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North Dakota move to MVFC, Summit makes sense

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(STATS) - While there's often negativity and geographic oddities with conference realignment, the University of North Dakota's announcement Thursday that it will leave the Big Sky Conference for the Summit League and Missouri Valley Football Conference makes sense.

Even the Big Sky didn't deny that notion.

UND will join the Summit League in the 2018-19 school year for all sports except football and men's ice hockey. The football team would join the MVFC in 2020, remaining as a full member in the Big Sky this year and then as an associate member for two more seasons to accommodate pre-existing contracts.

The men's ice hockey program, which won last year's Division I national title, plays in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

"We have appreciated our time in the Big Sky Conference and we thank our friends in that conference for their hospitality and the opportunity to have competed against some excellent teams," UND school president Mark Kennedy said. "But we are excited to renew long-treasured rivalries in joining many of our former conference companions in The Summit League and the Missouri Valley Football Conference. We look forward to competitions that are closer to home, which will allow our fans to attend more away games, and we look forward to hosting our long-time rivals and their fans in Grand Forks."

Rivalry-wise, North Dakota will reunite with North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State, and the four schools would be together for the first time since 2003, when they were members of the North Central Conference in Division II.

Distance-wise - read travel budgets - the move looks even better because North Dakota stands alone on the far eastern end of the Big Sky footprint in Grand Forks. The closest conference opponent for the Fighting Hawks is Montana State, just over 800 miles away in Bozeman.

Among the Big Sky's 10 other core members, Northern Colorado is the only other school within 1,000 miles of UND's campus. The Big Sky's two associate members for football, UC Davis and Cal Poly, are even farther away at nearly 1,800 and 2,000 miles, respectively.

All of the nine Summit League members are within 1,000 miles of UND, the closest being North Dakota State, just 81 miles away in Fargo.

The Summit League doesn't sponsor football, so NDSU, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois play in the 10-team MVFC along with Illinois State, Indiana State, Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Youngstown State. Only Youngstown State is beyond 1,000 miles from UND at about 1,129.

"The addition of the University of North Dakota to the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020 will complete the league's FCS footprint in the Midwest," MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito said. "This also will re-establish long-standing football rivalries in the Dakotas and open the way for equally satisfying new rivalries throughout the league. Most importantly, UND brings yet another nationally competitive program to the MVFC which is already, arguably, the strongest FCS conference."

Football usually plays a big role in conference realignment, and North Dakota's program - rich in tradition below the D-I level - appears ready for continued growth in Division I after posting its best season since the move upward from D-II in 2008. The Fighting Hawks, under coach Bubba Schweigert, won both a share of the Big Sky title and qualified for the FCS playoffs for the first time in 2016.

Put all the factors together and there simply were too many positives for North Dakota to make a move.

Enough so that the Big Sky released a statement that admitted, "The Big Sky Presidents' Council supports the University of North Dakota's self-assessment of its place in Division I athletics and understands its decision to find a better geographic footprint and natural rivalries."

Conference realignment is getting it right this time.