MISSOULA — The Big Sky Conference is postponing its conference slate of football games to the spring semester because of the coronavirus pandemic, the league announced Friday morning following a vote of the Big Sky Conference Presidents Council.
The Friday announcement noted that nonconference play for football "is still pending further review" and that the Big Sky "has begun exploring modified versions of a conference football schedule to be played in the spring and fully supports the NCAA shifting the FCS championship to the spring." The Presidents Council will reconvene next week to make a final determination about nonconference games.
The decisions announced Friday weren’t made lightly.
“We took a lot of time, a lot of input from a lot of people but feel really good about us keeping the health and safety of our student-athletes and coaches at the forefront of our decision,” Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said during a Zoom conference.
“Following the protocols, it’s just not going to work for our institutions. Never easy to do this. Never easy to tell our student-athletes that they’re not going to have a season when they planned. But we’re in very unique circumstances, and we have a unique decision.”
The Big Sky's decision came hours after the Pioneer Football League announced that it wouldn't be playing football this fall. The two leagues make it eight of 13 FCS conferences that won't be playing full fall football seasons, joining the Ivy League, Patriot League, Colonial Athletic Association, Northeast Conference, MEAC and SWAC.
The loss of the teams in the PFL and Big Sky made it official that there won't be an FCS postseason this fall because the NCAA required that at least 50% of eligible teams in a specific sport in a specific division play this fall in order for there to be a fall championship. Only 56% of teams reportedly hadn't postponed their fall football seasons before the announcements Friday.
Wistrcill said the Presidents Council was in “constant communication” with other FCS conferences, many of which hadn’t made a decision by the time the Big Sky decided it needed to go ahead with its own choice.
“We knew we had to make a decision both for our own well-being, we were going to make it based upon our factors, but also we owed it to our coaches and our student-athletes to give them an answer,” Wistrcill said. “There were so many question marks out there that we knew we had to make a decision. While we’re certainly monitoring the marketplace, we didn’t let that drive our decision, but we certainly communicated our intentions to all the other conferences and hope they’ll join us in making this great season the best it can.”
Division II and III canceled their fall championships Wednesday within a few hours of the NCAA Board of Governors' announcement that it was leaving the decision about fall championships up to each of the three divisions. The NCAA's requirements and guidelines included COVID-19 testing, student-athlete medical expenses, scholarships and eligibility in addition to the 50% championship rule.
Local and state regulations also have to be met, and the Big Sky has 13 schools that play football across eight states: Montana, Idaho Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
Wistrcill said the conference was leaning toward a move to the spring, and the NCAA mandate for obtaining enough COVID tests for every student-athlete, testing them all and then getting a result turned around in the required 72-hour window would have been “really difficult” for all the schools. That helped push the league to make the decision to play in the spring.
“It was certainly a factor that played into it, maybe a tipping point,” he said. “We were heading, I think, kind of in this direction based upon lots of things, but then when you start looking at requirements for testing, it was virtually impossible for us to pull off.”
The players’ "health and safety" was at the forefront of the decision, according to Andy Feinstein, president of the University of Northern Colorado and chair of the Big Sky Presidents’ Council. Montana President Seth Bodnar echoed that thought
"The Big Sky Conference has been incredibly thoughtful in their approach to data analysis, collaboration and careful consideration of the impacts of COVID-19 on intercollegiate athletics," Bodnar said in a statement to the Missoulian. "These are difficult decisions based on complex issues, but at the heart of this matter is the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans."
As for other fall sports the Big Sky sponsors — women's soccer, women's volleyball and cross country — the Big Sky announced it "will continue to be reviewed with a final determination made at a later date." The conference previously pushed back the start of competition in those sports to Sept. 18.
"We’re going to monitor that situation real carefully," Wistrcill said. "You’re dealing with a little smaller population groups in that, so a little easier to test, a little easier to track in those sports that have a smaller group. Certainly, it’s under consideration whether or not those sports will play. Right now, we’ll continue down that path.
"Plus, the NCAA has not made a decision on those sports as well, so as of right now, there’s still fall championships in those other sports. But we’ll review that as well before we make any decision about those fall sports."
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.