FARMINGTON, Utah — Big Sky Conference football fans will have to wait to get their fix.
Following Thursday meetings with league presidents, athletic directors and officials, the Big Sky Conference has voted not to conduct a conference football schedule this fall. The league will instead look to play its conference contests in the spring of 2021.
Non-conference play for the league's programs is still pending further review, according to a Big Sky Conference release sent Friday morning. The league has "begun exploring modified versions of a conference football schedule to be played in the spring and fully supports the NCAA shifting the FCS championship to the spring," according to the release.
“The health and safety of our students is our top priority, and ultimately that concern guided our decision-making process over the past few months as we explored every option regarding the 2020 football season,” said Andy Feinstein, president of the University of Northern Colorado and chair of the Big Sky Presidents’ Council, through the Big Sky release. “We recognize just how meaningful these opportunities are to the student-athletes, coaches, and staff throughout our conference, and empathize that they won’t be able to compete this fall for a Big Sky championship. We are eager to provide our football programs with that opportunity in the spring when it’s hopefully safer to be able to do so.”
“This is the right decision for our member institutions, even though we realize how disappointing it will be for all who represent and care about Big Sky football,” Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said in the release. “We will now shift our attention to doing everything within our power to provide our football student-athletes and coaches with a conference schedule and a championship opportunity in the spring. We already have begun actively engaging our fellow FCS conferences and the NCAA to join us then for what will be a unique opportunity to return to competition and compete for an FCS championship.”
The release did state that its league institutions "may continue with permissible athletics activities at their discretion while abiding by NCAA legislation, campus policies, and local and state regulations. Other Big Sky sports that compete in the fall will continue to be reviewed with a final determination made at a later date."
The NCAA announced on Wednesday it would direct each division to “safeguard student-athlete well-being, scholarships and eligibility,” giving each level the opportunity to decide if it could meet the return-to-sport guidelines from the NCAA Sport Science Institute.
The NCAA also announced a deadline of Aug. 21 for each division to decide on its fall championships.
Guidelines included implementing testing strategies for all athletics activities, and that testing and results should be obtained within 72 hours of competition in high-contact risk sports. All student-athletes are allowed to opt out of competition due to concerns of contracting COVID-19, and member schools must cover COVID-19 related medical expenses to prevent out-of-pocket expenses for student-athletes and their families.
The NCAA also set a postseason threshold, declaring that "if 50 percent or more eligible teams in a particular sport in a division cancel their fall season, there will be no fall NCAA championship in that sport in that division."
The Big Sky Conference had previously announced on July 24 it would delay the first date of competition in its Olympic sports — the traditional fall sports of golf, soccer, volleyball and cross country, and the non-championship seasons for tennis and softball. Men’s and women’s golf was approved to begin competition on Monday, Sept. 14, while the other sports were set to begin on Friday, Sept. 18.
But the major decision was football, which is the most profitable sport on college campuses across the country. The COVID-19 pandemic had already forced numerous postponements and cancellations, including both Montana State University and the University of Montana losing previously-scheduled games this fall.
MSU had its first two games of the season canceled -- a Sept. 5 home game against Long Island after its parent conference, the Northeast Conference postponed fall activities, and a Sept. 12 road game at Utah following the Pac-12's decision to cancel non-conference games.
The University of Montana's season-opening game against Central Washington, which was scheduled for Sept. 5 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, was also canceled. UM's Sept. 19 contest against Morehead State remains in limbo after the Pioneer Football League canceled its non-conference contests. UM released a statement shortly after the PFL's announcement, staying that Morehead State intended to "obtain a waiver from the Pioneer League to play the Montana/Morehead State game as scheduled."