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Big Sky is isle of calm in sea of grid turmoil


Big Sky Conference commissioner Doug Fullerton is no Greek philosopher, but he clearly understands the ancient admonition to "know thyself."

He knows his league's strengths, the biggest being an awareness of its mission. He knows its weaknesses. He even seems to have a pretty good handle on everyone else's pros and cons. Thus with all modesty, he can declare what he did last week in a Deseret News interview: "We really think we've made the right moves. It wasn't by chance. We saw the dominoes start to fall and we kind of came up with a plan."

That plan was to pick up a few regional teams like Southern Utah, Cal-Poly and UC-Davis, get the league's presidents together in order to know one another, and map out a long-range objective.

Check, check and check.

"Don't try to outreach what your campus is. If you're a regional institution, your athletic marketing/ branding campaign should be focused on (that)," Fullerton said. "So I actually think from a branding sense, it's better to not have athletics than to have bad athletics. And so I say, what are we chasing?"

Fame and wealth? Leave that to the Texases, USCs and Floridas.

He just wants competitive teams, familiar time zones and balanced budgets.

Easier said than done, these days.

In an era of college football upheaval, Fullerton and his conference are uncharacteristically serene. His 13-team association has nicely weathered the storm. In recent years, six Big Sky schools have been approached by other conferences, and in each case they turned down the offer.

"Now we have a list of six that want in," Fullerton said, "so what a difference a couple of years makes."

There is something appealing about the Big Sky, mainly because it's still college football. The games are staged largely for the ticket-buying public, not massive television audiences. This is what the Sky is not: a quasi-professional operation that churns out more NFL players than degrees. But it is a competitive league of geographically and academically matched universities.

Two things stuck in Fullerton's mind as he has watched conferences and rivalries collapse. First, many programs have champagne aspirations on beer budgets. Hence, conferences such as the WAC have come to the brink of extinction.

"Universities have to come to grips with who they are," Fullerton said.

Second, he said, the university presidents — who actually control the fates of their conferences — often don't know one another well. Consequently, he has held numerous meetings with his presidents in informal settings such as barbecues, social gatherings and golf outings. They discuss common goals and strategies — nothing like the politicking and betrayal that characterized the WAC.

"If we're competitive on a somewhat national scale, win some (NCAA Tournament) basketball games and sometimes play in the FCS championship ... then we have the correct brand for those institutions," Fullerton said. "You can spend all the money you want in athletics. I mean, I can break your bank and you still won't catch Texas. Texas has a $140 million budget and you still won't catch them, because of where you live — the number of television sets. I mean, you won't."

Fullerton sees a split coming, with the top five conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC) making up the highest division. But he said a second division could include current "mid-major" programs, as well as Big Sky teams.

"What's the difference between Colorado State and Montana State? Nothing," Fullerton said.

Fullerton added that often Big Sky teams have bigger budgets and better bottom lines than low-end FBS teams. He is regularly asked to chair committees on college sports, largely because he has much experience but no takeover aspirations.

"I chair so many committees," he said. "The idea being that I want to know what their end game is."

A game that has his own little conference positioned to prosper long after the dust has settled.


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