I am very pleased to announce that California State University, Northridge has accepted an invitation today to join the Big West Conference beginning in July 2001, becoming part of a strong and reshaped athletic conference that will include Southern California universities much like Northridge. While this was neither a simple nor an easy decision, I am convinced that the opportunity for competition with more local institutions is the right move and is a good fit for Cal State Northridge, holding the promise of many advantages for CSUN athletics in the years ahead.
For the most part, the transition out of our current membership in the Big Sky Conference, where we have been affiliated since 1996, should be seamless for our student-athletes, coaches and sports programs. CSUN will continue to play at NCAA Division I and will continue to field all 20 of its current athletic teams, 10 for men and 10 for women, maintaining our commitment to one of the most broad-based programs in NCAA Division I athletics. This conference change has been under consideration by campus officials for many months and been widely reported in our local news media. I also have briefed key campus groups on the process as it evolved.
CSUN's announcement was matched by one from the University of California at Riverside, which also will be joining the Big West in mid-2001. To facilitate our move, I have asked Mr. Dick Dull, CSUN's athletic director, to work closely with the Big West Conference to oversee our entry into the new conference. The mid-2001 timing of our change allows CSUN to give a one year notice to the Big Sky Conference and to our own student-athletes. But in the meantime, CSUN athletics for the upcoming 2000-2001 season should continue as usual.
In my own deliberations, a very important factor favoring this decision was that CSUN, by joining the Big West, will become part of a California-based conference led by California State University and University of California schools that share many of our own priorities and characteristics. Such a conference has long been a dream of many at Northridge and elsewhere. The California based conference now is poised to become a reality. And it will be headquartered in Southern California with offices in Irvine.
Based on current commitments, the Big West in 2001 will include at least four Cal State campuses -- Fullerton, Long Beach, Northridge and San Luis Obispo -- and three UC campuses -- Irvine, Santa Barbara and Riverside. These seven public universities, along with the private University of the Pacific, will give the Big West eight California institutions among its 10 members. For the future, the Big West's goal is to become an all-California conference. In contrast, CSUN is one of only two California schools in the nine-member Big Sky Conference.
The change to a California-based conference holds many important advantages for CSUN and its athletic program. Because of the similarity and geographic proximity of conference schools, we expect much greater growth of natural and exciting rivalries among Big West-member universities. That should significantly increase community interest and attendance at CSUN athletic events, and also make it much easier for parents, families and friends of our student-athletes to attend away games, since many will be held at familiar institutions elsewhere in Southern California. Creating this kind of local presence has been difficult during CSUN's years in the Big Sky because its member schools are located in seven different western states from Arizona to Washington.
Joining the Big West also will mean less travel and fewer missed classes for our student-athletes, improving their prospects for academic success, which is our highest university priority. For the athletic program, the change also promises a reduction in travel and other athletic costs. CSUN also will join an athletic conference that shares our own commitment to gender equity in athletics; the Big West in 1983 became the first western conference to incorporate women's athletic programs. Lastly, joining the Big West will give Cal State Northridge more local control in decisions that impact our athletic expenditures, such as the scope of the football program and plans for a future campus stadium, rather than having those choices mandated elsewhere.
CSUN certainly is no stranger to the Big West, an NCAA Division I entity headquartered in Irvine. Our women's softball team already has played very successfully in the conference since 1997, and our men's baseball team already was scheduled to join in 2001. But more broadly, our athletic administrators have long seen the Big West as a good fit for CSUN athletics. In the years after Northridge advanced to NCAA Division I competition in 1990, contacts between the campus and the conference were extensive. More recently, as the Big West shifted to a stronger California orientation, those discussions resumed and now have been concluded. I would like to thank CSUN Athletic Director Dick Dull, Big West Conference Commissioner Dennis Farrell and Big West member institutions for their work in achieving this very positive outcome.
Once CSUN moves to the Big West, most of our current Big Sky-affiliated sports will shift to similarly competitive play in the new conference. But CSUN's football program will transition in a different way while continuing its NCAA Division I-AA status. Starting in 2001, the program likely will play an independent schedule, as does Cal Poly SLO at present, because football will not be a Big West core sport. Even so, athletic administrators have assured me CSUN football can have a competitive schedule as an independent. There may also be future prospects for CSUN to join a new football-only conference. Through this process of change, though, if any student athletes desire to transfer, we are committed to granting them NCAA releases. For all other student-athletes, we are committed to honoring all existing CSUN athletic scholarships.
In sum, the years ahead should be exciting, vibrant ones for Cal State Northridge athletics and the university community. We look forward to the prospect of our student-athletes competing at times against high school friends who may have chosen to attend other nearby CSU or UC campuses. Such local rivalries will help create a great atmosphere for collegiate athletics here in Southern California. At last, the Big West Conference has returned to its California roots. And Cal State Northridge now has found a home in the Big West. Our joining together promises to be an important win for the CSUN athletic program and the broader university community.