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A Conference for a Nickname - North Dakota's Dilemma

The four main state schools in the Dakotas were among the many to make the jump from Division 2 to Division 1 before the NCAA enacted a moratorium on D1 expansion in August 2007.

North Dakota State and South Dakota State made the jump first, making their D1 debuts in 2004.  You may remember that the Bison made it through the transition period this year and qualified for the NCAA Tournament at the first attempt and gave Kansas a mighty scare in round one.

The Bison and Jackrabbits' main in-state rivals made the jump in 2008 after much gnashing of teeth.  UND and USD replaced NDSU and SDSU in the Great West Conference.  This move was originally for football only; however, just about a year ago, the Great West decided to become an all-sports league.  In the process, most of the remaining independent schools jumped in.

The name "Great West" makes sense for the five-team football league, which includes UND, USD, Cal Poly and UC-Davis from the Big West, and Southern Utah from the Summit. However, it's a bit deceiving for the all-sports league, which includes these members and affiliates:

  • Utah Valley (OK, they're pretty far West)
  • North Dakota and South Dakota (still West of the Mississippi)
  • Houston Baptist and Texas-Pan American (If the WAC can have teams in Texas, this is fine.)
  • Chicago State (This is stretching it.  And they left the Summit for this?)
  • NJIT (You've lost me with this one.  But I guess schools that rarely win basketball games can't be choosers.)
  • Delaware State, Howard, and South Carolina State are soccer affiliates (Again, not much Western about these schools.  I suppose they're West of Bermuda, but does that count?)
  • NYIT (again, West of Bermuda) and Northern Colorado (OK, definitely Western) are baseball affiliates

Not that conference affiliation will mean much for Great West schools for a few years, as the NCAA won't recognize a new Division 1 conference until after the moratorium expires for the 2011-12 school year.  That means no auto bids for the foreseeable future.

You can't imagine that a conference with such a geographically-diverse membership will last in these economic times.  Add in the fact that these schools aren't among the high earners in Division 1, and you have a conference that's bound to be a transitional spot for schools new to the top level.  Additionally, because of NCAA rules regarding automatic qualification for the NCAA Tournament, one of the biggest reasons to be in a conference at this point, the Great West won't receive an auto bid until 2020.  So, you can rest assured that you'll be seeing news about schools leaving and joining the Great West over the next several years.

Or even this year.  Back in April,  The Summit League announced USD as its 11th member.  There was no word on team number 12, however.  Logically, you'd think that UND would be the perfect addition, considering the presence of the other three main Dakota schools.  

However, one major factor stands in the way of the Fighting Sioux's entry, their very nickname.  The Summit League will not consider UND's application for admission until the nickname issue is resolved.  In May, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education voted for the nickname to be retired if the school couldn't get a 30-year agreement on its use from two Sioux tribes before October 1. The Spirit Lake Sioux have approved, for now. while the Standing Rock Sioux have yet to make a decision.  The nickname decision could also have a major impact on UND's hockey program, which plays in Ralph Engelstad Arena.  Engelstad threatened to pull funding for the arena when the topic of a nickname change came up in 2000, and the building currently features thousands of images of the Fighting Sioux logo.

Complicating matters for UND is the fact that they aren't the only school attempting to become the Summit's 12th member institution.  Utah Valley, another Great West member, has a good chance because they solve one of the conference's longstanding issues, Southern Utah's travel partner.  The league could also divide into two six-team divisions just as easily with the UVU's entry as they would with UND.  

South Dakota will enter the Summit for the 2011-12 academic year.  North Dakota may be able to join them on that timeline if they get their nickname issue resolved quickly.  If it's not, they could be looking at an extended stay in the Great West or return to Divsion 2.

However, all may not be lost for UND if things drag out. Centenary College in Shreveport, one of the more far-flung members in the Summit, is considering a move to Division III, thanks to the economy and a lack of viable Division I conference options.

Stay tuned.

In other conference news, Campbell will be returning to the Big South in the 2011-12 academic year.  The Camels were a member of the Big South from 1983 to 1994 before moving to the Atlantic Sun, which was then known as the Trans-America Athletic Conference.