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Dickinson State mulls forming new athletic conference with former DAC schools

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The Dickinson Press
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Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

After less than one school year in the Frontier Conference, Dickinson State officials are mulling a move that would send its athletic programs to a proposed league consisting primarily of its former Dakota Athletic Conference rivals.

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Kurt Patberg, a consultant representing five schools, contacted Dickinson State in late January to gauge the university's interest in creating a new NAIA conference made up of teams in North and South Dakota.

DSU President D.C. Coston and athletic director Tim Daniel said Friday that the school is carefully examining what Patberg and the schools he represents have to say.

"We have to look at this," Daniel said. "This affords us some opportunities to maybe address some problems that we are experiencing right now."

Patberg said the new conference is aiming to form in the 2013-14 school year without DSU and would initially be comprised of Dakota State, Jamestown College, Mayville State, Valley City State -- all former DAC schools -- and Presentation College, a NCAA Division III school in Aberdeen, S.D., that has applied to become a member of the NAIA.

DSU is in its first year competing in the Frontier Conference, a league comprised of eight-full time member schools -- six in Montana and one in both Idaho and Utah -- with two football-only members in Oregon. The College of Idaho will join the league for football in 2014.

"Right now, our first formal move and our first formal conversation is to see what Dickinson's stance is," said Patberg, who is a past commissioner of three collegiate conferences, including the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. "That will help us make some decisions with some of our other steps.

"If DSU decides to join us, I'm highly confident that our league will be in place for 2014-15 and I'm fairly confident it'll be more than six schools."

Daniel, reiterating what Coston wrote in an email sent to DSU faculty, staff and students on Feb. 1, said the university is working to answer several questions as it tries to determine if leaving the Frontier and entering a new league would benefit the university. Those questions include:

n Would student-athletes be able to spend more time in the classroom and less time traveling to and from events?

n Would joining a new conference with opponents in closer proximity to Dickinson be beneficial to DSU's athletic budget?

n Would more student-athletes be able to compete for conference championships and spots in postseason NAIA national tournaments?

n How much does it benefit DSU and its student-athletes to return to a league comprised of many of the school's historic rivals?

Coston and Daniel said the university plans to act quickly on answering these questions and determining whether or not it plans to stay in the Frontier or move to a new conference in the 2014-15 school year.

"At this time right today, they presented the invitation to us so we're going to look at the pros and cons of all these issues and how it can help our programs and what it offers for our programs across the board," Daniel said.

Coston said one of his greatest concerns during DSU's transition to the Frontier has been the prolonged periods of time many of its student-athletes have spent out of the classroom on road trips.

"As the president of Dickinson State University, I speak to many prospective athletes and our athletes now," Coston said. "They're first and foremost students and they have to perform academically. We do want our student-athletes to compete for postseason championships after assuring they're good students and we want them to represent the institution well."

Though Daniel did not give an exact dollar amount, he said DSU's athletic budget this school year is far higher than it had ever been when the school was a member of the DAC.

Not only are DSU's shortest trips for conference games now further, prompting more hotel stays, it has sent student-athletes on bus trips as far as Salt Lake City and Lewiston, Idaho, for conference games in basketball and volleyball, not to mention a costly airplane trip for a football game against Southern Oregon in Ashland, Ore. Its closest Frontier opponent, Rocky Mountain College, is located 320 miles west in Billings, Mont.

"There's no doubt that when we take a look and compare our travel, our budget, what it is for the Frontier Conference and what it has been in previous years, it's extremely inflated," Daniel said.

Daniel and Coston said they immediately contacted Frontier Conference Commissioner Kent Paulson when Patberg reached out on behalf of the five other schools.

Paulson said he understands why DSU is weighing its options and giving consideration to joining the new league.

"We're delighted to have them," Paulson said. "That said, why wouldn't a group that is looking at geographics and formation, why wouldn't they look at Dickinson State? For the same reasons as we did and, love having them, I can certainly understand why somebody else would at least be offering some information."

The new conference would have more than just travel and budgetary benefits for the Blue Hawks.

Daniel said the new conference would have championships for each DSU sport, excluding wrestling which does not compete in a conference.

This spring, the Blue Hawk baseball and softball teams will play independent schedules and in unaffiliated conference tournaments. Though the Frontier has enough track and field teams to hold a conference meet, it has no plans to host one until the 2013-14 school year.

In other sports, DSU has had a rough start in the Frontier.

The football team finished with a 2-9 record, the worst in 37 seasons under head coach Hank Biesiot.

The volleyball team won four matches and both the men's and women's basketball teams have sub-.500 records.

In smaller sports, such as golf and cross country, DSU athletes rarely compete against Frontier athletes. Instead, they choose to attend meets closer to home against competition from the same schools intent on forming the new conference.

Nonetheless, Daniel said the Blue Hawks' overall difficulties during their first season in the Frontier have not been a factor in the university contemplating a move into a different conference.

"We knew exactly what we were getting into," Daniel said. "It has nothing to do with our experience out there. We've had a great experience. We've been encouraged about our opportunities out there. We've had nothing but a positive experience in the Frontier Conference. It has nothing to do with the Frontier Conference or the competitiveness. It has to do with Dickinson State taking a look at all the factors that come into play when you're operating an athletic department within an institution and making sure that we're being responsible on all facets of the athletic program."

Coston said many DSU athletic supporters, including boosters, students and university staff members, have already given him their opinion on the possibility of the Blue Hawks leaving the Frontier to join their old colleagues.

"People have been, by and large, supportive of this," Coston said, "including, I think, many people within the university."

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Dustin Monke
Monke came to The Dickinson Press in July 2006 as the newspaper's sports editor and was hired as its managing editor in March 2013. During his tenure at The Press, Monke has won multiple awards for sports reporting, feature reporting, column writing, page design and photography. He was a key part of The Press winning the North Dakota Newspaper Association's General Excellence and Sweepstakes awards in 2009 and 2012, and oversaw The Press' Sweepstakes and General Excellence wins 2014. As the newspaper's editor, he writes an occassional Sunday column, contributes feature stories and breaking news, designs pages, and oversees the day-to-day operations of the newsroom and editorial staff.
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