WHITEFISH – When Kent Paulson was named the Frontier Conference commissioner in 2009, he was stepping into a dream job. Fast forward 11 years, and Paulson is still living that dream.
“You’ve heard me express before about how honored I am to be, and how privileged I am to be, a part of this great conference,” Paulson recently told MTN Sports.
A former educator and coach, Paulson oversees a league nationally respected for its athletic and academic prowess. After growing to nine full-time members in 2012 (Carroll College, Dickinson State University, Lewis-Clark State College, Montana State University-Northern, Montana Tech, Montana Western, Rocky Mountain College, University of Great Falls and Westminster College) the Frontier Conference is now down to seven following the departures of Dickinson and Westminster, with Lewis-Clark State set to leave after the 2019-20 school year.
Despite the out-of-state exits, the Frontier remains one of the powerful conferences in the NAIA.
“I guess if you have to have a bit of a negative in losing a family member, it’s a little more palatable when all of a sudden (Montana Western is) winning a women’s national championship, you have two men’s teams (Carroll College and Lewis-Clark State) playing in the national semifinals,” Paulson said of the recent NAIA national basketball tournaments. “We just refuse to be negative in any way, shape or form because anytime somebody leaves, somebody comes through your door and we’ve never had anybody leave where we didn’t tell them, ‘In the future, if anything were to happen, just know that you’re always going to be welcomed in the Frontier.’ We are who we are, geographically challenged albeit, but really, really good program top to bottom in all of our schools and our sports.”
June’s annual Frontier Conference meeting was focused around scheduling for the 2020-21 school year, when the league falls to six teams, the minimum for a league in the NAIA to earn an automatic berth to a national tournament.
“We kind of bill ourselves as a ‘we can do’ conference, and there’s nobody in the country, no athletic director, no commissioner, no president that’s going to welcome the idea of a six-team conference, because again, that hinges on the minimums, so we’re always going to keep our eyes open. We want to bring quality schools in, but our job is to serve the present and we’re not going to let our student-athletes down in any way, shape or form, regardless of anything,” said Paulson. “You ask me for a six-team schedule, a seven-team, an eight-team, I even have a nine-team schedule, and we just have a bunch of athletic directors that can accommodate, and they work together.”
Paulson’s emphasis is simple: take care of the league’s current schools and student-athletes, while keeping one eye on the future to maintain the Frontier Conference’s status as a national power.
“You can ask any commissioner in the NCAA or the NAIA, it’s a very fluid process. Coaches get ready each week to play an opponent and commissioners get ready every day and week to tend flock. No good commissioner is going to let a day go without turning over the next rock,” Paulson said. “We’re certainly reaching out and we want to tell our story, we want to tell people, ‘Why would it be good to be in the Frontier Conference?’ Because, just as you lose people, you can’t go introspectively and say, ‘Well, what’s wrong with us?’ You have to turn it around like a sales person and say, ‘Hey, this is what we have to offer and this is what’s good about us.’ That process continues.”
Already a proven winner on the courts, fields and classrooms, it’s likely suitors will come calling.