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Big Sky Dilemma A Certain Product Of Blind Leadership

True or false, junior scientists: expansion is an increase in the size of a body without the addition of material to that body.

In other words, exactly what’s happening to the Big Sky Conference.

Now, there is conflicting data on this matter. Perhaps you’ve read that the Big Sky has opened its arms to Portland State and is weighing the entreaties of that esteemed Cal State tag team, Northridge and Sacramento.

The huddled masses are on their way. It’s the Big Sky’s own Statue of Liberty play.

So, yes, this would be an increase in membership, but the addition of nothing - and probably subtraction by addition.

Best of all, the conference has no choice.

The defection of Idaho and Boise State to the Big West Conference in 1996 will leave the Big Sky with just six members - the bare minimum allowed by the NCAA to maintain an automatic berth in its basketball tournament.

“Expansion protects you against more reshuffling,” said Doug Fullerton, the incoming commissioner of the Big Sky and the outgoing athletic director at Montana State. “If we were a six-team league, we’d all be looking for new conferences.”

Aha! Just what the go-West faction at Idaho has said all along: this Sky outfit is unstable. Of course, the most destabilizing factor of all was UI crawling into bed with Boise State, but don’t bother the Vandals with the sordid details, please.

True, the Big Sky has never been the brightest star in the college firmament, but never has it seemed quite so insignificant.

Fullerton will argue otherwise, but he does acknowledge the league is fairly grasping at growth.

The acceptance of Portland State concluded a sporadic courtship of such duration that it belongs in Guinness. The Vikings should have joined the league 20 years ago, for all they bring to the party now are juicy demographics. They must resurrect a men’s basketball program and add a slew of scholarships. In making the jump from Division II, they cannot become Division I members until 1998 - and do not become eligible for the automatic berth until 2006. So they can’t even play in the Big Sky tournament, because the league cannot risk their winning.

As for the Lo-Cals, the Big Sky will dispatch a factfinding team this summer led by Eastern Washington president Mark Drummond. What will be found are two athletic programs kept on life support by the recent passage of student referendums, lukewarm constituencies and the same dismal facilities the last Big Sky search party found in 1992.

“But, obviously, the climate has changed,” said Fullerton.

Translation: Can we freshen your drink, Mr. Fellow Big Sky Member?

Oddly, the Big Sky has slammed the door on Southern Utah, an expansion candidate with suitable facilities and a more competitive profile. No, Cedar City may not have the charm of, say, Flagstaff or Pocatello, nor is SUU the Harvard of the Rockies. But this is a little like Bushwood Country Club blackballing Rodney Dangerfield.

The Big Sky has never fared better in the NCAA’s various sports ratings than in the past two years, but having to swap Boise and Idaho for the Lo-Cals will undo much of that - and if the two pledges don’t become competitive in a hurry, you have to wonder if they ever will.

“Schools like Montana and Montana State have some tradition,” Fullerton admitted. “Even if we hadn’t won a football game in 20 years, we’d still bring the alums back and do the kinds of things Division I schools do. At urban schools, fans come and go faster, they’re more transient. Of course, there’s the potential to have so damn many of them.

“There are plusses and minuses. Your ability to get more talented kids in school is good - but if you don’t win all the time in an urban setting, you can’t get a tradition going.”

As for the urban market, well, Portland State will be a healthy addition to the Sky’s TV package with Prime Sports Northwest. But Northridge is hardly going to nudge the Raiders or the Lakers off the tube.

Still, if it’s not a seller’s market, then for the first time the Big Sky needs the wannabes as much as the wannabes need in.

It would never have been so had the Big Sky presidents not ineptly floated their proposal to cut back to 45 football scholarships two years ago - providing the escape clause for Boise and Idaho. Until that day, expansion wasn’t an issue.

Should it have been?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Fullerton said. “I will say that question is being asked now as we sit around the table. ‘Why are we in a situation where these schools are going to have to wait eight years to get in the basketball tournament? Why didn’t we move earlier?’ I’ve found myself asking it. I wonder why I never really talked about this before.”

Well, because it was a good league - a solid league - and expansion seemed unnecessary.

As opposed to merely unappealing.


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