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.