USD finds football home in MVFC

Four days after one conference welcomed the University of South Dakota, a change of heart has USD in a new league for its football program.

And that league reestablishes a rivalry with South Dakota State on a yearly basis.

Though word had leaked out on Wednesday, USD officially accepted an invitation to join the Missouri Valley Football Conference during a Thursday, Nov. 4 afternoon press conference in Vermillion.

Spurning a release from the Big Sky Conference on Monday that said the school was "on the verge" of joining that league, USD instead finalized conversations with the MVFC – a league in which the Coyotes have long sought membership.

Now, USD becomes the 10th member in a conference that already includes South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.

"We kept coming back to the idea that this is what we all wanted; once we slept on it, we realized that this was just the better option for us," said USD athletic director David Sayler, who received the formal invitation on Wednesday.

"For us, for our future, this move cements whatever might come down the road, and that was really important for us."

By joining the Missouri Valley, USD will not only begin football competition in 2012, but remains on track to join the Summit League for all other sports, starting next fall.

Getting to that point with the MVFC was a whole other issue, however.

Commissioner Patty Viverito, who was in attendance Thursday, said her league long preferred 10 members, instead of 11 with North Dakota – a number she said would have been a "trainwreck."

Once it became apparent that USD and North Dakota were not necessarily tied together for a future home, the MVFC aggressively pursued USD, according to Viverito.

"I assumed all along that North Dakota and South Dakota were a package deal for the Big Sky; I thought they were both or neither for that operation," she said. "I read news accounts on Monday that hinted that they weren't tethered, and that South Dakota was a free agent, so to speak.

"I believed in my heart of hearts that they belonged in the Missouri Valley."

The commissioner said she called Sayler on Tuesday morning and after a conversation, Sayler and USD president Jim Abbott gave the Missouri Valley a deadline of 5 p.m. that day to make a decision.

After a conference call with the league's athletic directors, the nine presidents voted unanimously to offer an invitation to USD on Tuesday.

The Coyotes, who will play the 2011 season in the Great West Conference, will now join other Missouri Valley football schools Illinois State, Indiana State, Missouri State, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois and Youngstown State (Ohio).

North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Western Illinois also currently compete in the MVFC and Summit League.

A total of five Missouri Valley schools are within 500 miles of Vermillion, with the furthest – Youngstown State – at 924 miles. From a travel standpoint, that's a significant improvement from the schools in the Big Sky Conference, with members in Montana, Colorado, California, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Washington and now North Dakota.

Sayler specifically mentioned closer opponents being "very important," as was a reported $500K penalty for leaving the Summit League.

Instead of paying that amount to leave the Summit and a potential invite by the Missouri Valley, USD joins a conference that Viverito said was "always" interested in the Coyotes.

"We were always favorably disposed to South Dakota as a member, we were just trying to find a way to make the numbers work from a league standpoint," Viverito said. "We had to expand in a way that there was competitive equity and made economic sense.
"It wasn't until the 10-team m
odel became an option that things were put in motion."

Formed in 1985 as the Gateway Football Conference, the MVFC is one of the nation's top Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) leagues. The Conference has won national titles in 1997 and 2002, has had a member ranked No. 1 in seven of the past eight years, and has had as many as five teams ranked in the top 25 this season.

In other words, a stable home for the Coyotes.

"This is something we wanted from the get-go, and when we weren't invited earlier, we were disappointed," USD football coach Ed Meierkort said. "The Missouri Valley fits our recruiting mix. We won't have to change where we recruit.

"For the state of South Dakota, this is the right thing."

Speaking to the renewal of yearly rivalry games with SDSU and NDSU, Abbott – himself a USD graduate – spoke to the fact that the Coyotes have missed something when it comes to high-energy contests.

"I have missed some of the traditional rivalries that we have come to known," Abbott said. "As a student, I went to all those games and watched us play, with huge amounts of emotion. I have long felt that traditional rivalries are very important."

From a scheduling standpoint, Viverito said the 10 teams in the MVFC will play eight league games each season, with one team rotating off a school's schedule.

Yet, when it comes to rivalries, the commissioner made it clear that rivalry games – like USD and SDSU – will be protected. In other words, the Coyotes and Jackrabbits will play every season starting in 2012.

And that, according to Meierkort, will make Thursday's announcement worth the stressful week.

"It's important that rivals play; that's why they're called rivals," he said. "It's on now. We'll play the Jacks, and those will be exciting times for both schools."

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