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The Big Sky Conference celebrates 50 years of men’s athletics and 25 years of women’s competition during the 2013-14 academic year.
The venerable and stable Division I Big Sky Conference observed its 50th birthday on July 1, 2013. To mark the historic occasion, the league will honor its past by commemorating its top male and female athletics, as well as the top moments and teams.
Four of the current league members – Idaho State University, The University of Montana, Montana State and Weber State – have been with the league since its birth. Fellow charter member the University of Idaho will bring the majority of its sports back to the Big Sky on July 1, 2014. Northern Arizona University enters its 45th season in the league, giving the league five members with at least 40 years of continuous membership.
The Big Sky Conference welcomed North Dakota and Southern Utah on July 1, 2012 as full members. UC Davis and Cal Poly joined as football affiliate members. Eastern Washington University, the University of Northern Colorado, Portland State University and Sacramento State round out the current membership.
The league has become one of the strongest Division I conferences in the West and is a national leader in the Football Championship Subdivision. Six times, Big Sky teams have won the Division I National Championship, including Eastern Washington in 2010. A Big Sky team has played for the national championship in three of the past five seasons. The Big Sky is one of three conferences in the western United States playing Division I football.
The Big Sky Conference was established in 1963 by six charter members – Idaho, Idaho State, Gonzaga, Montana, Montana State and Weber State. Those six schools formed the foundation of the Big Sky before the league expanded in 1970 by adding Boise State and Northern Arizona. Gonzaga left the Sky in 1979 and was replaced by Nevada, which gave the league eight members. The conference grew to nine schools in 1987 with the addition of Eastern Washington.
The 1990s saw change in the makeup of the league, beginning in 1992 when Nevada departed and put the Big Sky back at eight teams. In 1996 Boise State and Idaho left and at the same time the conference added Portland State, Sacramento State and Cal State Northridge. The Big Sky maintained nine teams for five years before Cal State Northridge departed in the spring of 2001.
The Big Sky now includes nine states spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Red River Valley of North Dakota. The league is represented along the entire west coast with institutions in Washington, Oregon and California. League schools also range up and down the Rocky Mountains with institutions in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. It is “The Heart of the American West.”
On Feb 25, 1963, the name Big Sky was adopted by the six presidents of the charter members as the name of the new conference. The name Big Sky originated in a novel written by the late A.B. (Bud) Guthrie of Great Falls, Mont., in 1947 entitled “The Big Sky.” Jack Hollowell, a former Montana advertising director, promoted the Big Sky theme for the Treasure State. While on a track and field trip from Pocatello, Idaho, to Missoula, Mont., legendary Dubby Holt of Idaho State saw a “Welcome to Big Sky Country” sign as his team entered Montana. Holt, and his athletes thought “Big Sky” would be a perfect name for the new conference. Harry Missildine of the Spokane Spokesman-Review called for the newly formed league to be named the Big Sky Conference in his column dated Feb. 20, 1963.
The Big Sky sponsors championships in 15 sports, including men’s and women’s cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field, basketball and tennis. In addition, there are also championships in football, and women’s volleyball, golf and soccer. The Big Sky sponsored softball for the first time in 2013. Men’s golf will return as a conference sport in 2014-15.
In 1988-89, the Big Sky Conference first began sponsoring women’s sports. The former Mountain West Conference existed from 1982-88, sponsoring championships for women’s sports at the same institutions the Big Sky had men’s programs. The Big Sky merged with the Mountain West in 1988, forming one league for both men and women.
Doug Fullerton, the fifth commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, is in his 19th year at the helm. Fullerton took over the Big Sky on July 1, 1995, replacing longtime commissioner Ron Stephenson, who passed away in 2011. Stephenson served the league for 14 years. Steve Belko was the commissioner from 1977-81, while John Roning held the post from 1971-77. The first league commissioner was Jack Friel, who served from 1963-71.