The move-up clock is ticking for the University of Montana like never before.
And while it seems everyone has their own opinion about whether the Grizzlies should bid adieu to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) ranks and make a move to the upper-echelon of collegiate football, after a recent meeting with the Western Athletic Conference and interviews and a tele-conference with Commissioner Karl Benson, there appears to be little doubt that the opportunity to do so is there if the Grizzlies are interested.
A Dallas meeting between league officials and the six athletic directors of the remaining WAC schools after the departure of Boise State next year and Nevada and Fresno State after the 2011 season afforded an opportunity for basketball-only possible league member Seattle University and the University of Denver to sell their programs. Texas State-San Marcos and Texas-San Antonio, which is starting a new football program and has no league affiliation, also pitched their programs.
While Montana Athletic Director Jim O’Day was present, he did not make a presentation and university officials stressed he was in Texas only in a fact-finding role to obtain information about the league, its future expansion plans and to gauge interest in UM.
Results of a privately funded study about the pros and cons of any move is expected shortly and will provide more information about the financial possibilities of sharing in the increased television revenue WAC participation would provide and expected increased financial booster support.
Commissioner Benson said, while the timeline isn’t pressing, he expected campus visits to take place in the next month and invitations to be offered within the next 60 days to ensure the WAC has a minimum of eight teams for the 2012 football season.
He said he has been told in his travels that the University of Montana is a “perfect fit” for WAC membership. He stressed the league would respect the school’s process about WAC membership, which ultimately, were it to come, would be forwarded by new UM President Royce Engstrom to the Montana Board of Regents.
Benson also stressed possible WAC inclusion from any school would be a collaborative process.
When questioned about whether Montana State University was a league possibility, Benson said they had not been included in this particular process and he had no knowledge about whether the Board of Regents would require any approval of Montana’s move to an upper level of competition to also include an invitation to the Bobcats, whose athletic officials have continually stressed they are not studying or considering such an option.
Remember the two schools have been in the same league since the 1963 formation of the Big Sky Conference and the same conference and division affiliation isn’t necessarily a given. Although, I would hate to see the end of the Cat-Griz rivalry in all sports.
A move-up scenario has been all over the message boards for months and seems to provide more water-cooler fodder than the football season itself.
While I don’t feel like I have enough information to be swayed one way or another, I don’t buy the “big fish in a little pond, little fish in a big pond” argument that seems so prevalent outside of the circles of the Adams Center.
There’s little doubt the Grizzly football fan base has substantially increased because of the amazing winning record over the last decade. I’d estimate 10,000 football fans couldn’t name who held the ball for Andy Larson’s winning field goal against Marshall in the 1995 championship game.
Winning is infectious and UM has done an outstanding job of making the Washington-Grizzly Stadium atmosphere amazing for all age groups, sometimes seemingly making the outside-of-game activities a bigger part of the afternoon than the game itself.
Missoula is not Moscow, Idaho, and if UM were to move to the WAC it would be competitive far quicker than the Vandals, who just last year reached a respectable level in football.
One thing is for sure: There is a lot more water to go under the bridge before this decision reaches fruition and it will be one of the biggest decisions to be made in the history of the University of Montana.
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