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Kolpack: All vital signs pointing to Augustana joining Summit League

Augustana head coach Tom Billeter talks with an official during a NCAA Division II Men’s Central Region tournament semifinal game in 2015. Photo special to Forum News Service

FARGO—The Summit League released its 2018-19 men's and women's basketball schedules this week and once again, you'll have to pay close attention to your calendar as to when North Dakota State plays its home games. There is no fluidity, consistency or regularity to it.

It's the result of the league being at an odd number of teams. We've beaten this drum to death over the years, but wouldn't it be nice if there was an every-other-week, Thursday-Saturday home game look to the Summit schedule?

There were eight teams last year, but because Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis left for the Horizon League late in the scheduling process, games were scattered on different days of the week. This year, the University of North Dakota joins the league, which brings the conference back to nine.

With nine, you have no real travel partners, and therefore no real way to make it a fair way to schedule everybody in a Thursday-Saturday routine.

It's a big deal for NDSU. Bison fans for years flocked to the old Bison Sports Arena for the every-other-week Friday-Saturday basketball doubleheaders. For whatever reason, we in the Fargo-Moorhead vicinity are not into looking at the basketball schedule calendars and trying to figure out when the next home game is.

That is hard enough if you have kids in activities. They have volleyball on this day, basketball on that day, speech and debate competition on this day, dance on that day or swimming on this day.

We like routines in these parts and Summit games do not fit that lifestyle. There is a solution, however, and it's located 225 miles to the south in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The name is Augustana University, formerly known as Augustana College in the old Division II North Central Conference.

The head men's basketball coach, Tom Billeter, is no stranger to Interstate 29 basketball. He was the head coach at NDSU from 1992-97 and, after some gigs in Division I, has been the head coach with the Vikings for the last 15 years. He's the all-time winningest coach in school history.

And he doesn't mind all the Division I talk.

"The way I look at it, it's pretty simple," Billeter said. "I like that they're talking that way. What I mean by that is you're always trying to grow, always trying to improve or whatever words you want to use in regards to that. I think we're a good product that is constantly trying to get bigger."

Moving from the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference to the Division I Summit would constitute bigger. But you don't do that without the cash. You need funding to make the jump and to do that in Sioux Falls, you need to start with Sanford Health.

One thing we've learned about Sanford over the years: These folks think big. A bigger, better hospital in Fargo? Look at the brick monstrosity at the corner of I-94 and Veterans Boulevard. Arenas? They're all over the place. The Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, for example, is a big-time gem.

Sanford has invested tens of millions in facilities all over the region, like the $10 million for the Sanford Health Athletic Complex at NDSU. So if the CEO of Sanford, Kelby Krabbenhoft, appears to be pushing for Augie to make a Division I move, it doesn't take a genius to figure out it's probably going to happen.

He told the Associated Press he would support it. He told KWSN radio in Sioux Falls he believes a decision will be made by Christmas. Krabbenhoft said foremost he believes it will move the school forward academically.

Sioux Falls is a thriving community and there are many who believe Augustana president Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and athletic director Josh Morton are forward-thinking people. Morton came from Michigan State.

That hire has the feel of NDSU back in 2001, when then-university president Joe Chapman hired Gene Taylor as the athletic director. Put it this way: Joe didn't hire Gene to remain in Division II. You don't hire Josh Morton and his Big Ten Conference experience to stay in Division II.

The talk is hot at Augie. It may not be long before old rivalries are renewed.

"I remember the NCC days," Billeter said. "Back then we were a Division I league with a Division II title. It's something we definitely need to look at. I try to have a positive spin on it and I look forward to learning more about it."

The Summit is moving its league office from Chicago to Sioux Falls this summer.

All the dots appear to be connecting. The Augie football question has to be addressed, but unlike NDSU where football is king, basketball will drive this decision in Sioux Falls. Basketball and Sanford.

Never, ever underestimate Sanford.

Jeff Kolpack

Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.

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