SPOKANE, Wash. — Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill made one thing clear during his state of the conference question-and-answer session at the Big Sky Football Kickoff last week: The conference has zero or little control over some of the major issues in college athletics right now.
Name, Image and Likeness is here to stay, as are changes to transfer rules that have created a sort of free agency. Conference realignment is once again happening at the top level of college athletics, and how that trickles down to the Big Sky remains to be seen.
The topic of the day is realignment after Texas and Oklahoma decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC while USC and UCLA opted to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Wistrcill said he’s been in contact with presidents of league schools and other FCS conference commissioners, but he noted that 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 the even numbers allow for more of a balance in scheduling. Other FCS conferences around the country have had ongoing realignment, but Big Sky movement has been kept to a minimum with just North Dakota and Southern Utah leaving in recent years.
“If somebody 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 that’s going to happen? I don’t know. Again, my crystal ball is not that clear.
“It is a huge jump. I’ve been a G5 (Group of Five) AD, it’ a huge jump financially from what we do, for an opportunity sometimes to play in a low-level bowl vs. playing for a national championship.”
Conference realignment at the top level of college football comes as teams chase the almighty dollar. The SEC has a television agreement with ESPN, while the Big Ten is in with FOX. Do those conferences grow to about 40 total teams and break away to operate outside of the NCAA?
Wistrcill brought up the idea of that top division, which is something others around the country have mentioned as budget disparities grow within the Power Five as well as between Power Five and Group of Five programs. In that scenario, the remaining FBS teams might create a second tier of football that could include some top FCS schools and feature its own playoff. There may then be a third tier of Division I football with those programs least financially invested in the sport.
“When I listen to our presidents talk and I talk to other leaders around the country, everybody’s kind of speaking from the same songbook: We’re not chasing the almighty dollar, we’re going to have a balance of academics and athletics,” he said. “So, when like schools and conferences can still compete for titles, I think there’s a real home for us. We’ll wait and see what happens above us in the pecking order.”
Transfer rules are also changing college sports. This past season was the first time athletes in 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’d also create an “entry window” of 60 days in which players could enter the transfer portal.
Coaches now have to adapt to and embrace the changes to succeed. They didn’t get into the profession decades ago with the intention of needing to re-recruit their team each year and recruit out of the transfer portal. They had to just be concerned with a high school recruiting class and junior college transfers.
“As you listen to our coaches, and I’ve talked with 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 some good players. We’ve also lost some very good players too. The coaches that manage that the right way are going to be the most successful.”
Name, Image and Likeness deals aren’t going away either. Wistrcill noted that he hasn’t seen NIL affect whether players transfer into or out of the conference. He also hasn’t seen bidding wars for players in the Big Sky, like there have been at the top of the FBS level.
He said he recently received a report from INFLCR that there are a couple hundred NIL deals in the Big Sky. One of those is an offensive line doing a deal with a BBQ joint 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. “That’s what it is in its purest form. It’s not School A outbidding School B for a player.”
More changes could be coming after the NCAA approved a new constitution in January, which could fundamentally alter the way college sports operates. It allows for the Transformation Committee to suggest rules changes, like they’re doing with transfer regulations and enforcement procedures for infractions.
“I think what happens these next four months will really kind of set the stage for the future of the NCAA and FCS,” Wistrcill said. “Time will tell.”
There was a major push to get ESPN’s “College GameDay” to come to Missoula in 2021 for the Brawl of the Wild. It didn’t come to fruition, but a trip to a Big Sky school isn’t out of the question.
“They’ve said, ‘We’ll come, we’ll come.’ It kind of has to have the stars perfectly aligned,” Wistrcill relayed. “Will it be that game? Don’t know. Will it be at Montana? I don’t know. But nonetheless, they are very aware of what we bring. … We’re still knocking on the door and they’re very aware of what our hopes and dreams are here.”
The three-hour pregame show ended up choosing FBS No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Michigan State, a 56-7 win for the Buckeyes. They missed out on FCS No. 7 Montana’s 29-10 win over No. 3 Montana State.
“The three or four times I’ve seen the ESPN executives at 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 me that. Show up and then I’ll believe you,’” Wistrcill recalled. “They do want to come to a Big Sky school for ‘GameDay.’ They’ve continually said that.
“I’ve shared with them how the fans and alumni and the celebrities got behind that push. I said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t replicate that again,’ and they said, ‘Well, you don’t need to do that, but we want to come to a Big Sky school, so let’s work together to figure out what that is.’”
A Big Sky team has made it to the FCS title game in two of the past three fall seasons: Montana State in 2021 and Eastern Washington in 2018. Wistrcill hopes for that to be a common occurrence.
“I do believe we’re the strongest and deepest conference in the country, so we have expectations of our best team getting to Frisco,” he said. “Every year, that’s our goal, is to win the national championship. … We should be disappointed when we don’t have a team playing for the national title. That’s our expectation as a league.”
Two of the past 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’s great football teams all over the country,” he said. “There’s obviously great football teams in our conference. The Valley has great teams. The Colonial still does. The Southland. There’s a number of conferences that are competing at a really, really high level. We’ll see how it plays out, but I like our positioning, and I’d put our best teams up against anybody in the country.”
The Big Sky will have two games televised on linear television on ESPN for the second season in a row.
Those 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 this,” Wistrcill said of the deal. “It’s a way for us to showcase the strength of our conference, the balance we have. If you think about it, we’ve had two seasons of it and a fair number of teams have competed already on ESPN, so that just shows the depth and strength of our conference.”
Wistrcill noted that there are a couple schools putting finishing touches on their ESPN+ games to meet minimum broadcast standards. The next step he’d like to see is the institutions putting together pregame, halftime and postgame shows to go along with their game broadcast.
“Those types of things will create great inventory for us as a conference and really go to showcase what the schools can do,” he said.
In the future, there may be some Big Sky teams involved in non-conference games at an off-campus location.
“We’ve also started some chat about some neutral-site games, getting some of the best teams in the country to play some neutral-site games,” Wistrcill said. “That discussion has started as well. Hopefully we’ll have some good news on that moving forward too.”
The Big Sky has also had some conversations about the possibility of a scheduling alliance with another FCS conference to secure quality non-league games. The Missouri Valley and Big Sky have had an unofficial “challenge series” over the past handful of years.
“It’s hard in football because each program is trying to balance things out and working so far in advance (on their schedule),” he said. “We’re always having conversations with conferences like those about that opportunity. It’s a little easier in basketball and we’ve been working hard on that. I think we’ll have some good luck with getting some scheduling stuff done in men’s and women’s basketball.”
Hall of Fame
The Big Sky inducted 14 members into its Hall of Fame inaugural class. Wistrcill said the league isn’t settled on a set number of people to induct each year going forward. One thing to consider is choosing members from current teams as well as deserving people who were involved with programs that are no longer in the conference.
Asked if Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp could be inducted just six years after his record-breaking career and journey to being a Super Bowl MVP, Wistrcill said: “We’ll first have to see if he’s deserving,” which drew a laugh from those in attendance. “He might be.”
Wistrcill said the conference has “no restrictions” due to COVID heading into this academic year, although there is continued monitoring of the BA.5 variant.
“We’ll have to follow the local health authorities with anything that’s happening,” he said, “but as far as conference-wide goes, not something we’re discussing.”