mark Pryor. UND’s remaining coaches stood nearby.
The Summit does not sponsor football. All four football-playing members of the Summit compete in the MVFC.
Although there will be no exit fee for leaving the Big Sky, UND will have to pay $300,000 to the Missouri Valley Football Conference and $250,000 to the Summit League for entry fees.
In addition to the entry fees, the UND athletic department is also facing the potential of another round of budget cuts based on the state legislature’s recommendations to higher education.
“It was mentioned earlier that the conference alignment helps us from the expenses perspective,” Kennedy said. “There’s no doubt the university, depending on what the legislature does in the months ahead, will face tough decisions going forward. We have nothing to say on that now, other than we do face some continuing budget situations.”
UND made the move to Division I athletics in 2008. In 2012, UND was accepted into the Big Sky Conference as a full member.
UND football will continue to play a Big Sky Conference schedule in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but the Fighting Hawks won’t be considered a full member. UND won’t be eligible for the league’s Big Sky regular-season title but the Fighting Hawks will still be in the mix for the FCS playoffs, which they reached last season after earning a share of the league title with Eastern Washington.
The move to the Summit and MVFC was made to help alleviate travel costs associated with the Big Sky, a three time-zone league that stretches from California to North Dakota.
More importantly, it realigns UND with the natural rivals it played against for decades in the North Central Conference.
“I think part of the experience in growing up in Wishek or Bismarck or Fargo or the Twin Cities is that when they come to North Dakota, their experience should include playing North Dakota State, South Dakota State and South Dakota,” Schweigert said of future UND players.
Kennedy thanked NDSU President Dean Bresciani for his support in this process.
“(Bresciani) was very supportive and that support was very important,” Kennedy said.
UND’s administration stressed gratitude to the Big Sky Conference throughout the press conference. The Big Sky released a statement Thursday afternoon.
“The Big Sky Presidents’ Council supports the University of North Dakota’s self-assessment of its place in Division I athletics and understands its decision to find a better geographic footprint and natural rivalries,” the statement said. “The Big Sky Conference, in conjunction with North Dakota, the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Summit League worked together to create a solution that would help UND find better-aligned regional competition, while also tightening the Big Sky’s membership footprint.”
MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito said her league membership was happy with 10 teams as late as July. The conversation began to change then when the Summit League approached the MVFC to consider UND.
Viverito said she visited her campuses to tell administrators that bringing MVFC membership to 11 might not be ideal, but it also shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
“When you look at the North Dakota football program, they’re a great fit competitively and geographically,” she said. “We want to be nationally competitive and they fit that bill.”
Viverito said the vote to include UND in the MVFC, which took place Wednesday via conference call, was unanimous.
Viverito originally planned to have an in-person meeting to discuss membership
“But there was really no opposition,” Viverito said.