Jackrabbits patiently waiting for conference bid
Shake-ups across the nation could eventually open a place for SDSU
As the domino effect among Division I college conferences around the country continues, South Dakota State remains patient and confident that its purgatory will soon be lifted.
Such is the case when you're the new kid on Division I's block.
It's been about a year since the Atlantic Coast Conference-Big East shakeup caused chaos among athletic alliances. As some of the mid-major conferences begin to pluck schools from lesser leagues, SDSU remains that kid in the corner at the dance scanning the room for an available partner.
"I think it's hard for the public to understand," SDSU Athletic Director Fred Oien said. "The conferences are not meeting on expansion daily. They go about it periodically. It just takes time."
SDSU and North Dakota State will officially be recognized as Division I universities on July 1. However, less than a month before that date, the bulk of the Jackrabbits' sports appear headed toward independent status for this coming fall.
SDSU has a conference for football. The Jacks are charter members of the six-team Great West Football Conference, along with former NCC rivals NDSU and Northern Colorado. But SDSU's other 19 sports, including the highly successful basketball programs, remain without a league.
SDSU and NDSU approached the Big Sky Conference about membership last year, but were essentially turned away and told to look elsewhere. While the Big Sky is still a possibility, other possible homes include the Mid-Continent Conference, the Horizon League and the Missouri Valley Conference, which remains a long shot.
"There isn't a way to predict what is going to happen," said Jack Mehl, athletic director at Oakland University, a Division I school in Michigan that belongs to the Mid-Continent. "I think a lot of conferences are pausing at this moment to wait and see what the next big shark is going to do."
Matt Peloquin owns a Web site (www.collegesportsinfo.com) that is predominantly devoted to tracking the shuffling within college leagues. He calls the situation SDSU and NDSU face "unique."
He said having the Great West league in place helps considerably, although if the Big Sky comes calling SDSU would end its association with the new football conference.
"Life is a lot easier when you're just looking for basketball," Peloquin said. "It opens up your options."
SDSU has no timetable as to when it might be offered a spot in a league - although the school hopes it comes before Sept. 1, a deadline established by the South Dakota Board of Regents for finding a conference.
Conference expansion is not an exact science. University presidents typically have conference calls to trade information on schools they plan to woo or invite, then work within the structure of their league by-laws to add the right institutions.
At the same time, SDSU has to sell itself to the leagues.
"It's exactly where it has been," Oien said about SDSU's conference aspirations.
SDSU is not alone in its search. Both Northern Colorado and NDSU are also seeking new homes after leaving Division II and the North Central Conference. In some ways, SDSU is competing against those old friends, even though the two Dakota schools have tried to approach leagues as a package deal.
"It would be nice if the Big Sky would just look at their membership issues and say, 'We can bring a little stability to ourselves by increasing by two,' " Peloquin said.
One potential roadblock for SDSU's hopes of get into the Big Sky was cleared late this week.
The eight-school league had reportedly been salivating at the chance to have the University of Idaho back in the league if the Vandals returned to Division I-AA in football. However, Idaho accepted an invitation Friday to join the Western Athletic Conference, which plays Division I-A football, for the 2005-06 season.
The Big Sky's official position is listed on its Web site: "At this time, the Big Sky Conference is not looking to add an additional member. Its membership is satisfied that having an even-numbered membership is better for scheduling purposes. However, the world of collegiate athletics is always changing - more so out in the West - and so Conference leaders 'never say never,' but NCAA Championship ramifications have made it more difficult for a Division I conference to add institutions moving from Division II."
SDSU and NDSU will not be eligible for Division I postseason competition until 2008-09, when they will complete the process of reclassification.
Idaho is currently a member of the I-A mostly Southeast-based Sunbelt Conference for football - not exactly the type of geographical fit that a school desires. The decision to join the WAC shows the school is confident it will satisfy any potential I-A requirements.
"Idaho fits geographically," University of Nevada President John Lilley told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "It fits in terms of the mission of the university. It is a research and land-grant institution."
These are the same reasons SDSU have given the schools in the Big Sky as to why it should be invited to join their ranks.
"Obviously, it's not our decision whether (conferences) will expand and what their criteria will be," Oien said. "Our part is to explain the positives we can bring to a conference."
Reach Chris Solari at 977-3923.