CEDAR CITY — Southern Utah University's athletic program will have a new home, beginning in the fall of 2012, as the Thunderbirds have accepted an invitation to join the Big Sky Conference.
SUU received and accepted a formal invitation to join the conference on Friday. The University of North Dakota also accepted an invitation from the Big Sky on Friday and announced its intent to join the conference Monday.
"The presidents wanted to position the Big Sky Conference as a major player in football in the West," Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton said. "But most importantly, we wanted the right kinds of schools. Our presidents have always been driven by adding institutions that fit with the schools we currently have. We've added two institutions that meet the criteria, and we've positioned ourselves to meet the visions of the presidents. We're building a new kind of FCS conference."
Southern Utah, which clinched the Great West Conference football title on Saturday, had its eye on becoming a Big Sky member for years.
"Today marks the culmination of many years of effort on the part of countless people committed to Southern Utah University and its future," SUU President Michael T. Benson said. "We are delighted to accept a spot within the Big Sky Conference as a full member in all sports and thank the institutional presidents and chancellors — and Commissioner Fullerton — for their vote of confidence in SUU.
"SUU has continued to make progress academically and athletically, and these strides forward have been recognized by the Big Sky in extending this invitation." We pledge to do all we can to bring notoriety and distinction to the Big Sky by excelling in the classroom and on the fields of competition with our outstanding student-athletes and committed coaches.
"This is truly an exciting day for Southern Utah University and the community," SUU Director of Athletics Ken Beazer said. "I'm thrilled for our coaches, student-athletes and fans."
"We look forward to working with Comissioner Doug Fullerton and the Big Sky Conference, to enhance what already is one of the premiere NCAA Division I FCS conferences in the nation," Beazer added. The two new schools will join existing Big Sky members Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State and Weber State.
"We are excited that Southern Utah University is joining the Big Sky Conference," Weber State athletics director Jerry Bovee said. "We welcome them to the conference family, and look forward to developing further an already strong in-state rivalry.
"This is an exciting time to be part of the Big Sky Conference," Bovee said. "The addition of Southern Utah and North Dakota, along with the previous additions of UC Davis and Cal Poly, and the potential addition of South Dakota in the near future, positions the Big Sky to be one of the premier FCS conferences in the country."
Coupled with the recent addition of Cal Poly and UC Davis, which both accepted invitations to join the Big Sky as affiliate members in football on Sept. 7, the league will have many familiar faces for the Thunderbirds.
SUU, North Dakota, Cal Poly and UC Davis have all been members of the Great West Conference for the past three seasons and will continue to compete in the GWC next year. This year the Thunderbirds also have Big Sky members Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington on their schedule, and in recent years have played Idaho State, Weber State, Montana and Montana State.
The Thunderbirds have also traditionally competed with the Big Sky schools in all the sports the conference sponsors. Men's and women's basketball have squared off against Weber State, Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Idaho State and Sacramento State in the past several years. The men's team has two games against Weber State scheduled for this season while the women's team will meet WSU and Montana State this coming season.
Southern Utah will reap many benefits as members of the Big Sky, including reduced travel costs, ease of scheduling and, at least in the case of football, the opportunity to play for an automatic post-season bid. Last, but certainly not least, SUU's programs will be able to build on natural regional rivalries within the conference rather than with institutions with no geographic ties to Utah.
The Thunderbirds currently compete in The Summit League in the majority of their sports, with the closest conference opponent located in Tulsa, Okla. With the exception of North Dakota, every school in the Big Sky will be closer geographically to SUU than the nearest Summit League institution. That translates into savings in the travel budgets of all sports as well as regional name recognition for the conference rivals.
In the case of football, the Thunderbirds have just four conference games in their current situation but the Big Sky will provide a full schedule of opponents, most likely eight, each year, leaving the team to find just three non-league games a year rather than seven. The Big Sky also has an automatic bid into the 20-team FCS championship, something the Great West does not offer, and with Cal Poly and UC Davis already announcing their intention to leave the GWC, that conference's football future was in doubt.
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"We have enjoyed our time in both The Summit League and the Great West Conference," Beazer said. "We have made many friends and developed some rivalries, but moving to the Big Sky is in the best interest of our program as a whole. The Summit League has been good for us and we have been good for The Summit League.
"We will continue to compete for championships in The Summit and Great West through the end of the 2012 spring season and look forward to continuing those rivalries we have developed when we can."