I believe Cal Poly’s entrance into the Big Sky Conference misbrands Cal Poly academically, misidentifies it regionally, creates few if any rivalries or fan excitement and does not enhance the prestige of the university.
Cal Poly has evolved under the leadership of President Warren Baker into an elite, highly ranked institution. The Big Sky Conference is made up of schools which I believe are of the highest quality. However, their ranking by U.S. News and World Report, which has become widely accepted, certainly differs with my assessment.
Montana State University is ranked No. 183 and the University of Montana is ranked No. 191 among national universities. The University of Northern Colorado, Portland State University and Idaho State University are all ranked in the second tier of national universities, meaning, according to U.S. News and World Report, they are ranked between No. 198 and No. 260. Among western regional universities, Eastern Washington and Weber State are tied at No. 56 and Sacramento State is ranked at No. 62. Few conferences in the nation have a lower academic rating than the Big Sky Conference. For example, of the major BCS conferences, the SEC has the lowest average academic rating of 98 compared to the Big Sky Conference’s average academic rating, before the inclusion of Cal Poly and UC Davis, of No. 142 (This rating is generous as it ranks UNC, PSU and Idaho State at No. 198, when in fact they are actually ranked somewhere between No. 198 and No. 260). Clearly, Cal Poly’s academic reputation is not enhanced by membership in the conference.
When most people think of Big Sky, they think of Montana which has “Big Sky Country” on its license plate. Some people think of the Rockies as Big Sky, but I never heard of anyone refer to the beautiful Central Coast of California as “Big Sky Country.” National Geographic, when referring to the Central Coast, labeled it the “Middle Kingdom.” Why Cal Poly wants to be labeled as part of “Big Sky Country” is beyond me.
It is hard to believe football fans in San Luis Obispo will be excited by many of the Big Sky Conference matchups. Many of the schools in the conference, I expect, are not known to local fans. I suspect few, if any, fans can identify the city and state in which Weber State is located and few can identify the cities in which Northern Colorado, Idaho State and Eastern Washington are located. Games against Montana and Montana State may cause excitement and a rivalry may be established. However, many people believe both of these institutions will leave the Big Sky Conference and join the WAC or another bowl championship series conference. Cal Poly versus UC Davis will create excitement and a rivalry, but this could have been accomplished by both teams joining a bowl championship series conference. Football, for many institutions, has been one of the avenues to accomplish this. Boise State’s academic reputation has increased most say, in large part, to its success on the gridiron. USC is ranked as one of the top 25 universities in the nation, aided by a successful football program. When Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl, the next year their applications increased substantially, positioning Northwestern to be even more selective in the selection of students. Cal Poly, in my opinion, gets no benefit from being in the Big Sky Conference and likely its reputation as an academically demanding institution will be diminished by being a member.
In my judgment, Cal Poly should have made an all out effort to join a BCS conference. I know joining a BCS conference would require expanding the existing stadium and offering additional scholarships. These costs would have to be covered by alumni contributions. Estimates have ranged between $9 and $30 million to upgrade the stadium and there would be the ongoing cost of funding additional scholarships. I believe it would have been appropriate to go to the alumni, test their resolve to be in a BCS conference and set an immediate goal of raising between $9 million and $30 million. I believe the money could have been raised. Cal Poly has very rich alumni, many famous alumnus and thousands of alumni who would like to see Cal Poly play big-time football. I further realize additional problems regarding Cal Poly’s desire to participate in the Big West Conference in sports other than football would have to be resolved. Perhaps it could have been resolved by a potential BCS Conference in the same way the Big Sky Conference resolved the issue by simply waiving requirements that Cal Poly and UC Davis play all conference sports in the conference.
According to many, Cal Poly is a “sleeping giant” whose membership would be welcomed by many BCS conferences. What disturbs me most is how the administration didn’t make a concerted effort to try to overcome the necessary hurdles to become a member of a BCS conference. Cal Poly has a rich football history and its students, alumni and friends deserved a better effort. I make the above observations from the vantage point of having watched Cal Poly football since 1955. In the ’50s, I saw Perry Jeter and the great John Madden play. In the ’60s, while attending Cal Poly, I worked as an usher at football games and saw the greats of this era play. I graduated from Cal Poly in 1965 (I also hold an MPA from USC and a JD degree from USD). I served as both a California State Assemblyman and State Senator as well as serving on a committee, appointed by President Baker, charged with making recommendations concerning the evolution of Cal Poly’s football program. In addition, I have performed pro bono services for Cal Poly. I love Cal Poly and I believe membership in a BCS conference would have been in the best interests of this great and distinguished university.

