Fargo

There are plenty of very good employment opportunities in Division I athletics these days. Just ask FBS football coaches, whose salaries continue to go the way of West Fargo’s population: up, up and away.

One of those jobs this winter, however, is not in the marketing department at North Dakota State. Give NDSU credit, it’s doing everything it can to tie Friday night men’s basketball game against Purdue-Fort Wayne into a Valentine’s Day special.

For 40 bucks, you get two tickets to the game and an NDSU Sherpa blanket. There’s also a “Silly” cup giveaway for the first 500 fans, whatever a Silly cup is. And I’m not really sure what a Sherpa blanket is, but it sounds warm and at least the athletic department is giving a game on Feb. 14 the old college try.

Another year, another two months of fans trying to navigate the Summit League schedule.

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This is old. It’s the Iowa caucus of basketball conference schedules.

The biggest issue, of course, is the odd number of teams in the league. It’s currently at nine, but Purdue-Fort Wayne is in its last year having accepted an invitation to join the more geographical-friendly Horizon League. But here comes Missouri-Kansas City next year, which will bring the Summit back to nine again and here we go again with that odd-team basketball schedule.

There is hope, however, in the name of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. The school was accepted for Summit membership last fall with the hope of getting a waiver from the NCAA to go directly from Division III to Division I and bypass Division II.

No school has ever gone directly from Division III to Division I, which currently carries a 12-year reclassification period, but it appears the Tommies are on their way to making it work. I talked to a couple of administrators who have had extensive experience with the NCAA and the feeling is the NCAA is acting more reasonable these days.

Look for the normal four-year reclassification from Division II to Division I to hold true for St. Thomas, with room for more legislation in case any other Division III wants to make the D-I move. NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said St. Thomas cleared the first hurdle at the NCAA convention in January and that’s about as much as he currently knows about the issue.

The Tommies will have to undergo extensive self-studies and show they can handle the Division I compliance issues, which are more intensive than Division III. They’ll have to show they’re investing in their athletic administration. They’ll have to show they’re investing in a lot of everything.

NDSU currently has 15 staff members with an athletic director title of some sort. That doesn’t include Bison Sports Properties, the Learfield IMG College arm that will take over business development next summer. St. Thomas has six athletic director types.

The final NCAA call on the matter is expected to come in April with the Division I Council. If the Tommies receive good news, they’ll begin play in the Summit League in the fall of 2021. And if that happens, the league would be back to 10 members and life will be good.

And that brings us to Augustana University in Sioux Falls. Augie announced in December of 2018 it was going to pursue Division I athletics, but it’s been crickets in Sioux Falls for some time now. It makes for an interesting dilemma: If the Augie D-I movement picks up steam again, does the Summit value an even-number league over another member? If so, then the Vikings may be in trouble for conference affiliation.

“A lot of these issues are presented because of nine teams in the league,” Larsen said. “There are some facility conflicts but the biggest challenge is nine teams. If we can get to 10, that will help and it will be more balanced. We can have travel partners.”

Configuring travel partners is always a good exercise during a winter day with a strong wind. Here’s a guess: NDSU and University of North Dakota; Nebraska-Omaha and Kansas City; South Dakota and South Dakota State; Oral Roberts and Denver; St. Thomas and Western Illinois.

Men’s and women’s doubleheaders Thursday and Saturday. Done. Fans won’t have to check their calendars every other day for the next game.

Back to Valentine’s Day. The Friday game this week means the NDSU men will have conference games this season on every day of the week except Monday and Tuesday. And you want to be Alyson Vander Steen, the director of marketing and fan engagement at NDSU?

Larsen said look for more men’s and women’s doubleheaders next season. The hope is more of a Thursday-Saturday look to the schedule, as much as possible anyway in a nine-team league.

“We all want consistency in dates and times so it’s easier for fans,” Larsen said. “It’s something we’ve talked about in the league and in the athletic directors council. It’s a concern for all of us.”