By Craig Haley, FCS Exec. Director - Archive - Email
Five-a-Side: Big Sky's Doug Fullerton
Doug Fullerton is in his 17th year as the Big Sky Conference commissioner.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After the Big Sky Conference accepted new membership for the 2012-13 school year, it embarked on a new marketing initiative to help grow its brand.

That concept is exactly what the Football Championship Subdivision is lacking. Unlike the Big Sky, its membership isn't growing, it's losing programs to the upper half of Division I, the Bowl Subdivision. And so much focus is put on the major colleges that as far as branding is concerned, too many people across the country still fail to recognize FCS is Division I (the old Division I-A and I- AA designations probably explained it better).

In these trying times of college realignment and reclassification, conference commissioners and school presidents can look to the Big Sky for ideas. There's stability in the conference, where this year the University of North Dakota and Southern Utah will join as full-time members - bringing that number to 11 - and Cal Poly and UC Davis will come aboard as affiliate members in football - bringing that sport to 13.

A former athletic director in the conference at Montana State, Doug Fullerton is steering the Big Sky ship in his 17th year as commissioner. To lead a successful and innovative conference, he understands how to keep a close ear to the university presidents because they are the decision makers while the college football landscape changes by the day.

In perhaps the most insightful installment of the two-year-old Five-a-Side - In the FCS Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Fullerton discusses how the Big Sky and, perhaps, the FCS is moving forward amid the tenuous period of change.

Let's kick off:

TSN: Commissioner, with all the realignment going on across college football, the Big Sky now has the most members among FCS conferences. How do you view that?

DF: Well, actually that was our plan. We watched this unfold. We knew there was strength in numbers. We also knew that if we could occupy most of the schools in the West, then it would be very difficult for the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) particularly to be able to reconstitute itself and come after our members. So it was a little bit of a defensive move here. But, luckily, the schools that were out there - when you look at a Cal Poly or a (UC) Davis, great research institutions and great academic institutions - it was somebody that we already had an interest in. So it worked out very well for us, at least we think it did.

You know, it's not over. I'm not so confident in what we've done to understand that it's never really over; (it's) a constant battle. The end game for the FBS folks, and I'll say the BCS-equity leagues, that's the issue, that's what's going to drive what's going to happen next. And I think that we're starting to get a glimpse of what they're up to. If you look at the size of those contracts that are being written in the media contracts, and really the outgoing interim commissioner of the Big 12 (Chuck Neinas) the other day said, 'Well, we're down to five.' It was almost as if he let it out of the bag: now we're down to five conferences. And he was talking in general about a Big East demise, which may be really premature.

When these media contracts kick in, there are going to be about 50 or 60 schools that are going to be very different than the rest of the schools FBS. I think for a long time people thought that the big break was going to occur between FBS and FCS. It really isn't. The top of FCS overlaps the bottom of FBS now, and the break is occurring in the middle of FBS. And I think that is where the people who were really watching expected it to happen.

TSN: You mentioned the WAC, which is facing potential demise. The majority of the FCS programs are in the eastern half of the country. How does that impact the footprint of the Big Sky?

DF: There's good and bad. The good is that we're going to control ... if there are only three (Division I) football-playing conferences west of Denver or west of St. Louis, or however you want to look at it, and we're one of them - the Mountain West, the Pac-12 and us - that's pretty exciting about our access to student-athletes and our access to being an FCS conference.

The bad news is that you are isolated out here as an FCS conference, you really are. I guess that hurts us some, particularly in the scheduling ability and those kinds of things. It's a lot more difficult for our schools to get FCS schedules. That's probably the least of the two problems.

TSN: Where does the Big Sky stand on getting a 14th member in football?

DF: Well, we absolutely want to go to 14. We would like a full-fledged member. We can go to divisions, mitigate some travel in football and then in basketball and all the other sports you can have partner-scheduling, which we don't have now. That would take us to 12 in basketball and volleyball and all that. Getting to an even number is really a goal we've got.

TSN: If 12 or 14 schools is a good number, depending on the sport, is there a chance that any other conference or conferences could come together and there be more quote-un-quote super conferences on the FCS level?

DF: Wow, at the FCS level. You know, I really haven't heard ...

I thought the Colonial (Athletic Association) at one time was heading that direction, but now they seem to have stalled, losing Georgia State and UMass. No, I think we'll probably lead the way in size just because there are not enough of us out here west to form another conference.

We look from the outside like a low-level FBS conference if you take a look at the type of institutions we have, the way we do business in our television contracts, those kinds of things. We resemble more the next level than we do maybe FCS. I don't know if anybody will be able to grow big right now.

TSN: What needs to be improved on the FCS level?

DF: I'll tell you what, right along with the Big Sky branding, one of the things you find out when you do a complete branding project is they go out in the market, they start at the top of the media platforms - ESPN and CBS and Turner - and they try to find out what they're thinking of, the Big Sky and what they're thinking of FCS. And then you go right on down and, quite frankly, our weakness has been people really don't know where we are (the FCS level of Division I). I mean, I saw a president asked the question (about) would they consider going to the Big Sky Conference and say, 'No, we're going to stay Division I.'

This is right into the issue that we have. And I'm not sure how to solve that, quite frankly, because we've been trying to solve it for a period of time. The people just tend to label.

I've mentioned it and I'll go a little deeper now that the top quartile of FCS now spends more, has bigger budgets, than the bottom quartile of FBS. And it's a healthier-looking budget. Now economists and people who look at this stuff, they measure the health of a budget by your ability to raise money in Division I. Are you winning games, are you able to put people in the stands, are you able to get boosters, media contracts, those kinds of things. An unhealthy program, examples of that would be getting money from student fees, getting money from the university, playing games on the road for money. Those kinds of things create an unhealthy situation. Well, not only has the top of FCS surpassed the bottom of FBS, but the budgets, if you look at the percentages of the way they raise their revenue, it's healthier.

And it makes sense if you think about it because we've been recruiting and playing to success where they play at the bottom of their level and it's very difficult to keep up. Yet the public hasn't read that. Maybe it's just tough (to understand the FCS). I still call the Champions Tour the Senior Tour. It's hard for me to say the Champions Tour. It's hard.


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