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7 Comments

  1. I believe that the move by Cal Poly to join the Big Sky Conference will have a lasting positive impact on the program. It is very true that the Central Coast is not considered “Big Sky” country. But what is the Great West? Aside from UC Davis, who is also leaving for the Big Sky, the Great West conference is comprised of North Dakota and South Dakota. So although the name “Big Sky” does not conjure images of the beautiful central coast, the Great West did not truly represent this region either.

    I also think that the change in affiliation will in fact create better rivalries. The only teams that Cal Poly is guaranteed to play every season are its Great West opponents. North and South Dakota don’t really generate the type of energy that a football team wants to have in a conference rivalry game. The Mustang’s only real rival, UC Davis, is making the move to the Big Sky with them, so they will already have an annual game that will generate a great deal of fan interest. Also, playing the teams that are already in the Big Sky year after year will eventually lead to the natural formation of some new rivalries.

    Another reason this is such a good move is scheduling. It has often been reported that the Mustangs are facing increasing difficulty filling out a ten game schedule. They have only four conference games in the Great West, so they have to find six other teams to play. That is why this season, they are traveling to Texas, Louisiana, and Virginia. The Big Sky is a regional conference, and will have a total of eleven teams, so scheduling games will be a far less worrisome issue.

    The matter of moving to the BCS is a complicated one. From what I know, the only real option is the WAC. However, the WAC presents some serious problems. For one, there is no guarantee that Cal Poly would have ever received an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference. Also the WAC is somewhat falling apart right now. Boise State, Nevada, and Fresno State are leaving the conference, so to leave the Great West for the WAC would be like jumping from a damaged life boat onto a sinking luxury liner. I have heard that Cal Poly would not only have to expand Alex G. Spanos Stadium to be in the WAC, but they would also have to renovate other athletic facilities like Mott Gym. The cost to do this, plus the extra scholarships, seem to be a high price just to say you’re a member of the BCS.

    On the subject of academics, its is true that this is first and foremost a highly successful university that takes great pride in its system of learning and tradition of excellence in the class room. I am a freshman here at Cal Poly, and I can say that the academic profile of the conference the Mustangs football team is affiliated with carried zero weight in my decision to come here. I chose Cal Poly because of its unique learn by doing mantra, and the wonderful area it is located in.

    Plus, the bottom line is that for all intents and purposes, this was a football decision, not an academic one. And from a pig skin point of view, the switch from the Great West to the Big Sky was the very best move to make.

  2. I don’t know much about football, but I wish that Cal Poly had a more successful football team like UCLA or Cal. When I heard about the Big Sky Conference, I was a little disappointed.

    1. How can you say that there will be few rivalries for CP with the coming move to the Big Sky? Did you miss the 2006 playoffs when Cal Poly beat Montana in Missoula in freezing weather after losing 9-10 in the regular season? Did you miss in 2008 when Cal Poly was upset by Weber State in their first ever home playoff game? How about 2010 when Cal Poly beat then-ranked #1 Montana in Spanos Stadium? Do you also recall that current coach, Tim Walsh, previously used to coach at Portland State?

      The Big Sky is FULL of rivalries for the Cal Poly football team even without the addition of UC Davis as well. Adding our long-standing rival to a tough conference where rivalries already exist? Sounds like we are in store for an exciting next couple of years of Mustang Football!

  3. Cal Poly and UC Davis will only be in the Big Sky long enough to expand their stadium and athletic facilities for an eventual move to Division 1 Football.
    It makes sense to join the Big Sky as this will give them exposure in MWC and WAC territory, conferences they’ll most likely join. They’ll beef up recruiting in this area and don’t be surprised if they schedule “payday” games against teams in these conferences.

    They’d love to move up right now — no better time now that the WAC is desperate — but both teams know they’re not ready. I give them 3-5 years in the Big Sky before they move up.

  4. That article was so delusional. Cal Poly going from FCS to a BCS Conference? Please, that is so ridiculous it is almost incomprehensible.

  5. Being an out-of-state student from Montana attending Cal Poly I am delighted to have some sort of connection to ‘home.’ I don’t believe it mislabels Cal Poly at all, since it’s a regional conference and the fact that any learned or observing individual can distinguish *Cal* Poly (emphasis on the Cal) from any Montana-associated entities or labels.

    Besides who wouldn’t want to be associated with the ‘last best place?’

  6. Being an out-of-state student from Montana attending Cal Poly I am delighted to have some sort of connection to ‘home.’ I don’t believe it mislabels Cal Poly at all, since it’s a regional conference and the fact that any learned or observing individual can distinguish *Cal* Poly (emphasis on the Cal) from any Montana-associated entities or labels.

    Besides who wouldn’t want to be associated with the ‘last best place?’

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