SPOKANE — Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill made one thing clear during his question-and-answer session on the state of the conference during the Big Sky Football Kickoff earlier this week: The conference has little or no control over some of the major issues in college athletics. now.
The name, image and likeness are here to stay, as are changes to transfer rules that created a kind of free agency. The conference realignment is once again happening at the top level of college athletics, and it remains to be seen how that will affect the Big Sky.
Today’s topic is realignment after Texas and Oklahoma decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC while USC and UCLA chose to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Wistrcill said he’s been in touch with league school presidents and other FCS conference commissioners, but he noted it’s a waiting game for the Big Sky.
He likes where the conference is at with 10 full-time members and two football affiliates because even numbers allow for better balance in planning. Other FCS conferences across the country have seen ongoing realignment, but the Big Sky movement has been kept to a minimum, with only North Dakota and Southern Utah gone in recent years.
“If someone at the FBS level comes and asks one of our schools to join and they want to go, there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it,” he said. “Do I think this is going to happen? I do not know. Again, my crystal ball is not so clear.
“It’s a huge leap. I’ve been a G5 (Group of Five) AD, it’s a huge leap financially from what we do, for an opportunity sometimes to play in a low-level bowl rather than to play for a national championship.
The conference’s realignment at the top level of college football comes as teams chase the almighty dollar. The SEC has a TV deal with ESPN, while the Big Ten is with FOX. Do these conferences reach about 40 teams in total and split to operate outside of the NCAA?
Wistrcill brought up the idea of this top division, which others across the country have mentioned as budget disparities grow within the Power Five programs as well as between the Power Five and Group of Five programs. In this scenario, the remaining FBS teams could create a second tier of football that could include some of the top FCS schools and feature its own playoffs. There may then be a third tier of Division I football with the programs least invested financially in the sport.
“When I listen to our presidents speak and I speak to other leaders across the country, everyone’s kind of talking about the same songbook: We’re not chasing the almighty dollar, we’re going to have a balance. between academics and athletes,” he said. “So while schools and conferences like these can still compete for titles, I think there is a real home for us. We will wait to see what happens above us in the pecking order.
Transfer rules are also changing college sports. Last season was the first time athletes from any sport could transfer and be immediately eligible to play at another school. Recently proposed rules would allow an unlimited number of transfers with immediate eligibility throughout a player’s career. They would also create a 60-day “entry window” during which players could access the transfer portal.
Coaches must now adapt and embrace change to be successful. They didn’t enter the profession decades ago with the intention of having to re-recruit their squad every year and recruit outside the transfer portal. They only had to worry about a high school recruiting class and college transfers.
“Listening to our coaches, and I’ve talked to them about it, they like it and they don’t like it,” Wistrcill said. “We have a number of FBS to FCS transfers in the league who are good players. We also lost some very good players. Coaches who handle this the right way will be the most successful. »
Name, image and likeness offers aren’t going away either. Wistrcill noted that he hasn’t seen NIL affect the transfer of players in or out of the conference. It also didn’t see any bidding wars for Big Sky players, like there were at the top of the FBS tier.
He said he had recently received a report from the INFLCR indicating that there were a few hundred NIL transactions in the Big Sky. One is an offensive line making a deal with a barbecue for a free meal once a week in exchange for a social media post.
“That’s exactly what this thing is set up for,” he said. “It is what it is in its purest form. It is not school A that outbids school B for a player.
More changes could come after the NCAA approved a new constitution in January, which could fundamentally change how college sports work. This allows the Transformation Committee to suggest rule changes, as they do with transfer regulations and infringement enforcement procedures.
“I think what happens in the next four months will really set the stage for the future of the NCAA and the FCS,” Wistrcill said. “Time will tell us.”
There has been a major push for ESPN’s College GameDay to come to Missoula in 2021 for the Brawl of the Wild. That didn’t materialize, but a trip to a Big Sky school isn’t out of the question.
