CollegeFrontier Conference


Slim Kimmel: Common sense prevailed in Frontier Conference, Dickinson State reunion

Pete Stanton
Posted at 4:59 PM, Dec 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-22 00:39:04-05

MISSOULA — When the Frontier Conference introduced Dickinson State as its newest member effective in the fall of 2025, the Blue Hawks' leadership often uttered the same refrain.

"We think this is a really good fit for us," said DSU president Steve Easton.

"It's a good fit for our student-athletes and coaches and our recruiting landscape," echoed Pete Stanton, a Baker native who is the Blue Hawks' director of athletics and head football coach.

Rarely does common sense prevail in the dollar-driven world of college athletics, but it did when Dickinson State and the Frontier made their long-awaited reunion official. DSU, located in Dickinson, N.D., has felt like Montana East for years.

The Blue Hawks already employ five head coaches who are Treasure State natives: Stanton, golf coach Thadd O'Donnell (Baker), men's basketball coach Derek Selvig (Glendive), track and field coach Shayne Wittkopp (Circle) and volleyball coach Stormy Siemion (Huntley). And their rosters, across all sports, are brimming with Montana-born talent.

"Just over a quarter of our 400 athletes are Montana students, as well, so there’s a very strong connection," Stanton said. "There will be a very strong connection with the athletes and coaches that we have on campus with the competition that we have in Montana."

The Frontier is essentially a Montana NAIA conference, with its six current full members all residing in the state: Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana State University-Northern in Havre, the University of Providence in Great Falls, Carroll College in Helena, Montana Tech in Butte and Montana Western in Dillon.

In western North Dakota, Dickinson State is a logical geographic fit for the Frontier. Once it joins the Frontier it'll be the conference's closest school for a large swath of eastern Montanans, many of whom are Dickinson State alumni.

"In many ways, for sports other than football, it’s actually really close for our conference competition," Easton said. "The travel is very close to what it was (in the North Star Athletic Association), if not a little bit less.

"In the North Star, this year we compete with Viterbo in Wisconsin, with Waldorf in Iowa and Bellevue in the Omaha (Neb.) area. We feel fortunate to have an invitation from the Frontier because the travel distances are very similar in sports other than football."

Yes, the travel during football season could be a bear with potential trips to affiliate members Eastern Oregon, Southern Oregon, the College of Idaho and Arizona Christian. But the hope — maybe even the expectation — is that Dickinson State won't be the only university coming from the east to join the Frontier.

The league aims to continue expanding its footprint in hopes of earning an additional automatic qualifier for NAIA postseason play. In order to get two automatic qualifiers, a conference must have 10 or 12 members, depending on the sport.

Dickinson State pushes the Frontier to seven full members, and current North Star members Dakota State University (Madison, S.D.), Mayville State University (Mayville, N.D.) and Valley City State University (Valley City, N.D.) could be left without a home in short order.

Frontier Conference commissioner Scott Crawford indicated the Frontier could explore adding junior colleges that could be moving to the NAIA, as well.

The elephant in the room here is how well Dickinson State and other schools from the North Star might compete in the Frontier, one of the most competitive conferences in the entire NAIA.

When they were last members of the league in 2012-13 and 2013-14, the Blue Hawks found the sledding tough. The football and volleyball teams each won only one conference game over those two years, while the men's basketball team went 8-22 in conference play and the women went 7-22.

As dominant as the DSU football team has been in the North Star — the Blue Hawks have won nine consecutive conference championships — success against Frontier teams has remained hard to come by. Prior to defeating Montana Tech in the NAIA playoffs this fall, DSU had lost six consecutive games to Frontier foes.

"We know it's a very good conference," Stanton said. "We have to keep building for that on our end. That’s our goal, is to build all our programs to be competitive in whatever conference we’re in. We understand how good the conference is in all the sports."

"What’s best about this for me, and I think my member schools would agree, is that adding a school the caliber of Dickinson State University, both academically and athletically, (benefits the Frontier Conference)," Crawford said.

"They didn’t even toot their horn, but they won their commissioner’s cup two of the last three years. Probably have a good shot at winning it this year and next year in the North Star, as well. And to bring in a school of that caliber just sort of reinforces what the Frontier Conference is doing."

Sounds like a good fit all around.