The prospect of a Big Sky Conference spring football season took a major hit Friday.
Montana, Montana State and Portland State each opted out the Big Sky’s delayed six-game schedule, following the lead of Sacramento State, which opted out in October. This largely affects Eastern Washington and Idaho’s schedules and how each of the programs move forward.
EWU Athletic Director Lynn Hickey said the conference is putting together a revised schedule and plans on seeing football in Cheney in the coming months.
“We’re ready to compete for a Big Sky Conference title and national title,” Hickey said. “The right thing to do is to continue to play.”
Montana and Montana State will “look to develop a slate that allows each team to schedule up to two live competitions, falling in line more closely with the traditional spring practice period,” according to a joint news release from the Montana schools.
Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslem doesn’t anticipate playing a Big Sky opponent in those games.
“We know that student-athletes want to play and coaches certainly want to coach, but a reduced number of games in the spring will give our team a greater chance of success in the fall of 2021,” Haslam said in the release. “This decision allows our student-athletes to compete in some way but gives them more time to prepare in a more controlled environment.”
Portland State, which was slated to open its spring season at home against Eastern Washington on Feb. 27, is also considering playing two games.
“We have been out of competition and practice for nearly a year and to get our team ready by a scheduled Feb. 27 game doesn’t make sense,” Portland State coach Bruce Barnum said in a release. “Playing potential games in April and preparing for the 2021 season makes more sense for the safety of our team.”
Eastern Washington’s six-game spring schedule included Portland State, a home game with Montana (March 6) and a road game at Montana State (April 3).
Hickey said EWU will plug in three other member schools to fill the holes in the schedule.
EWU, which has an athletic department battling over $5 million of debt, was hoping for a regional schedule to save on travel costs. The loss of close road trips to Portland and Bozeman may now end up resulting in longer, more expensive away games.
EWU head coach Aaron Best deferred comment to Hickey.
“Three of the schools within driving distance are no longer playing us, and that makes things difficult,” Hickey said. “But we understand (Montana, Montana State and Portland State’s) decision,”
The Eagles, ranked No. 18 in the STATS preseason poll, begin practice Jan. 28.
Idaho’s six-game slate included home games with Portland State (March 13) and Montana (April 3).
Idaho Athletic Director Terry Gawlik was in meetings Friday dealing with the fallout from the adjusted spring season and reserved comment until the Vandals can plot their future.
“We still anticipate playing football this year,” Idaho sports information director Joe St. Pierre told The Spokesman-Review. “As of now, we are preparing to start practices on (Tuesday).”
Nearly 30 FCS schools and one league (Ivy) have opted out of the spring season, which is slated to culminate with a 16-team playoff beginning in April and the national title game in May in Frisco, Texas.
Multiple preseason Top 25 teams won’t play in the spring, including Montana State (No. 6), Montana (No. 7), Sacramento State (No. 12) and Central Arkansas (No. 11), which pieced together a nine-game fall schedule in 2020.
“This has been a trying year for everyone,” Montana State coach Jeff Choate said. “We respect the fact that each institution is in a different place in its ability to practice, compete, and meet testing protocols. Here in Montana, we’re uniquely challenged in keeping our student-athletes safe and healthy, which is our top priority, while preparing and playing in deep winter conditions.
“This is nearly impossible to accomplish given the Big Sky Conference schedule timeline. Finding a way to compete in some fashion when circumstances allow remains important to me and our administration.”
Big Sky schools pursuing a spring football season will decide on an individual basis how many fans are allowed into their stadiums.
Member schools from eight states – and different social distancing restrictions – comprise the conference.
Spokane County is in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan due an uptick in coronavirus cases. It was in Phase 2 when EWU’s spring schedule was released in November.
The NCAA isn’t charging student athletes a year of eligibility during 2020-2021 academic year.
The Football Bowl Subdivision fall season ended on Monday when Alabama won the national title, but most FBS conferences – which allowed a small number of fans or no fans at all – were powered mostly by TV contract money.
That’s not a luxury afforded to Big Sky schools, which rely heavily on ticket sales.
But EWU appears ready to play a season with few or no fans.
“That’s the governor’s decision,” Hickey said about the potential of fans. “If we had to play today, there wouldn’t be fans allowed. But we’ll see where things are in six weeks.”
Correspondent Peter Harriman contributed to this report
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