Amid the shuffling of the major college conferences, the Big Sky Conference also has been making some big moves. Under the leadership of Commissioner Doug Fullerton, the league will add four teams next fall and is trolling for more.
Fullerton has been running the Big Sky for 17 years. Prior to that, he was athletic director at Montana State for 11 years. When he took over the league, it was on the verge of losing Boise State, but was just gaining Eastern Washington, which last year won the Football Championship Subdivision title. He also serves as part of the NCAA’s postseason basketball committee.
Fullerton likes to talk to his athletic directors, coaches and president often. He sees communication as the way to grow the league – and the best way to strike fast when necessary.
SacStateSports Publisher Bill Bradley conducted a phone interview with Fullerton earlier this week. The outspoken commissioner talked about the expansion of the league, the battles with the Western Athletic Conference, FBS and FCS postseason formats, the Big Sky’s basketball troubles and a new media deal on the horizon.
Amid all of the movements in college athletics, you have been bullish in running the Big Sky Conference. There are two new full-time members and two football-only schools coming next season. What is your philosophy in running the league?
The philosophy in running the league is different than looking at memberships. There are several things I try to do. I tell the (athletic directors) we can always expect more of ourselves. Instead of focusing on things we don’t have, we need to look at what we have. We can be professional, ethical and creative. When we run the league, that’s what we try to do. When you look at back-of-the-house stuff, we run our league as efficiently and professionally as any league in America. We do mini-surveys on how we raise money and do our business. We ask other leagues how they do it. We don’t have all the money to run the league as other conferences do, but we do business with class and integrity.
What is the league’s vision for expansion?
We saw early on that it’s a struggle for some teams to hold on the way the (Football Bowl Subdivision) is shaking down. The key was the WAC’s loss of Fresno State and Nevada. I got a glimpse of what the end game in what the FBS may come to be. When you saw Pac-12 talking to Texas and Oklahoma last year, I told our presidents that we may be getting a glimpse of how the large conferences will dominate the FBS world. You’re going to see the second tier FBS conferences and teams struggle to survive.
The day we saw (Nevada) and Fresno leave the WAC, I called my presidents and said, “Let me go after Cal Poly and UC Davis right now.” They’re going to be the keys to stability in the long run. If the WAC had reconstituted with Cal Poly and Davis – understand I’m not saying we took them only to get them off the playing field because they are obviously great academic institutions; they fit our profile and they are good solid athletic programs. They were people that we were looking at anyway even though they only had football. But once we saw that movement, we had to get them off the playing field. That’s because if the WAC would come to get them, then the WAC would make a very strong pitch to the two Montana schools and to other schools in our league because they would be healthy. So I said it was really important that we get them quickly. The presidents said, “Do it. We understand the dynamic here.” Within 10 working days we had them in the conference.
It was the best move we made because, quite frankly, that solidified our conference. The WAC indeed came after them as well as six of our schools. And in the process, our schools looked at how we were reconstituted and what the WAC was going to have trouble doing. Our vision was if (the WAC was weakened), we needed to be ready to take over that space (in the West). This would be the first time that an FCS conference would say, “No, we’re going to hold firm. We’re not going to succumb to that wanderlust of moving up (to the FBS), which really not a move up. Actually it’s a move down. I can give you a lot of numbers that show it is a lateral move at best; a move down probably in competitiveness and what you’re trying to do for the institutions. If we can hold our ground, we can actually take over this space in the West. It will be the Pac-12 or 16 or whatever they go to, the Mountain West and then us. That is our vision. Right now we’re doing a lot of things again behind the scenes. We haven’t talked about a lot, but we have a vision of taking over that space and we are moving forward quickly whether it’s media rights or whether it’s branding opportunity or whether it’s our 50th anniversary coming up. We’re going to try to take over that space in the West and that’s our vision.
This is the other thing that my presidents understood because we’ve talked about it a lot: If you look at the national way that institutions and athletic departments are funded, the top of the FCS schools have overtaken the top core of the FBS. This is not only in pure gross spending, but if you look at what we call the health of their budgets. The way you measure health is the ratios of the amount of money you can fund-raise vs. the amount of money you have to raise via student fees and/or institutions. If you look at the trend lines on health, the top of the FCS is a better trend line than the bottom of the FBS. That makes sense. Schools like that can’t keep up with the Texas of their world. We move to top core budgets of the FCS because we’ve been very successful, so our trend lines are better. That’s the just the natural sequence of how the world goes around in athletics.
