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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big Sky athletic directors discuss conference realignment among FBS programs, maintain support for their league

Idaho Athletic Director Terry Gawlik poses for a portrait.  (Melissa Hartley/University of Idaho)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The potential loss of a storied conference like the Pac-12 is one Terry Gawlik laments.

Idaho, and the athletic department Gawlik leads, is just 8 miles from Washington State, which as things are now will be one of the four remaining members of the conference in 2024.

“Everybody’s feeling across the board is sadness and disappointment to see a conference (potentially) no longer exist,” Gawlik said Wednesday, reflecting on the Big Sky’s athletic directors meeting the day before.

Yet there’s only so much she and the other Big Sky ADs can do at this point, and Gawlik said she has told her athletic staff as much.

“We could talk about the what-ifs and who is going where,” she said, “but we have a department to run, so we have to take care of what’s in front of us.”

That’s the position the Big Sky finds itself in now – and in some sense perpetually. As a conference in the Football Championship Subdivision, with smaller budgets and media deals than those that have driven the movement of programs in the Bowl Subdivision, the Big Sky is continuing to take care of itself while also taking a “wait-and-see” approach to realignment.

“You always want to be prepared, because you never know what’s going to happen as this shifts,” Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslam said.

A jump to the FBS is something Montana has discussed in the past, Haslam said, but there’s a lot that goes into such a decision. One of those things is money: At its last meeting in June, the NCAA Division I Council proposed an increase in the fee required to make that jump from $5,000 to $5 million.

That hasn’t been officially adopted. Gawlik, who was named as the Big Sky’s representative on that 40-member group in July, said the D-I Council’s next meeting is in October.

From 2008 to 2018, 12 teams made the leap from the FCS to the FBS. Four more – James Madison, Sam Houston, Jacksonville State and Kennesaw State – either just made the jump or are in the process of doing so.

Montana’s athletic department expenses in 2022 were about $22.5 million, according to data compiled by USA Today, a figure that is second highest in the Big Sky behind Sacramento State ($35 million) or fourth if also counting football-only members UC Davis ($40.9) and Cal Poly ($35.9).

Budgets for programs in the Mountain West Conference – a seemingly logical geographic fit for any Big Sky team that might move up – range from $39 million to $67 million .

Haslam said Montana brings in a significant revenue stream, but it couldn’t make up the necessary difference at the ticket gate.

“Going from $23 to $40 (million), that’s a big jump,” Haslam said, “and you can only do so much of that with ticket prices and the sale of Coca-Cola. There would have to be a commitment from the entire university system to make that happen.

“If we were to be invited to be in an FBS conference, it would take a financial commitment that the University of Montana and the state of Montana would need to be comfortable with.”

Montana and Montana State are also governed by the same board of regents, seemingly tying the fate of the two institutions and their athletic departments.

But Haslam said Montana loves its current situation in the Big Sky and in the FCS as a whole.

“I love the tradition we have. I love the regionality we have,” Haslam said. “I really do love a 24-team playoff that crowns a national champion.”

And, he said, Montana is a flagship institution that is relevant in the state.

“You want to be sure you’re in a position to stay relevant,” Haslam said.

Gawlik also recognized those factors as considerable strengths of the FCS. She said Idaho is “where we need to be right now” and wants “to vie for a national championship.”

“At this point, we’re really excited to be in the FCS and this conference, working with all these institutions that are like-minded,” Gawlik said.

Idaho’s expenses – $22.3 million – are in line with those of Montana; Eastern Washington’s are $16 million, the second-lowest figure in the Big Sky.

Tim Collins, who in July became Eastern Washington’s athletic director, worked previously in the departments at Wyoming and Fresno State, both of which compete in the Mountain West. Their budgets are both close to $47 million.

“One of the things I’ve noticed from a strengths and weaknesses (standpoint) right out of the gate is that the FCS does have a unique identity in terms of who we are and who we serve,” Collins said.

“Especially from an institutional profile, there’s a lot of consistency there.”

None of the ADs claimed to have a clear view into the future, nor did they claim any special knowledge of the decision-making process for the Pac-12 teams that decided to leave for the Big Ten and the Big 12.

But Gawlik wondered about the speed with which the decisions were made and what might be lost in the process.

“What I’ve always been mindful of is if you’re trying to think forward, what are the unintended consequences?” Gawlik said. “I think that hasn’t been vetted to the degree that it needed to be with all these changes. It’s not easy to deduce. It’s complicated.”

That the affiliation changes happened in the West region also felt different to Haslam.

“Anytime there is conference movement out West in particular, it certainly raises your radar a little more because it’s happening in your region,” Haslam said. “When shufflings happen back East, you don’t think about it as much.”

Haslam is looking at what the remaining four teams from the Pac-12 decide to do.

“It all hinges on what the Pac-12 does. Do they try to reconstitute and then the Mountain West tries to stay together and take teams?” Haslam said. “If that scenario happens, that has a higher likelihood of impacting us. If the Pac-12 and Mountain West merge together, then they’re set. It really depends on what the Pac-12 decides to do.”

At the Big Sky meetings on July 24, three days before Colorado left the Pac-12 for the Big 12, Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill addressed realignment at the FBS level and also took the “wait-and-see” approach.

“We really have to worry about what we can control,” he said. “There’s a lot of movement that (can happen) on the Power Five level. Some of that might trickle down more into the G-5 now, and if it affects the FCS, I guess we’ll wait and see.

“I feel comfortable with where we’re at as a league, with our 10 full-time members and our two affiliates in football. But you always have to be aware and discuss the what-ifs out there.

“I can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow. I can just make sure that we’re well-informed and prepared to address anything that might come our way.”