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ESPN and a New Age of Big Sky Football: An Interview with Conference Commissioner Tom Wistrcill

The FCS’ Big Sky Conference has had an excellent season but Saturday night will serve as a crowning jewel when two of its best teams square off in an unprecedented game on national television.

Photo Courtesy of the Big Sky Conference

This season has been unlike any other for the Big Sky Conference and October isn’t even here. Earlier this month, the league turned heads when several of its programs either upset FBS foes or remained competitive with them and, as it sits currently, five teams from the conference are ranked in the national FCS Top 25 polls. Neither of these are accolades that are lost on conference commissioner Tom Wistrcill.

“It’s been a tremendous year so far,” Wistrcill told UDD earlier this week. “We want to show that our teams can compete with these FBS programs and they’ve done an excellent job.”

Four Big Sky teams... Eastern Washington, Montana, UC Davis and Northern Arizona... beat their FBS counterparts during the month of September, the most such wins the conference has seen in a single season.

Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill

“I give a ton of credit to our teams and coaches, not only for winning these games and being competitive in them, but for scheduling quality opponents like the ones we’ve seen this year.”

The most notable of these victories was undoubtedly Montana’s shocking 13-7 win over the then #20 Washington Huskies. The Grizzlies, who currently rank fourth in the nation per the polls, have been one of the FCS’ most dominant teams thus far in 2021 and have been awarded justly. Their upcoming game with #6 Eastern Washington has been bumped up to ESPN2, another honor Wistrcill is proud of.

“It’s big,” he said. “The original plan was to have this game on ESPNU [and] they reached out to me and said ‘Hey, we have an idea for this game, tell us what you think’ and it took me all of two seconds to say yes.”

Saturday night’s contest between the Griz (4-0) and the Eagles (4-0) in Cheney, WA will be the first time ever that a regular-season Big Sky game has been aired on ESPN2. The conference did sign a multi-year deal with ESPN+ this summer that guarantees all Big Sky home games will be streamable on the platform, but network television is a whole different story.

“The folks at ESPN have been great to work with and this game is really important to these two schools and to us as a conference. A few things went our way to have this happen. A spot opened up in the schedule and it worked out. We feel very fortunate,” said Wistrcill.

National exposure like this is excellent for schools at this level and Wistrcill believes that this game, while already meaning a lot to those involved, will be even more important to the schools and fanbases now.

“Any time you have a team with the state name in there, that’s really important. And that’s what you’ve got with both Montana and Eastern Washington. Football means a lot to fans of those teams and this game will mean a lot to everybody.”

The game, which is set to kick off at 10:30 PM ET, should not see much other viewing competition as far as football goes. Most college games, save the west coast ones, will be concluded by the time the Eagles and the Griz kick off.

“Some people asked me if I was worried about having such a late kickoff time for the game but every bar in America is going to have this game on their TVs because of that red turf. People will watch it and think ‘What the heck is that?’ and it’s going to get fans excited.”

NCAA Football: Montana at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Wistrcill is of course referring to the red field turf that Eastern Washington installed as its playing surface in 2010. The Eagles are one of the toughest teams in the country when playing at home. In fact, “The Inferno”, as it has been aptly nicknamed, has not witnessed an Eagles loss since November of 2017 and Montana has yet to celebrate a win on the red turf since its installation over a decade ago.

FCS football is no stranger to appearing on ESPN’s wide array of networks, however, it usually doesn’t happen until the playoffs. Even then, only the teams that advance to the quarterfinals and beyond typically get the chance to play on ESPN2 or ESPN.

This matchup between EWU and Montana is expected to be one of the best we've seen in a while. Both teams are undefeated and will be meeting for the 47th time on Saturday with Montana winning the last meeting 34-17. Eastern, though, has beaten the Griz seven of the last ten times. The two programs have even met once in the postseason but the stakes have perhaps never been higher that they will be this go round.

“The conference, top to bottom, is as deep as I’ve ever seen it,” Wistrcill said. “We’ve got teams in here that we genuinely believe can compete for and win a national championship.”

And he’s right. Four of the five ranked Big Sky teams right now sit in the top 15 and these Eagles appeared in the national championship just three years ago. There isn’t room for error and whoever claims the conference title in a few months will likely have to be undefeated in Big Sky play. Meaning that whoever loses this one on Saturday night could already be out of contention.

Eastern Washington v UNLV
Eastern Washington players celebrate a 2OT victory over UNLV on September 2.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If the contest turns out to be as close as many are predicting, Wistcrill hopes that it will make ESPN more open to airing high-end FCS games in the future.

“That’s certainly our hope... FCS is still D1,” Wistcril reminded UDD. “I’ve always believed that some of our top tier FCS programs are no different than some of those G5 schools out there. I’ve been a commissioner at the D2 level and an AD at that G5 level and these FCS teams have proven that they can compete.”

Wistrcill, who has served as the athletic director at Akron, not only has great optimism for the future of nationally broadcasted FCS games but also is very hopeful for the trajectory the Big Sky is currently on.

“We just have an excellent group of coaches and athletes right now. We signed that deal this summer with ESPN+ to have our games on there and that’s big moving forward. I really believe our future here is bright.”