The thing I keep focusing on and coming back to my presidents with was, “What do you want out of athletics?” It’s not so easy, but not enough people ask, “What do you want of your athletic program?” They need to ask, “What do you want your athletic program to give you?” If you have moved to the bottom of the FBS and win two football games a year max and your season tickets are half of what they used to be, then I guarantee you that athletics at the Big Sky Conference is doing more for institutions of what it should be doing than it would if you had moved up. This is all back stuff that the presidents understand. It’s subtle, but my presidents understand this. They’ve held firm. They’re solid in what they want to get to get done. I think there will be an opportunity to again invite some people out of the FBS.
You look at a school like San Jose State that is on the bottom of the FBS food chain. Is it a case of small FBS schools soon being forced to make the decision whether to move down or disband football?
If you talk in the traditional terms of having to move down, it’s very difficult for schools to do. Let me ask you this: I have people at the University of Montana selling 21,000 season tickets. And Montana is a top 100 research institution. And they win nine games a year. They’re on ESPN. Every one of their games is broadcast locally. We get six-figure rights fees when they play their rival (Montana State). And their rival has a higher research number and is third in the nation in the FCS this week. Is that a move down? I don’t think it’s a move down. We all claim that athletics is going to be the front porch of the institution and we need athletics to connect to our alumni. Then is a move to the Big Sky Conference a move down or is it a move up? I would claim that we are more what athletics are supposed to be than (small FBS schools) are. I don’t know how (San Jose State) can get better given where they’re located. In the bottom quarter of the FBS, how do they catch Texas? (San Jose State’s) budget is smaller than my schools’. They can’t expand because they can’t get any bigger of a base. Their option probably is to drop football. That seems to be the California model. They say, “We’re going to stay in FBS until we can’t move forward anymore and then we have to drop football.” What a sad deal that is, especially when I can give them a home to build their programs in and I can get them on television and I can get them nationally recognized. I don’t think (joining the Big Sky) is a move down. I actually think it’s a move up.
Did you really extend membership offers to Idaho and Utah State?
It was in the news last summer and their presidents said “We weren’t happy you said that.” They were making comments like, “We would like to be with some Big Sky teams, but we’re not quite ready.” And my comment back, “Not ready? We sell 21,000 season tickets at one of our schools and you sell 3,000 season tickets. And you’re saying we’re not ready. We’re in a better situation than you are.” And I made that comment very publicly.
Football drives the show in college athletics. And on the field, the Big Sky Conference seems to be having a down year with only two teams in the FCS top 25 poll. What is the state of football in the league?
We’re probably stronger than we’ve ever been. But we’re in a situation with nine teams that where we’re just beating each other up. We’re giving each other the losses that knock us out of the Top 25. Sitting out here in the West, we don’t have a lot of voters because the voters are all attached to conferences in the East. I’m not saying there’s a bias working against us. I’m saying they don’t always understand what’s happening out here as much. Understand that I think the (FCS) committee has a better understanding of just how good we are. I mean look at Sac State knocking off Oregon State during the first week of the season. And it’s hard for Sac State to get wins our league. That’s what’s happening. That actually will change when we move to 13 teams the way we’ve developed the schedule. I think we will have four teams with eight wins every year because they don’t have to play each other all of the time. I worry always about promoting us and getting the right number of teams in (the NCAA playoffs). And I know we’re very, very good this year. We’re six teams deep. But I don’t get down on our strength or our competitiveness because I know how good we are..
You sound like you’re touting the league as the Southeastern Conference of the FCS.
We’re pretty deep. I f you watched Eastern Washington open vs. Washington, they dominated that game. If you watched Weber State play against Wyoming in their opener, they should have won that game. I mean, Southern Utah won by three touchdowns last weekend at (UNLV). We’re pretty good.
Speaking of football, the FCS is talking about another playoffs expansion from 20 to 24 teams. What do you think about FCS playoffs expansion?
You’ve got two different political power bases at work here. The (FCS playoffs) committee I don’t think has expansion as its first priority right now. The one league that is clamoring for expansion is the Pioneer League because they’re little different. They don’t give scholarships. We’ve had a struggle getting them to play us here in the West. What you have parallel to that is a group of presidents from FCS that think it’s unfair that we have one FCS conference that doesn’t have access to the tournament, again the Pioneer. That’s why they’re talking about expansion. I understand that. I support that. The FCS is in interesting position. Remember, until a few years ago, most of the schools that didn’t have scholarships were in Division III. That’s the non-scholarship place in the NCAA. However, schools like University of San Diego and Georgetown had strong Division I basketball programs, so it became an unfair marketing of their football program, so Division III kicked them out. The only place they could land was a place where there wasn’t a minimum scholarship limitation – and that’s the FCS. That’s where got some of these schools in the FCS even though they look a little differently than we do.
