New I-AA Football Conference Plans Nearly Finalized
- by Matthew Peloquin
Athletic Directors from various I-AA football schools and Division II schools planning to upgrade to I-AA, have indicated that they are putting the final touches on the creation of a new, western-based I-AA football conference. Initial discussions started last spring, between the Athletic Directors from North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Cal-Poly, UC Davis, Northern Colorado and Southern Utah. By forming a conference, the group would eventually be eligible for an automatic bid into the I-AA playoffs. The league hopes to capitalize on the lack of a second western regional conference in I-AA, other than the Big Sky whose members encompass a similar footprint.
Following their meetings in Las Vegas in early December, it appears that the final touches have been set for the league to be formed. Included in this group of schools will be I-AA independent, St. Mary's. League management has yet to be finalized, however the Mid-Continent Conference will provide the initial management, through Commissioner Ron Bertovich and Associate Commissioner Ed Grom. The favorite for the conference name by the public seems to be "Great West Conference", but could also come from a group that also includes "Greater West Conference", "Heartland Conference", "Heartland Pacific Conference", "Heartland West Conference", "Western Pacific Conference", "Central Pacific Conference", "Greater Northwestern", "Midland West", and "America West" (the American West Conference dissolved in 1995). Officials from the proposed league have confirmed that both the league name and logo have already been chosen. Trade-marking remains the last hurdle for both issues. While a time frame is not specifically known, the league hopes to launch by the 2006 football season. A formal announcement is expected in early spring.
Recent developments on the campus of Sacramento St. could eventually result in the affiliation of yet another school with this new conference. First year President Alexander Gonzalez appointed a sports task force in October to review and research various issues related to the Sacramento St. athletic programs and present their recommendations by 2004. Included in this study was determining the feasibility and potential of a new on-campus arena for its basketball and volleyball programs. Also on the agenda for the group was the topic of conference affiliation, with a final recommendation that the university continue to explore all it's options. Recent rumblings over budgetary concerns, lack of fan support for various athletic programs, and the absence of regional rivalries for Sacramento St. within the Big Sky could cause the school to pursue membership in the Big West, which will add UC-Davis for all-sports in 2004-2005 and will be comprised of all California schools once Idaho moves all it's sports to the Sunbelt Conference in 2005 (which it has participated in football since 2001). Dr. Gonzalez could be taking this time to explore the WAC and 1A football as an option. Such a move out of the Big Sky would force the Sacramento St. football program to consider participating as a an independent, applying for membership in the new I-AA conference once it eventually launches, upgrading to 1A or eliminating the sport. While the specific topic of football has yet to be addressed by Dr. Gonzalez, all indications from football Head Coach Steve Mooshagian are that the sport is here to stay. Final decisions by the Sacramento St. administration are expected by this June.
Any departures from the Big Sky could initiate a search for conference replacements. Ironically, the four main candidates could all come from the proposed new I-AA conference. Northern Colorado, Southern Utah, NDSU and SDSU could top the list since they all will sponsor I-AA football. Adding Southern Utah would provide a convenient rival for Northern Arizona and Weber State, as its located just 280 miles from both universities. Northern Colorado would give the Big Sky entrance into the Denver market without further expanding the conferences general geographic footprint. North Dakota St. and South Dakota St., both of whom have petitioned the Big Sky for membership in the past, could have their consideration revisited. But in a time when many schools are looking for budgetary relief, expanding the conference footprint further eastward could result in an increase in travel costs for all league members.
Matthew Peloquin can be contacted via email at email@example.com or http://collegesportsinfo.com/about