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To move or not to move?
Montana schools contemplate transition to Football Bowl Subdivision
This morning, 11 men and women will walk into a meeting room at Big Ten Conference Headquarters in Park Ridge, Ill. When they emerge this afternoon, the landscape of college athletics and higher education nationwide may be forever altered.
For reasons ranging from television revenue to basic survival, a complete upheaval of the nation’s athletic conferences is brewing. If it commences, the Big Ten is expected to start it, perhaps adding as many as five schools.
And if that happens, the scramble among universities and conferences will likely be both fevered and reaching.
Will the powerful Southeastern Conference add four schools, as it has promised? Will it all affect the Big-12, the Big East, the Pac-10? Will the changes reach all the way to Bozeman and Missoula?
Or, will the Big Ten stand pat, meaning - in the words of University of Montana athletic director Jim O’Day - “we can forget we talked about all this?”
At this point, there are more questions than answers. A rare certainty, though, is that speculation has squarely reached the Big Sky Conference.
‘CAT-GRIZ: ARE THE TWO SCHOOLS TIED?
Montana State athletic director Peter Fields and head football coach Rob Ash spend every May and June traveling the state. It’s routine, a chance to break bread with fans in the Bitterroot and play golf with others in Glendive.
This year has been a little different, though. Speculation will do that.
“Should we move up or shouldn’t we?” Ash said. “Everybody is talking about it.”
But while that may be standard offseason chitchat that takes place around dinner tables, barstools and tee boxes, UM’s O’Day is doing more talking than most.
The head of the Grizzlies’ athletic program will soon hire a consulting firm to analyze whether UM could sustain a move from the confines of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to the upper echelon of Division I football in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The decision is monumental for the university, affecting not just what football teams are on the schedule each fall, but indeed all of the school’s athletic programs, its academic affiliations and the money it raises.
Fields has said little publicly about the chances of MSU making a similar move, and last week promised that he’s hiding nothing.
“As we look today, I don’t think we’d be able to make (the move),” Fields said. “But we would have to have discussion at some high levels because these are institutional changes we’re talking about. Those discussions are not currently taking place.”
With UM actively pondering the move, and MSU, at least for the moment, sitting tight, the question begs to be asked: Could the Grizzlies leave the Big Sky Conference without the Bobcats?
Several sides seem to be examining the notion, including outgoing UM president George Dennison and MSU president Waded Cruzado.
“I think it’s a difficult issue,” said Dennison, who plans to retire this summer. “The idea of one school leaving without the other would require a painful and very difficult discussion. The rivalry is good for the state, it stimulates the entire state.”
New to MSU this year, Cruzado already sees the value of the rivalry.
“It galvanizes the spirit of alma mater, it brings back alums, supporters and friends from the community,” Cruzado said. “It can be a very powerful tool to build a sense of community for our university and the state.”
With that, would the Montana University System’s Board of Regents even allow such a move that could have such profound effects on the state’s two universities?
While Dennison believes there is “no question at all” that the regents have the authority to prevent a school from seeking new conference affiliation, Commission of Higher Education Sheila Stearns said the state’s educational governing body has yet to take up the subject.
“I just think that all of this conversation is buzz,” Stearns said. “It is not rooted in anything that has … in any way been brought forward to the Board of Regents for even preliminary discussion.”
Regent Todd Buchanan, a Billings finance manager and former Bobcat quarterback, said he doesn’t believe the idea of ending or altering the ‘Cat-Griz rivalry would be a good one.
“There’s something unique and romantic about a longtime rivalry in one conference that I kind of consider a priority,” he said. “I’m very proud to watch both programs compete at this level as well as they do.”
CAN WE BE LIKE BOISE?
Boise State and the University of Idaho were both once Big Sky Conference members but jumped to the Big West Conference in 1996.
Boise State has flourished with the move to big-time college football, even putting itself in contention for a national title in 2006 and 2009. Idaho has struggled and last year played in its first bowl since 1998, versus Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl, held in Boise. Both Boise State and Idaho now compete in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which is viewed as the most likely suitor of a team from the Big Sky.
Much like Boise State before it left, both MSU and UM have competed at the top level of the Big Sky Conference for decades, and both schools have national titles to show for it.
But as current Idaho athletic director and Montana native Rob Spear knows, moving up to the next level is about more than competition.
His Vandals are the perfect example. Leading up to Idaho’s move out of the Big Sky, the Vandals had beaten Boise State in 14 of 15 years. Since the move, Idaho has lost 12 of its 14 games with the Broncos - by an average of 32 points.
Spear said Boise State’s rise and Idaho’s struggles are about dollars.
“Your funding is so important to your program’s success, and your funding model is dependent upon your demographics,” Spear said. “Boise State can generate a lot of its own revenue because of its population base. We can’t do that at Idaho.”
According to the 2008 Census, the population in the Boise area is estimated at nearly 600,000, roughly two-thirds the entire population of Montana.
“Sometimes we look here and say there’s not a lot of professional athletic competition for the dollar and compare ourselves to Boise in that sense,” O’Day said. “But the reality is that there is a much stronger population base in Boise.