The one thing I will say is that I absolutely support some post-season opportunity for those schools, whether it’s their own little mini-playoff or inclusion in ours, but I do support that all teams in the NCAA have a chance to earn postseason activity. In that regard, I guess I do support the expansion of our tournament. Although if you said down the road given the way that the FBS is becoming two different leagues – in other words the big guys with a lot of money and then the rest of the schools with not a lot of money – and given the fact that top of FCS is overtaking that second half of FBS, do ever see a reordering of the way we play? I think that I could see that. And then would the opportunity for non-scholarship schools be available to play in their own playoff something that also comes to pass? I could see that also. What happens over the next three years will be very interesting.
There seems to be a lot of buzz over playoffs at the FBS level. As a FCS commissioner, which side of the argument do you fall in the debate over a football playoff in the FBS level?
If I was in the FBS I would work desperately to protect the tradition of bowls. I’m not sure if some way you could fold bowls in to some sort of playoff structure. If that could work, then you would have the best of both worlds. The playoff is not a panacea that people think it is. If you think of the support of the bowls and the way the bowls are structured, you find out if you’re going to a bowl and you’re fans have three to four weeks to develop plans to travel and to spend time at a destination. And then 30 some teams get to win their last game of the year. Now that’s pretty neat, especially when they get to share some money on it. You can argue that the bowls have become so proliferated that people are losing money and you’re right. But the big bowls – the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl – those bowls have so much tradition behind them and create so much excitement that they allow your fans to get involved. If you’re playing in playoffs every week, fans don’t travel every week. So if you create a bowls and a playoff structure that is a mutual site, you’re going to lose a lot.
I think that’s why our FCS structure works us because we play at host sites until the championship game. The host sites have to fill that stadium and they do. If we tried to go neutral sites, I think all of sudden you would see a tremendous dropoff in excitement and crowds. I think you’ve got to be really careful. Maybe if you could define the top FBS conferences and teams a little more clearly. Maybe if they could have four 16-team conferences and say we’re going to have a 16-team playoff and we’re going utilize bowls in some create fashion, that may be something that would work. But right now without seeing a better model, if I were in their shoes, I would be fighting like hell to keep the bowls.
You held off advances to members from other leagues, like the FBS WAC. How have you done that? Has there been one factor that has helped you convince the league to stay together?
I think it’s like so many issues in the world, its more than one thing. If you said, “Doug you spend a lot more time with your presidents getting them to understand how the money works in athletics,” I would say yes and that’s served us a good purpose. If you said, “Doug you spend a lot more time with your presidents talking about academic issues,” I would say yes that’s important. If you said “Doug you spend a lot more time with your presidents sitting around with a glass of wine talking about the strategic nature of what’s happening out in the world,” I would say yes. And I would say I spend a lot more time with my presidents getting them to define what exactly they want out of their athletic programs. I do that also. And then you say “you move very quickly,” but I wouldn’t have been able to move quickly (to get Cal Poly and UC Davis) if the presidents didn’t have basic knowledge of all this stuff. I think sometimes athletic directors and commissioners don’t spend enough time with their presidents just talking about what this stuff is all about.
I’ve been in the business about 30 years and I enjoy those kind of conversations and go to a pretty deep level with my presidents. I could go the University of Montana and tell them, “I will challenge you to get more out of game-day experience than you do now. I will challenge you to do that.” How do you get more out of your athletic program? I challenge them to do that. How do you get that? Montana State right across the state does the same thing. They’re averaging 18,400 in a stadium that holds 18,400. I’ve got six stadiums being enlarged this year. People are seeing the value of athletics, but only when they understand how to use them. It’s just not an attitude that athletics is the front porch of the university. If the presidents don’t use them correctly, then it’s just a pain in the neck and a drain on your budget. It’s the culmination of a long time and a lot of conversation.
There has been a lot of controversy surround one of the new members, North Dakota. Some of it has involved you. What do you think about North Dakota’s logo controversy?
