Commissioner: SOU closes in on Frontier membership

No documents have been signed and the final vote is still months away, but Kent Paulson is convinced that the Southern Oregon University football program has finally found a home.

The Frontier Conference decided on Tuesday to invite four schools, including SOU, back to Billings, Mont. Feb. 7-8 to present their case for joining the Montana-based league. After that, the conference will likely announce which of the schools have made the cut, but Paulson, the Frontier Conference commissioner, is confident that the Raiders can start celebrating.

"It's like they got a Christmas present early," he said.

Southern Oregon and Menlo are applying for football-only membership, while Dickinson State and Jamestown College have applied for full membership. Currently, the Frontier is made up of six football programs, including Carroll College, which has won five of the past eight NAIA national titles and will try to make it six of nine on Dec. 18.

The Southern Oregon football program has competed as an NAIA independent since 1999. If Paulson is right, the Raiders would leave the independent ranks and join the Frontier Conference in time for the 2012 season.

SOU president Mary Cullinan and athletic director Matt Sayre will make the trip to Billings, Mont. to make the school's final presentation. According to Paulson, the get-together is basically a formality that's required by the league in order to satisfy its bylaws.

"I think it's more of a discussion," Paulson said. "It's just nice to meet the people, greet the people and get to know them, and have some final assurance that this is really what they want to do. We're looking for long terms relationships. We don't want to ever take someone who's just bouncing. So it's just one of those things — you can only do so much by phone and by e-mail. At some point, you have to meet the people personally.

"I think this is a fast track to expansion."

This is not the first time that Southern Oregon has appeared to be on the verge of joining the Frontier Conference. In 2004, SOU offered to pay the league $12,500 per year for football-only status, only to turn down a counter offer that equaled "about five-times" that amount," according to then-Raiders athletic director Phil Pifer.

This time, the winds of change may be blowing in SOU's favor. The shrinking of the Dakota Athletic Conference has spurred Dickinson State and Jamestown College to jump ship, presenting a golden opportunity for the Frontier Conference to strengthen its position in the NAIA.

Paulson wants to take advantage, even if that means implementing some unique solutions to age-old problems. In the past, the greatest obstacle to SOU's bid has been its isolated location, but the Frontier has been rounding up non-traditional scheduling plans designed to minimize travel costs. Possibilities range from a jamboree-type gathering to playing some games at neutral sites.

"What came out today is like the rainbow, and hopefully February will be the pot of gold," Sayre said. "This would be fantastic for our football program."

In more ways than one.

Southern Oregon is currently searching for its next head coach after Steve Helminiak was fired on Nov. 15. As of Tuesday, said Sayre, the school had received 77 applications.

"I think this enhances their opportunity to find quality candidates," Paulson said.

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