Sources: UND set to leave Big Sky Conference

UND athletics will soon be reunited with the other Dakota schools. UND has verbally agreed to join the Summit League in the fall of 2018 for all of its athletic programs outside of football and hockey, the Herald has learned. Summit League commis...

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UND Athletics Director Brian Faison announces cuts to the athletic department Tuesday afternoon at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald
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UND athletics will soon be reunited with the other Dakota schools.

UND has verbally agreed to join the Summit League in the fall of 2018 for all of its athletic programs outside of football and hockey, the Herald has learned.

Summit League commissioner Tom Douple is expected at a press conference Thursday in Grand Forks.

UND also is finalizing a move to the Missouri Valley Football Conference. MVFC presidents will vote on the potential move Wednesday. It is expected to pass.

Once the MVFC move is finalized, UND will sign the contract to join the Summit League and officially be set to leave the Big Sky.


“We’re still in the process of having conversations,” UND athletic director Brian Faison said Tuesday afternoon. “Once it is finalized, one way or the other, we’ll address it publicly at that time.”

Barring a last-minute turn of events, UND will play its final season as a full member of the Big Sky Conference in 2017-18. Every sport outside of hockey and football will join the Summit League as full members the following year.

The Summit doesn’t sponsor football. All four football-playing members of the Summit compete in the MVFC.

UND won’t join the MVFC until 2020 because of scheduling issues. The current plan calls for UND to play as a full member of the Big Sky Conference in 2017 and as an affiliate member in 2018 and 2019.

As an affiliate member, UND would not be eligible to get the league’s automatic qualifier to the FCS playoffs or to win the league’s regular-season championship. But if UND does win the league, it will almost surely get an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs, anyway.

The move will put UND back in the same conference as North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State, just as they were in their Division II days as members of the North Central Conference.

They split up in 2004, when NDSU and SDSU moved to the NCAA Division I level, while UND and USD stayed at Division II.

Four years later, UND and USD made the move up.


UND nearly joined the Summit League in 2010 -- three years after NDSU and SDSU became members -- but couldn’t secure a home for football in the Missouri Valley, so it went to the Big Sky instead. UND became a Big Sky member in July of 2012.

South Dakota was set to join UND in the Big Sky in 2010, but received a last-minute invite to the Missouri Valley and ended up joining NDSU and SDSU in both the MVFC and Summit League.

Members of the nine-team Summit League are NDSU, SDSU, USD, Omaha, Denver, Western Illinois, Fort Wayne (Ind.), Oral Roberts, and IUPUI (Indiana-Purdue).

Members of the 10-team MVFC are NDSU, SDSU, USD, Western Illinois, Northern Iowa, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Indiana State, Youngstown State and Missouri State.

Although many have long predicted that the Dakota schools would all eventually end up in the same conference, new UND President Mark Kennedy may have got the ball rolling in August, when he asked the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee to take a look at all aspects of UND’s athletics program, including conference affiliation.

The committee barely touched the topic in its meetings, but movements began behind the scenes.

UND officials have acknowledged a move to the Summit and MVFC will help the travel budget a little bit. But the biggest impact financially may be through a rise in attendance -- both from local fans coming out to see familiar teams and from fans of opposing teams making the trip to Grand Forks.

For example, UND’s best-attended home football game this year was against South Dakota.


Return of rivals

UND has tried to bring back the rivalries in nonconference play, but progress has been slow.

This is the first year that the UND and NDSU men’s basketball teams have played against each other twice -- once at home and once on the road -- since NDSU moved to Division I.

In football, it’s been even harder.

The two sides have squabbled for years.

In the mid-2000s, UND refused to play NDSU after the Bison made the move to Division I. In recent years, UND has tried to make amends, but NDSU has held a grudge and refused to play.

In 2014, they finally worked out a deal to play two games, but both in Fargo. They met last year in the Fargodome and will play there again in 2019.

After that, they will meet again as conference rivals.

Good for the Summit

Other than hockey and football, the Summit League has every sport that UND sponsors -- men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, women’s soccer, softball and volleyball.

The move will reunite the swimming and diving team under the same umbrella as the other sports -- something that hasn’t happened since UND moved to Division I. Swimming and diving has been an affiliate member in Conference USA and the Western Athletic Conference.

The Summit League only requires that members sponsor men’s and women’s basketball, while offering at least five others.

The news will be welcome for Summit League officials and teams, who have been hoping to grow the league to an even 10 teams with strong travel partners.

For example, Oral Roberts will travel from Tulsa, Okla., to play a single men’s basketball game tonight against NDSU, instead of being able to get two games out of the trip to North Dakota.


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