“They said, ‘We will come, we will come.’ It kind of has to have the stars lined up perfectly,” Wistrcill explained. “Will it be that game? I do not know. Will it be in Montana? I do not know. But nevertheless, they are very aware of what we bring. … We are always knocking on the door and they are very aware of our hopes and dreams here.
The three-hour pregame show ended up picking FBS’ No. 4 Ohio State over No. 7 Michigan State, a 56-7 win for the Buckeyes. They missed No. 7 FCS Montana’s 29-10 victory over No. 3 Montana State.
“The three or four times I’ve seen ESPN executives in meetings since then, everyone says the same thing to me: ‘Oh, we were so close to coming to Montana last year.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, don’t tell them that. Show up and I’ll believe you,” Wistrcill recalled. “They want to come to a Big Sky school for GameDay.
“I shared with them how fans, alumni and celebrities have supported this push. I said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t replicate that anymore,’ and they said, ‘Well, you don’t. you don’t need to do this, but we want to come to a Big Sky school, so let’s work together to figure out what it is.
A Big Sky team has reached the FCS title game in two of the past three fall seasons: Montana State in 2021 and Eastern Washington in 2018. Wistrcill hopes that happens frequently.
“I believe we’re the strongest, deepest conference in the country, so we expect our best team to come to Frisco,” he said. “Every year, that’s our goal, it’s to win the national championship. … We should be disappointed when we don’t have a team playing for the national title. This is our expectation as a league.
Two of the last three programs to win a national title are leaving for the FBS. Wistrcill doesn’t see their departure as diminishing the value of a championship.
“There are great football teams all over the country,” he said. “Obviously there are great football teams in our conference. The Valley has great teams. The Colonial still does. The Southland. There are a number of conferences that compete at a very, very high level. We’ll see how it goes, but I like our positioning and would pit our best teams against anyone in the country.
The Big Sky will have two games televised on linear television on ESPN for the second consecutive season.
These games: UC Davis at Montana State and Montana at Sacramento State. Last year it was Montana at Eastern Washington and Montana State at Weber State.
“We’re the only FCS conference in the country that has that,” Wistrcill said of the deal. “It’s a way for us to show the strength of our conference, the balance that we have. If you think about it, we’ve had two seasons and a fair number of teams have already competed on ESPN, which just shows the depth and strength of our conference.
Wistrcill noted that there are a few schools that are putting the finishing touches on their ESPN+ games to meet minimum broadcast standards. The next step he would like to see is for institutions to organize pre-match, half-time and post-match broadcasts to accompany the broadcast of their match.
“Things like this will create great inventory for us as a conference and really show what schools can do,” he said.
In the future, some Big Sky teams may be involved in non-conference games at an off-campus venue.
“We’ve also started discussing some neutral-site games, getting some of the top teams in the country to play neutral-site games,” Wistrcill said. “This discussion has also started. I hope we will also have good news on this subject. »
The Big Sky has also had conversations about the possibility of a programming alliance with another FCS conference to ensure quality non-league games. The Missouri Valley and Big Sky have had an unofficial “series of challenges” over the past few years.
“It’s difficult in football because every program tries to balance things out and work so far ahead (according to their schedule),” he said. “We always have conversations with conferences like these about this opportunity. It’s a little easier in basketball and we worked hard on that. I think we’ll be lucky with programming elements in place for men’s and women’s basketball.
Hall of fame
The Big Sky inducted 14 members into its inaugural Hall of Fame class. Wistrcill said the league is not set on a set number of people to induct each year going forward. One thing to consider is choosing members of current teams as well as deserving individuals who have participated in programs that are no longer at the conference.
When asked if Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp could be inducted just 6 years after his record-breaking career and journey to becoming Super Bowl MVP, Wistrcill said, “First we’ll have to see if he deserves it”, which made those present laugh. “He can be.”
Wistrcill said the conference had “no restrictions” due to COVID entering this academic year, although there is ongoing monitoring of the BA.5 variant.
“We will have to follow the local health authorities for everything that happens,” he said, “but as far as the conference as a whole, it’s not something we discuss.”