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New Big Sky Conference commissioner faces expanding league

GRAND FORKS -- Andrea Williams hasn't even started her new gig as commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, but it's already clear what the former Big Ten administrator's first big task will be.

GRAND FORKS -- Andrea Williams hasn’t even started her new gig as commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, but it’s already clear what the former Big Ten administrator’s first big task will be.

Williams was introduced to the media on a conference call Tuesday, and she fielded questions on the growing size of the Big Sky and the implications for football.

Last week, Idaho, which already played its non-football sports in the Big Sky, announced its decision to leave FBS and join the Big Sky in FCS starting in 2018. The move was triggered after the Vandals had been voted out of the Sun Belt Conference.

The addition of Idaho means the Big Sky will have 14 teams in the league, with the potential addition of New Mexico State looming in the distance.

Former Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton, who will retire this summer, had theorized either a split into two leagues governed by one conference or two divisions split geographically, either north and south or east and west.

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As an associate commissioner in the Big Ten, Williams has familiarity with league expansion and the creation of divisions. She was with the Big Ten when the conference expanded to 12 with the addition of Nebraska, and then to 14 with the additions of Rutgers and Maryland.

“Any perspectives I have on the Big Sky are outside looking in,” Williams said. “I would be naive to think I can come from the outside without truly understanding the work done before me. I’m excited to welcome back (Idaho) to the football side.

“What are our priorities? Is the Big Sky positioned where it wants to be on the football front? Is there a need or demand for divisions? In the Big Ten, those conversations happened for years. I need to understand the history of the decision (in the Big Sky) before I input my perspective.”

Like Idaho, New Mexico State was kicked out of the Sun Belt Conference and has been mentioned by Fullerton in the past as a possible Big Sky target.

“Is the Big Sky at the right amount of schools?” Williams said. “Those conversations are ongoing. Do we need to grow and what are those implications? With everything, we want to make sure that the focus stays on the student-athlete experience.”

Williams was also asked her stance on the full cost of attendance legislation, a scholarship stipend North Dakota has announced it will provide but other Big Sky schools have avoided.

“It’s important for the Big Sky to figure out what’s best,” Williams said. “It would be great for all to be equitable across the board, but we realize that’s not always an option.”

Southern Utah President Scott Wyatt, who was on the conference call to introduce Williams, provided his perspective on full cost of attendance.

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“It’s helpful to remember (North Dakota’s) recruiting world is up against full cost of attendance,” Wyatt said. “The other Big Sky institutions see very little crossover as compared to North Dakota.”

Wyatt was referencing UND’s recruiting battles against cost-of-attendance equipped North Dakota State and other Missouri Valley Football Conference members.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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