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Forecast cloudy for Big Sky?
The news probably seemed inconsequential to most Montana Grizzly sports fans.
But it’s worth a second look.
Idaho State women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee resigned two weeks ago to take the same job at Idaho. It was a big loss for the Bengals because Newlee is a go-getter who didn’t take long to become the winningest coach in program history.
Newlee was disappointed with Idaho State’s turnover at athletic director and a lack of progress with much-needed facility upgrades. He was also miffed ISU didn’t fete his team’s success - conference titles and postseason appearances - with banners at aging Reed Gym.
It’s easy to understand why he bolted. But why Idaho? We’re talking about one of the weakest NCAA Division I football/basketball combinations in the country. And that’s saying nothing about living in little Moscow.
Newlee feels he made a move up. He’s been awarded a five-year contract and believes Idaho has better facilities and a better athletic director than Idaho State.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: Newlee loves the idea of getting back in the Western Athletic Conference, where he once served as an assistant coach. That’s the interesting part if you’re a Montana fan.
The WAC is a league sports fans around the country are familiar with. Living in the Midwest almost all my life, I’ve known about it since I was a teenager. Up until eight months ago, I’d never heard of the Big Sky Conference.
Boise State and Hawaii have made the WAC even more famous the past two years as football powers that played in BCS bowl games. The Broncos took advantage in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl by dispatching Oklahoma in one of the most memorable games ever played. Hawaii was not so fortunate in the Nokia Sugar Bowl last January.
But - repeat after me - a WAC team played in the Sugar Bowl.
Newlee’s assessment he’s moving up by leaving a Big Sky women’s basketball power to take over a 4-25 team that couldn’t beat Idaho State on its best day seems ludicrous. But it says something about his vision of the future as it pertains to the Big Sky and WAC.
If you don’t think a conference’s name makes a difference in recruiting, you’re fooling yourself. There’s a reason Boise State T-shirts sell all over the Northwest. It’s no coincidence Hawaii apparel is sold at Steve & Barry’s in Spokane and Madison, Wis. The Warriors are a national success story.
Newlee’s jump is more than just a testament to Idaho State’s problems. It’s one man’s way of saying the Big Sky is a stepping stone to the WAC - even if that WAC program happens to be a cellar dweller.
Newlee made an interesting point in comparing Big Sky and WAC women’s basketball on the Idaho State Journal Web site this past week.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between the top teams right now, just basketball-wise,” Newlee said. “But the perception everywhere is the WAC is a great league, and it is because of the big-time football and what Boise State and Hawaii have done the last couple of years.
“Even before that, people knew the WAC, and it is because of those sports. The media, the national media, takes much more notice of that conference as opposed to the Big Sky.”
What does that mean to Montana and the recruiting efforts of its top coaches? The Griz are the class of the Big Sky in football and women’s basketball and that pretty much makes them the class of Big Sky athletics. What’s more, football coach Bobby Hauck and women’s basketball coach Robin Selvig are outstanding recruiters of Montana talent.
But you can’t help but wonder what Hauck and Selvig might do if they took their winning programs into the higher-profile WAC. The Griz have a solid football program that could weather a transition to the WAC without losing the credibility of the Vandals. The Lady Griz have the kind of program that would fit in nicely with the WAC right now.
So why not strike while the iron is hot? Washington-Grizzly Stadium is expanding and Griz fans are incredible. They’re loyal and knowlegable enough to realize there will be growing pains in moving to the WAC.
Is it so inconceivable to think the Montana Griz could be the next Boise State by 2018? I’d say it’s more likely than Montana falling into a funk like Idaho, which according to Newlee is no funk at all.
For all its shortcomings, Idaho still has enough pull to attract one of the top women’s basketball coaches in the Big Sky. That’s worth noting.
Is it possible at some point the Grizzlies could lose a talented coach to the WAC? You bet it is, especially in football.
By Bill Speltz