That’s a tough one because they didn’t have the controversy when we got them in the league. They already had signed on. I think our presidents have a real concern about the action taken by the (North Dakota) legislature (to keep the Fighting Sioux logo). We did not and will not get into the fight. I know they tried to get us into the fight. Whether or not the logo is appropriate or inappropriate – what we worry about is the NCAA had a deal with them and now they were forced to back out of that deal. If they are in violation and the NCAA sanctions remain in place, we’re afraid of what the outcome of those sanctions will create at the University of North Dakota in two ways. No. 1, the pure NCAA sanctions of not being able to host a postseason event will really hurt their ability to be successful in football. That’s one of the things that we really think is important. But more important, as long as the NCAA has those sanctions, we’re starting to see a grass roots protest against the University of North Dakota. We know that they’ve lost scheduled games. We know there have been mini demonstrations when they travel. If those kind of things grow, then their use to us as a solid Division I program in the Big Sky begins to diminish. At that point in time, then it could affect if we want them as members. People try to drag us into this fight whether the Sioux nickname is appropriate or not appropriate. That’s the not where our presidents are. They are engaged in the second part of that conversation.
When you invited North Dakota, South Dakota was expected to be part of the package, but USD went to another conference. With the school being so far away from the rest of the conference and all of the logo issues, do you regret inviting North Dakota to join the league?
Not at all. Let me tell you what they did and this is the way our league looks at it. Our league looks at the institutional fit first. We had the opportunity to get a research-type institution. It’s an institution that would elevate our educational profile. That was the key to presidents’ move. If you look at the moves we make, I have to get the institution past the “institutional fit” first before I can even take a look at their athletic program. We feel like they’ve elevated us in some ways. Again, when you hear me say that, you’re probably saying, “these people do look at world differently than maybe some of the other conferences have.” And quite frankly, I think some of the other conferences have made some hasty decisions in what schools they brought into their league that actually almost ensure that the league will break apart at some time in the future.
What about the conference shuffle going on in rest of the country? How do you think that will play out?
They better be very careful. The moves could create as many problems as they solve. The president of the NCAA (Mark Emmert) and I were talking about this. Does the president of NCAA have some obligation to step in and say, “Hey guys, knock it off. Be careful what you’re doing here.” And I said I don’t think the president of the NCAA has any business saying don’t do that because it is absolutely an institutional prerogative and he agrees with that. But he can go to the presidents and say, “Be careful.” Conferences need to be more than a collection of schedules. They need to be more like institutions. If they aren’t, they will remain unstable. Some of the conference makeup that has been bantering around – like Boise State to the Big East – I shake my head at. You bring those schools in and you’ve created instability because they just aren’t the same kind of institutions that you have in your league. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful of that, let alone the geographics that could also destabilize a league.
You have talked about more expansion for the league. Is there a target number for the league size or teams you’re eyeing?
We’d like to get one more multi-sport school in. But we are being very, very careful. We want a school that fits, first academically and as an institutional fit and right at the top of our institutional profile is where we want that school to come from. You can survive as a 14-school league. But if you get to 16 schools you have contained within your league enough members for two conferences. And if you don’t watch out, then there would begin to be pressure from within league to split. Now, you have the Pac-12. If they want to go 16 teams, they’ve got so much money that can act as glue to hold those teams together, so I don’t see that happening to them.
Is a good example the WAC, which had gone to 16 teams and a few years later eight schools left to become the Mountain West Conference?
That’s a very good example. All of a sudden you’ve got schools that said, “I’m more like you than I am like them over there. Let’s break off and do our own thing.” I’m very careful about getting above one more muilt-sport member. Now, if you have the opportunity to get the right school, that could be different. For instance, if the three northern schools in the WAC (Idaho, Utah State and San Jose State) wanted to leave, that’s probably something the Big Sky would look at. But we’re very cognizant of that problem.
How does the expansion affect other league sports, from women’s volleyball to outdoor track?
One of the only reasons we hadn’t taken Davis and Cal Poly before, is we’re kind of an anti-affiliate members league. We love the idea of everybody playing everything because it creates all of those rivalries. Sac State is going to play Montana State in tennis. The fans say they don’t know much about tennis, but they know they don’t like Montana State, so let’s go watch them because it’s a rivalry. We like people that play everything. We have a core group of sports and we demand our full-fledged members play all of those sports.
One reason the Pac-12 expanded was that it wanted a better TV deal. Is that on your mind as you drive league expansion? Do you foresee some sort of Big Sky TV national contract?
You’re probably going to see us signing a new media deal within the next 30 days.
Does that include a national TV deal for football?
I have a non-disclosure deal that would cost me my first-born child if I disclose anything about what we’re talking about. Let me say I’m very excited about what we’re talking about. There are people in that industry recognizing that we may be the conference that begins to fill that space in the West.
Where does basketball fit in all of this for the conference?
