BILLINGS — Since 2012, when the Big Sky Conference increased in size from nine to 13 teams for football, the league has crowned co-champions four times, including each of the past three seasons.
Last year, Weber State, Eastern Washington and UC Davis divided the title, all with a 7-1 conference record. In 2017 Weber State and Southern Utah both went 7-1 to share the championship, and in 2016 EWU and North Dakota split the top spot with 8-0 marks.
With six conference titles in the past 10 seasons, shared or otherwise, Eastern Washington has been largely in command of the Big Sky. But other teams have also laid claim to its spoils.
During a media roundtable session at the Big Sky Kickoff last week in Spokane, Washington, Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill was asked if this trend belittles or detracts from the overall prestige of winning the conference championship.
“Whenever you have a conference that’s big — as soon as you expand beyond everybody playing everybody once — I think those types of things are going to occur sometimes,” said Wistrcill, who has been on the job a little more than seven months.
“The focus for us certainly is trying to get as many teams in the playoffs as possible. Just realize that we’re going to have years like last year where we have tri-champs. This year maybe we’ll just have one. Or who knows? Maybe we’ll have four. I don’t know. But I don’t think it diminishes it at all.”
Even so, the Big Sky is the largest FCS conference, and some seem to some believe it is too big. Montana State coach Jeff Choate and Montana coach Bobby Hauck have both opined on the subject, albeit in different ways.
Last season, before the Bobcats’ conference opener at Portland State, Choate was asked to forecast the conference race and why he thought it would be difficult to predict. He responded without hesitation.
“It’s because there’s 13 teams. That’s why,” Choate said straightforwardly. “Why is that not a story? Help us out here.”
At the Kickoff last week, during an interview with Montana radio broadcaster Riley Corcoran, Hauck spoke about his desire for a balanced schedule.
“Everybody needs to play everybody. It’s hard to even crown a conference champion when everybody doesn’t play everybody. I hope that will get fixed at some point in the near future,” said Hauck, who coached Montana to seven consecutive Big Sky championships from 2003-09, three of which were outright titles and four of which came with automatic playoff bids.
“I think everyone is in agreement that something needs to be done in that regard. I don’t have the answer to what that exactly is, but it needs to get fixed.”
Obviously, a Big Sky trophy share can occur in a balanced schedule format, too. From 2001 to 2011, after Cal State Northridge departed the league but before Cal Poly, Southern Utah, North Dakota and UC Davis joined, it happened six times.
And the league has continued to evolve. Most recently, North Dakota left for the Missouri Valley Football Conference after its co-championship season in 2016 (though the Fighting Hawks will play a Big Sky slate for the final time this season) and Idaho dropped back down to the FCS to take its place.
The Big Sky — with UC Davis and Cal Poly as affiliate football-only members — remains a 13-team conglomerate, which Wistrcill admits is challenging from a scheduling perspective but positive in terms of the overall health of league.
“We have great schools in our conference. I love the schools and I love our setup. The numbers are not good. The numbers just are really hard to work with,” Wistrcill said.
“I don’t like having byes in football. I’m a fan of when you start with the conference schedule I want all our conference teams playing conference games every Saturday. Right now that’s not possible.”
When the Big Sky was founded in 1963, Montana, Montana State, Idaho, Idaho State and Weber State were (and still are) its flagship schools. Boise State and Northern Arizona joined in 1970, and Nevada was added nine years later.
The league remained unaffected until 1987 when Eastern Washington came on board. Nevada left for the FBS in 1992, and Boise State and Idaho followed in 1996, the same year Sacramento State, Portland State and Cal State Northridge joined the Big Sky.
Northern Colorado came along prior to the 2006 campaign, raising the total to nine teams but keeping the schedule balanced. It stayed that way until 2012.
Under the current format, certain teams can now go three or four years without playing each other, which breeds unfamiliarity.
Wistrcill was asked about the potential for either adding or subtracting teams in the future.
On the possibility of expansion, Wistrcill said “there’s no obvious choices right now for us to bring into the league from an FCS football standpoint. We watch the marketplace, we talk to lots of people, and that’s our job as a conference, to look ahead five to 10 years and try to read into the future what the conference can be.”
(For the record, Wistrcill said building a 14-team league that’s split between two divisions with a season-ending conference championship game is not in the offing.)
With respect to contraction, Wistrcill didn’t seem thrilled with the idea. There's strength in numbers, he said.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to put words in the mouths of our presidents. I’m a believer in that our size is a strength. We capture the western part of the United States,” he said.
“When you have affiliate members, particularly in the sport of football, people always ask me that question. And (it’s) either one or two ways: They’re asking me, ‘Are you going to get rid of them? Or are they coming in in all sports?’
“First of all, I love football. I’ve been around it my whole life. I don’t want to see anything damage the sport of football. If anything, I’d rather add teams than ever contract here as a conference because I’m a believer in the sport of football and what it does for us as a country, much less as institutions.”
In the final analysis, Wistrcill’s overall objective is to make sure the Big Sky thrives no matter its composition.
“You can’t predict the future,” he said, “but as long as we can continue to grow our product, as long as we continue to deliver good things for our schools and increase income and that type of thing, I think there’s growth there that helps keep the conference together and helps keep it strong.”