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UND welcomed into Great West

GRAND FORKS - The Mavericks, Bulldogs, Vikings and others have gone away.

UND's athletic focus now will be on the Highlanders, Broncs, Mustangs, Eagles, Aggies and Wolverines along with some new Huskies.

And there still will be some Coyotes in the picture.

UND's athletic program took its first big step as an NCAA Division I program Thursday when the school announced it would move the majority of its athletic programs into the newly expanded Great West Conference.

The Great West will be UND's home during the school's transitional years to Division I athletics. Depending on the Division I landscape, the Great West could be UND's residence even after the Sioux athletic program becomes eligible for NCAA postseason play in 2012.

"This is a great step for our program," UND athletic director Brian Faison said. "It's a big relief. It's a huge first step for us."

The conference affiliation will help UND in scheduling and recruiting during its transi-tion years. Finding a conference affiliation was one of UND's biggest concerns in its Division I move.

"This is a historic day for us and our athletic programs," new UND President Robert Kel-ley said. "We have had championship teams in Division II and we will have championships in Division I."

Previously, the Great West was a football-only conference. But the Great West recently de-cided to expand to an all-sports league -- and its invitation to UND was one the school couldn't turn down.

Other Division I schools in transition also jumped at the opportunity.

As a result, six schools are on the ground floor of the expanded conference. In addition to UND and South Dakota, the all-sports Great West Conference will also include Utah Valley University, Houston Baptist, Texas-Pan American and the New Jersey Institute of Technol-ogy.

UND and South Dakota also will play football in the league. Cal Poly, Southern Utah and UC Davis are football-only Great West members.

UND landed a Division I conference home earlier than many expected.

"If anyone would have said this would have happened before three years, I think they really would have been surprised," Faison said.

Great West competition will begin in the 2008-09 school year for individual sports.

The men's and women's cross country meet, to be held in November, will be the league's first championship event.

Conference play for basketball and volleyball, however, won't begin until the 2009-10 school year. All UND sports, with the exception of women's soccer and men's and women's swimming, will compete in the Great West. The new conference will not have an effect on Sioux hockey.

The conference will be a benefit to the 14 additional UND athletic programs that will compete in the league. Basketball especially will benefit from the league since it eases scheduling concerns and also provides for a number of Division I home games -- contests that will come without UND having to pay substantial guarantees.

"It will really shore up our schedule," UND women's coach Gene Roebuck said. "The fans will have something to sink their teeth into as far as meaningful games, and we'll be able to continue our rivalry with the University of South Dakota."

The league will be administered by Ed Grom, the Great West football commissioner who also is an associate commissioner with The Summit League.

He said talk of expanding the Great West from football to all sports has been around for four years.

In May, however, officials from nine Division I independents met in Chicago to discuss a possible all-sports conference. That concept took off from there.

"This is a continuation of taking what we had and making it bigger and better," Grom said.

The schools in the all-sports league all are committed for three years.

The league may have only six teams, but no league in the country covers a bigger geo-graphical area.

The conference stretches from coast to coast and also from the U.S.-Canadian border to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Travel is a concern for UND and the other schools, but it was a concern even before the conference was formed. In fact, UND had agreed to play some of the league teams before the conference annoucement.

"We're already in a traveling mode," Faison said.

The conference will help with recruiting and scheduling, but it also will serve an impor-tant behind-the-scenes role.

"One of the critical pluses with this conference will be our ability to draw against (the league's) professional staff," Faison said.

The Great West will provide compliance-related assistance to the league schools as well as provide a common avenue for national letter of intent filings, NCAA coaches certification tests and general day-to-day correspondence on NCAA policy matters.

The league may also grow within the next few months.

There is a chance Chicago State and the University of Seattle may join the league. Both schools, which are Division I independents, were in discussion with the Great West about possible membership.

A handful of coaches were on hand for the Great West announcement. The school's new affiliation will make the transition from the days of Division II and the North Central Conference to Division I athletics a bit easier.

"I can't imagine a better scenario," said UND women's track and field coach Dick Clay.