Not to be lost in the hype over conference realignment, the Big Sky Conference has made a splash of its own.
The Big Sky announced Tuesday afternoon it will add the Cal Poly Mustangs and the University of California, Davis to its league as football affiliates. The move brings the conference to an 11-team lineup in football and increases the likelihood that it will eventually expand to 12 teams and two divisions.
Both schools accepted invitations to the Big Sky late last week after conference commissioner Doug Fullerton reached out to them. The two schools will be the only football affiliates in the conference.
"It was very important to make a statement about our strength, but also the strength of the FCS," Fullerton said. "We are a much stronger conference with these two programs that have a rich history. There were no secret projects it was very upfront. We feel really good about it.
Cal Poly and UC Davis both currently compete in the Great West conference for football, another Football Championship Subdivision league that also houses Southern Utah University and non-football affiliate Utah Valley University. The Mustangs' and the Aggies' other sports are housed in the Big West conference.
Fullerton said Big Sky officials approached the Big West early on in the process with the assumption that Cal Poly and UC Davis would want to keep their other sports there. Both schools have connections to Big Sky schools in their athletic departments, easing the negotiation process.
The Big Sky has not yet set up a timeline when the schools would be able to officially play in the Big Sky.
"We don't know about 2011 yet, but we certainly hope to be playing in the conference by 2012," said Cal Poly President Robert Glidden at a Tuesday afternoon press conference.
Big Sky officials acknowledged they acted partly in response to the turbulence in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the possibility that one of their teams such as No. 1-ranked Montana, could leave for the FBS Western Athletic Conference as that league attempts to rebuild.
"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't look ahead," Fullerton said. "There is a history of Big Sky schools going to the WAC, and it would lot harder if we had to look around and reconstitute our league to meet requirements. It is true that this issue was resolved with this move."
The Big Sky's ultimate goal in the move is to be a 12-team football league with two competing divisions, Fullerton said. For their 12th program, conference officials hope to add a full member program instead of just a football affiliate. SUU remains an option.
"I can say that there is more than one institution interested in joining," Fullerton said. "It's something we're going to take a look at very hard in the next 90 days."
At the Cal Poly news conference, school officials expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to play a full slate of conference games, to play more regional opponents and have a chance to earn an automatic bid into the FCS playoffs. The Mustangs have battled with Montana for several years, and officials speculated it would reinvigorate the fan base for those games.
UC Davis also has a long-standing rivalry with Sacramento State, known as the Causeway Classic, that could see added stakes as the programs compete for playoff spots.
"I think we'll stack up well there athletically," Mustang coach Tim Walsh said. "I think the move will be an enhancement to our program."
UC Davis athletic director Greg Warzecka said he and Cal Poly AD Alison Cone had long considered making a move together. Beyond their affiliation and proximity, the school both were struggling with the difficulties of scrambling to fill out their schedules and flying their teams across the country for football games. The Big Sky houses nine of the 13 most westerly teams in the FCS, which will have an immediate impact on Cal Poly's and UC Davis' athletic budgets and travel schedules.
"It solves a lot of challenges for UC Davis and Cal Poly," Warzecka said. "We've been doing a lot of travel, and its a huge strain on our budgets. We were looking to sustain the sport of football at our schools, and this association with the Big Sky does that. We also have a huge alumni population in some of those areas, and most of those game will be easier trips for our fans."
Warzecka said he was unconcerned with such rumors.
"If other schools decide to do that, it's going to happen," he said. "For UC Davis, the FCS is the best path for us in the foreseeable future."
Despite Great West football being whittled down to three programs and SUU seemingly left out in the cold, SUU athletic director Ken Beazer was congratulatory of the move.
"While it drastically affects the make-up of our conference, our scheduling strategy isn't affected too much," he said. "We're happy for both schools and the Big Sky conference."
Perhaps in a selection of good timing, the two schools will play Big Sky teams this weekend. Cal Poly will play Montana while UC Davis will take on Portland State at home this Saturday.
Tribune writer Steve Luhm contributed to this story.
A closer look
UC Davis • The Aggies will play Portland State on Saturday, and coach Bob Biggs has a 12-8 record against Big Sky teams.
Cal Poly • Tim Walsh served as Portland State's coach for several years before coaching the Mustangs, which play Montana this weekend.