Quite frankly, basketball has to fit in. If you’re rebranding and taking over the space in the West, it can’t just be football. Football is such a powerful brand for a conference in NCAA. It defines conferences. We don’t have subdivisions for basketball. We have FCS and FBS in football. Football is a defining kind of brand for us, but basketball has to be good. And I mean women’s as well as men’s basketball in everything that I say. We met with athletics directors and the basketball coaches just last week in Salt Lake City because we recognize whether its television or officiating or scheduling, basketball has to become a better brand for us. We tried to identify the issues we have within basketball. To me the two issues are recruiting and scheduling. How can conferences help the schools in the recruiting process, whether it is exposure or everything we do? And also, how can we help in the scheduling process? One of the things that we have as a problem that other conferences don’t is we have isolated schools. We have Pocatello, Idaho. We have Flagstaff, Ariz. We have Bozeman, Mont. They’re tough schools to get to. That not only hurts your officiating, it hurts your recruiting. If I’m a parent and I want to watch my kid play and we’re sending them to Bozeman or Flagstaff or anywhere else, I may never get a chance to see my son or daughter play. That’s one of reasons we have Big Sky TV – we‘re trying to provide some opportunity for everybody to watch. I don’t have the answers today, but we sure do understand what the questions are.
Do some of the league’s basketball issues include addressing small arenas, such as those at Sacramento State and Portland State?
We have a deal if those schools win the league and host the tournament, they don’t get to host it in their arena. But it’s not only the size of the arena, the issues include the back of house stuff, you know their locker rooms and all of that stuff. They do not have appropriate place to host the tournament. I think Portland State is in the planning stage of building an on-campus arena and I don’t know where Sacramento State is. We do understand completely that the way basketball schedules connect and the way the RPI is used by basketball committees. You are only as good as your weakest teams. It doesn’t do any good for one of our best teams to go out and play a great non-conference schedule then come back into the league and get pulled back by teams with people who haven’t done the same thing. We’re putting pressure on our league to get better.
With 11 teams that will play basketball in the Big Sky in 2012, is the league considering neutral site tournaments in destination sites like Salt Lake City or Las Vegas or Phoenix or Sacramento?
The reason you have a tournament at all is because if you don’t’ have a tournament about halfway through January half your teams have been eliminated from postseason play. It’s tough to motivate the kids and the fans, but it’s also tough to motivate the press. The reason you have a tournament is to keep everyone involved in the season. But you need to get enough teams going to your tournament so you can get fans in it down to the wire. Now, for most conferences that send teams to the NCAA Tournament, if you get multiple teams in, then it’s terrific because you hope there’s upsets in your tournament. The more upsets you have, the more teams you can get in. However for us, in the situation we’re in, our best goal is get our best team to move forward. Well, who is our best team? It’s the team that just won regular season. So that’s where we put the conference tournament. Not only does it protect our No. 1 seed, but it also creates our best opportunity to create a big crowd. You turn on the TV like I do (during conference tournament week) and you see all of these empty arenas and those are all neutral sites.
Now every time you see a game at a home site, it’s an exciting game with a big-time crowd. The crowd is significant because we have the host there. They have just won the regular season, so they are invigorated and they are excited. Right now, the way we do business I think is perfect for our league given our situation. Now, if we are getting better where we are getting our best team in the NCAA Tournament anyways, I will be the first one to go to some different type of format. I don’t know where it would be because I don’t like those empty arenas. I just don’t like them. And wherever we would pick out or wherever we would go, I just don’t see a destination type of site that could create the same excitement. I don’t know what that site could be. I know people talk about Las Vegas, but if you play in Las Vegas on that Saturday – because we are moving the conference title game to Saturday because we have too many league games – you’re going against the WAC tournament the same night and the Mountain West the same night. I watched the WAC tournament last year. If they didn’t’ have Utah State fans, they wouldn’t have had anybody. They would have had six people at the game, and I’m just not going to do that.
What are the next steps for the Big Sky?
I don’t want the odd number of schools. We really have got to keep our eyes open for expansion, adding maybe one more. I think we have to work hard on our media. We’re heading into a two-year rebranding concept to get our name out there that will also roll into a 50-year men’s and 25-year women’s anniversary celebration. It all works together to promote our league in the West. Some of it is pure luck that the time is right, but you’re going to see a lot about the Big Sky over the next few years. Internally, we’re really kicking off some non-athletic stuff that ties my presidents together even tighter because they’re going to work on some academic issues within the Big Sky Conference. I’m really trying to get the presidents to commit to one another. The ultimate risk is another conference dangling something in front of one of my schools and having some young athletic director take the bait. I just don’t want that to happen. So my job is to continue to have those conversations with the presidents. It’s a constant issue.