Cal Poly, North Dakota State, Northern Colorado, South Dakota State, Southern Utah, and UC Davis inaugurated the Great West Football Conference during the 2004 season. St. Mary's (CA) was originally slated to join as well, but then dropped the sport six months before the league started play. In 2005, Cal Poly became the first GWFC team ever selected to participate in the NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs.
Northern Colorado departed the Great West for the Big Sky Conference in every sport as of the 2006 football season and 2006-07 academic year. On March 7, 2007, North Dakota State and South Dakota State announced that they would leave the GWFC after the 2007 football season, and join the Gateway Football Conference as of 2008. By the time the two schools actually made the switch, the Gateway had renamed itself the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The duo also placed their other sports, which were then independent, in the Summit League as of the 2008-09 academic year.
On August 2, 2007, North Dakota and South Dakota announced that they would join the Great West Football Conference as of the 2008 season. This agreement allowed the total number of GWFC programs to remain consistent at five, while also retaining the same geographic footprint.
On July 10, 2008, it was made official through a series of press conferences that the Great West would soon transition from a football-only league into an all-sports conference. The charter members included North Dakota, South Dakota, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Houston Baptist, Texas-Pan American, and Utah Valley. On October 22, 2008, Chicago State announced plans to join the newly rechristened GWC as well. Seattle was initially considering membership, but in mid-2011 accepted an invitation to instead join the WAC as of the 2012-13 academic year.
The expanded version of the Great West officially began playing a limited number of sports in the fall of 2008. Despite not sponsoring conference schedules in team sports (except football), the league began awarding "Player of the Week" honors to student-athletes in every sport during the 2008-09 season. The Great West featured championships in men's and women's cross country, men's and women's indoor track and field, men's and women's outdoor track and field, men's and women's golf, and women's tennis during the 2008-09 academic year. In 2009-10, regular season schedules and championship tournaments were implemented in women's volleyball, women's soccer, men's and women's basketball, baseball, and softball.
Due to its newness, the league did not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the Great West Conference men's basketball tournament champion received an automatic bid to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), while the women's basketball tournament winners went to the Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI).
In April 2010, South Dakota publicized intentions to join the Summit League for all sports but football, effective as of the 2011-12 academic year. Seven months later, in November 2010, the school would announce a commitment to the MVFC for football as of the 2012 season. In September 2010, Cal Poly and UC Davis announced that they would join the Big Sky Conference for football by 2012. Then, in November 2010, Southern Utah and North Dakota announced that they would join the Big Sky for all sports by 2012. South Dakota was considering the Big Sky as well, thus canceling the Summit League commitment, before the MVFC offered football-only membership.
- Dallas Baptist (joined 2008)
- Houston Baptist (joined 2008)
- NJIT (joined 2008)
- Peru State (joined 2008)
- Southwestern (joined 2008)
- Texas Pan-American (joined 2008)
- Utah Valley (joined 2008)
- McHenry County College
- Dixie State
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