The Cal Poly football team will join the Big Sky Conference, possibly as soon as the 2012 season, and as a result will avoid scheduling problems that have hurt the Mustangs in recent years.
The new home is not the Western Athletic Conference, but it’s one the Mustangs think might be a better fit.
Cal Poly interim President Robert Glidden announced his decision Tuesday to accept a football-only invitation to the Big Sky Conference in a news conference also attended by Mustangs Athletic Director Alison Cone and head football coach Tim Walsh.
The addition of Cal Poly along with current Great West Conference rival UC Davis will increase Big Sky’s football schools to 11. The majority of the other sports programs at both universities will continue to compete in the California-based Big West Conference.
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Other teams in the Big Sky include Montana, Cal Poly’s opponent for this Saturday’s home game; Montana State; Weber State; and Portland State, where Walsh once coached.
This comes in lieu of waiting for an invitation to the WAC, which will be losing three teams over the next three years. WAC officials formed a search committee to identify candidates for expansion last week, and commissioner Karl Benson recently mentioned Cal Poly and UC Davis as potential replacements.
In order to make a jump to the WAC, an NCAA Division I-Football Bowl Subdivision Conference, Cal Poly would have had to vastly increase its sports budget. Cal Poly currently plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, as do the Big Sky teams.
Among other things, the Mustangs would have needed to commit to increasing the size of Alex G. Spanos Stadium, upgrading various other athletic facilities and adding scholarships to multiple sports.
“That would have been a big step for us,” Glidden said. “The difference in cost between operating an FBS program compared to an FCS, with the number of scholarships, the number of coaches and the other expenses involved, probably would require something like a $25 million endowment to sustain it over the years.”
Also, Cone said the university did not have an invitation from the WAC and underwent no recent discussions with the conference.
Joining the Big Sky, which could happen full time as early as 2012, alleviates the scheduling difficulties that led to Cone’s desire to find a stable home for the football program, a major priority in recent years.
This year, for example, Cal Poly has two home games to start the year, then is on the road for five weeks before returning home.
Instead of getting only four guaranteed games from the five-team Great West, Cal Poly could get as many as 10 conference games in the Big Sky and by all accounts no fewer than eight.
Securing one to three nonconference games per year instead of seven promises to be a cheaper proposition, and Cal Poly is banking on the chance it can provide more intriguing home games for its fans, in turn taking in more gate receipts.
“We think overall it would be a savings,” Cone said of joining the Big Sky.
Cal Poly will not have to pay an exit fee to leave the Great West Conference but will have to give $150,000 to be paid in equal installments over the next three years to join the Big Sky, in addition to $10,000 in annual conference dues.
In the end, Glidden made a decision that should affect the university for years to come, while the search for a permanent president — expected to culminate Dec. 13 — continues.
Glidden took over for former President Warren Baker, who stepped down after 31 years at the school this summer and who Glidden said was responsible for much of the groundwork for the conference switch.
“Knowing that President Baker and Alison had been working on this for a long time, it’s not the kind of thing as an interim where you say, ‘No, no, no. I can’t make that decision as an interim,’ ” Glidden said. “But it did give me pause to know I was making the decision for somebody else for years down the road.”