Since moving to the Division I level in 1994, Cal Poly had been knocking on a certain door, athletic director Alison Cone said.The Big Sky Conference finally opened it on Tuesday, accepting the Mustangs, as well as longtime partner UC Davis, as football-only members — and letting go of its long-held stance that if schools joined, they’d need to do so in all sports.
But why now?
The trickle-down effect of this summer’s nationwide conference realignment, the economy, a mutual understanding reached between two commissioners, and an expansion of the Football Championship Subdivision playoff bracket factored into the sudden change.
After Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada recently announced their intention to leave the Western Athletic Conference and join the Mountain West Conference, WAC commissioner Karl Benson publicly identified both Cal Poly and UC Davis — which currently play in the shorthanded, far-flung Great West Conference — as possible replacement candidates. It was also widely speculated that the WAC could poach Big Sky schools, most notably Montana.
“Given what has happened over the summer,” Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said of conference realignments, “it was very important that the Big Sky make a statement.”
Such conference movement played a role in nudging the Big Sky into proactively protecting its brand, Fullerton said.
“I’m not going to try to kid you,” Fullerton said. “I would not be doing my job if I didn’t look ahead to these kinds of situations.“Obviously, that’s in the back of your mind,” Fullerton said of the WAC seeking current or future Big Sky schools.
The recent recession also likely factored into the change of heart, Fullerton suggested, as Big Sky schools could stand to save money from adding a pair of regional travel destinations.
In nearly all of its other sports, Cal Poly has belonged to the all-California, cost-effective Big West Conference since 1996. But the Big West dropped football after the 2000 season because of a shortage of teams.
Cal Poly football was a ship without a port from 1996 to 2004, when a handful of fellow independents pooled to form the Great West.
But the Great West — which includes four others, with only one in the Pacific time zone — never met the FCS’ requirements for an automatic playoff berth and did little to lessen scheduling and traveling headaches.
“We’ve been looking forever,” Cone said of finding a niche that would alleviate the problems.
With the Big Sky previously wanting schools to come into the fold in all sports or not at all, Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell fought to hold on to Cal Poly and UC Davis (which joined the Big West in 2007), coordinating with his two remaining football campuses to find them a home that didn’t interfere with the Big West. Farrell has had conversations along those lines with Fullerton for years.
“It really, I think, started with Doug Fullerton and Dennis Farrell talking to each other about keeping their conferences stable,” Cone said. “We’ve been kind of hearing about (the possibility of Tuesday’s changes) and thinking something could happen.”
The Big Sky talk picked up, Farrell said, after April 2008, when the NCAA approved the expansion of its FCS playoff bracket from 16 teams to 20, starting this year.
The Big Sky, which prides itself as one of the best FCS conferences in the country, didn’t want to fall behind in competing for the extra playoff bids with rival leagues such as the Colonial Athletic Association and the Southern Conference.
It was also paramount, Fullerton said, for Big Sky schools to maintain their unity in non-football sports. Fullerton recently got assurances that those commitments wouldn’t waver even with football-only schools coming in, he said, thus opening the door for Cal Poly and UC Davis.