“Even though we know that 50 percent of our season ticket holders don’t reside in Missoula County, if you don’t continue to win, do those people from Sidney and Glendive continue to make that trip back six to nine times a year? You just don’t know.”
Both MSU and UM, however, are seemingly more prepared to make the leap than was Idaho, which hadn’t upgraded its facilities for nearly a quarter of century until adding a new strength and condition center in 2004.
“That really hurt us,” Spear said. “We should have been making those incremental improvements.”
Spear said improvements like the $12 million renovation to MSU’s Bobcat Stadium in 1998 and the expansion projects at Montana’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium are steps in the right direction for any program hoping to make a jump to the FBS. And yet, both MSU and UM admit substantial improvements to their facilities would be needed to match schools in a conference like the WAC.
O’Day said UM would have to improve locker rooms and its academic center. Fields didn’t go into specifics, but Bobcat Stadium is currently a far cry from facilities in the WAC.
Even including Idaho’s Kibbie Dome, which is the smallest venue in the FBS with a capacity of 16,000, the average capacity of WAC stadiums is just under 32,000. Bobcat Stadium can seat 15,000.
A proposed six-phase expansion would bring Bobcat Stadium’s capacity to 22,000, but hits to the economy have hindered those plans. Almost two years after the project was announced, Fields conceded, “we have considerable work to do.”
SO WHO’S DRIVING THE DISCUSSION?
Doug Fullerton, the 15-year commissioner of the Big Sky Conference and a former athletic director at MSU, worries that some schools looking to move up a division are doing so based on “institutional ego.”
“There are some individuals who believe that there is something that’s going to happen at their university that is so spectacular at the next level that everyone is going to think so much more highly of them,” Fullerton said. “Quite frankly, if you look around over the last 10 years, there’s only been one school that has made the move successfully and made it consistently. That school is Boise State.
“And if you really looked at it, Boise State only made it in one sport.”
To Fullerton, that’s the overall key: While football is at the crux of all the speculation on conference realignment, the issue goes well beyond one sport.
“It’s more about the type of institution you are than it is about athletics,” Fullerton said. “Your conference is more than a collection of schedules. It’s a collection of like-minded institutions.”
Many fans, too, are driving the discussion. Visit chat rooms like bobcatnation.com or egriz.com, and you won’t go wanting for opinions, for and against the possibility of the Bobcats or Grizzlies moving up a division. Between the two websites, more than 60,000 page views have been recorded during the last three weeks on topics related to the potential move.
“Fans will always lead the conversations because they don’t have to balance the budgets,” Fullerton said. “If your team is losing bad or it’s snowing, they don’t have to show up. They don’t have to understand coaches’ salaries; they don’t have to understand how television sets affect the equation.”
And what would those fans think if their teams are no longer playing for conference championships each year? What would they think if their rosters where no longer stocked with athletes from Montana?
This upcoming season, MSU will have 43 Montana natives on its team; UM will have 36. In the entire FBS last season, there are only two players from Montana: Kalispell’s Brock Osweiler at Arizona State and Bozeman’s Jay Wisner at Auburn. Matt Miller, of Helena, received a scholarship this spring to play in the FBS - at Boise State.
“If (UM) were 5-6 or 6-5 every year, the discussions might be different,” O’Day said. “But we’ve been in the championship game seven times since 1995, and having done that with a lot of Montana players means one heck of a lot to us.”
And success at one level doesn’t guarantee it at the next. Just ask a fan from Idaho.
UM’s outgoing president Dennison, for one, wonders why a school like Montana would even risk losing what it currently has.
“Why would we expose ourselves to that kind of potential disaster when we can play competitively and do well where we are?” he asked.
Bobcat coach Rob Ash is saying the same things at Montana State.
“I think it’s a better overall experience to be at the top of the FCS than at the bottom of the FBS,” Ash said. “For a lot of reasons. You have a chance to make national rankings, you have a chance at a playoff system, and you allow your school to fund a program that can compete at a national level.”
That doesn’t mean Ash hasn’t heard the other side of the argument.
“The guys at the Bowl Subdivision will tell you the bowl games are really exciting, and kids love them,” Ash said. “But the bowls most of them are talking about are the bowl games in the upper echelon. I’m not so sure that access to many of those would be possible (for MSU).”
“If we were to go to the FBS level,” he asked, “what is the ability to compete for a championship? Realistically, are you going to compete with Alabama and Ohio State and Texas for a national championship?
“I think that sort of brings you to one of the biggest questions overall,” Fields continued. “What’s the experience going to be for your student-athletes? I think it’s an important question to ask because I think the reality is that students want to win, these kids want to win, coaches want to win.”
Given the choice, would coach Ash move his team from the Big Sky to the bright lights of the FBS?
“I think the answer is no,” he said. “I think where we are right now is the right fit for Montana State.”
President Cruzado, too, said MSU is intent on what it can control and not so much on what is happening at other universities and other conferences - at least for the time being.
“We still do not know what the future holds,” she said. “For now, I’m very focused and deliberate on preparing for the next football season. That’s the top item on our agenda at this point.”
By WILL C. HOLDEN