By Kent Schmidt
College Sporting News
CSN West Columnist
When the Big Sky expanded last fall, it was looking at all five current Great West football playing schools to join the conference.
First, the Big Sky abandoned its long-term stance on all-sport playing members when it added Cal Poly and UC Davis, who play all of their other sports in the all-California based Big West Conference.
Then the league looked at the other three members as full members.
It did accept North Dakota and Southern Utah but was waiting for South Dakota.
The perfect number of schools would be garnered — 14 for football and 12 for all other sports should they get all five to join for the 2012-2013 season.
South Dakota, however, threw a monkey wrench into the equation as they were accepted into the Missouri Valley Football Conference for football and the Summit League for all other sports.
That left the Big Sky with 13 schools for football and 11 for all other sports — not the most ideal number at least for all sports.
Last week, North Dakota, which is now the most isolated of the Big Sky newcomers, received some damaging news based on their long standing nickname issues of the Fighting Sioux.
The Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton sent UND officials a note this past week that they were “very concerned” with the continued use of the nickname due to the NCAA sanctions against Native American nicknames.
And with the continued used of the nickname, they may be in jeopardy of gaining a Big Sky spot with the other expanded schools in the fall of 2012.
This posed the question; will this nickname issue give the Big Sky Conference a reason to drop North Dakota from joining the league?
The reasons are numerous for the Big Sky to use this as an out. North Dakota, located in Grand Forks, will have its closest conference members being Montana State, located in Bozeman, at 826 miles away and Northern Colorado, located in Greeley, at 958 miles away.
All other schools will be over 1,000 miles away.
Not having South Dakota, located in Vermillion, could be a concern. USD in the conference would have allowed a travel partner for UND — located 377 miles away from Grand Forks.
The nickname issue has already affected UND with some D-I schools not wanting or pulling scheduled games with them.
Iowa dropped basketball games and the hockey programs of Minnesota and Wisconsin have mandates to not play schools with such nicknames if they are not in the same conference.
The Big Ten is slated to start hockey in two years and would leave the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, where they are currently paired with North Dakota.
The nickname will also cause UND to not being able to host any post-season games, including FCS playoff games and the Big Sky basketball tournament.
I believe keeping the “Fighting Sioux” nickname for UND will warrant an out for the Big Sky presidents.
Why couldn’t UND just change their nickname?
This was something that the school was in the process of completing as part of the NCAA compliance that began three years ago.
The original decree was that the two Sioux tribes within the state of North Dakota needed to give their agreement to use the nickname to continue to use it. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe council decided the "Fighting Sioux" nickname and logo should be retired. This was while the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe was a supporter.
But since both groups did not agree, the mandate was to retire the nickname.
Putting a monkey wrench into the situation that seemed already settled was the North Dakota State House and Senate passing a bill to keep the “Fighting Sioux” nickname this past March.
This was signed into law by Gov. Jack Dalrymple to go into effect on Aug. 1.
This bill now makes impossible to change the nickname since it is now a state law.
Knowing that the state government only meets once every two years in the state of the North Dakota, the next time the bill could be reversed would be in the winter/spring of 2013 — after UND would already be in the Big Sky Conference.
Of course, the state could hold a special session to get the nickname bill reversed.
Also, the state’s board of higher education board meets next week and could make the bill unconstitutional and thus allowing UND to change its nickname.
Again, I believe that the best for UND is to get this bill revoked and finally change the nickname.
Could the league vote out UND should it not get the name changed?
This is a distinct possibility for the other Big Sky presidents, at least if the nickname issue is not resolved.
The North Dakota state legislators that proposed the bill think they can persuade the NCAA in changing its mind to let UND to continue to use the “Fighting Sioux” nickname. The NCAA has already, however, rejected the first invitation to have a meeting with the North Dakota lawmakers.
The NCAA’s mandate is enough that Big Sky presidents feel the ongoing nickname controversy “has the possibility of destroying Division I athletics at the University of North Dakota” as Fullerton’s letter to UND President Robert Kelley stated.
With these things, I have wondered why having a school on an island like UND is if the current schools are wondering why they selected them.
But all that really has to happen to change the nickname since they were already voted in.
This is what I think should happen.
I know nicknames are hard to leave and I would have a hard time since I am a North Dakota native that the Fighting Sioux nickname no longer used — especially since other state schools like Illinois and Florida State were able to keep their Native American nicknames of the Illini and Seminoles respectively.
But it seems that bridge has sailed and all that can be done to rectify this situation is to have UND rid themselves of their long standing nickname.
With this latest decree from the Big Sky presidents that I have to think really came from the NCAA to the conference, it is either change the name or go the independent route and hope for some schools that want to play them.
I know no one wants to go this route.We shall see what happens in the coming weeks with the ongoing saga of the University of North Dakota.I think we will see a new UND nickname when they join the Big Sky a little over a year from now.