Whether it's singing, writing poetry or wagering jerky, University of Montana fans across the country are gearing up for Friday night's NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title game.

It's the Grizzlies' second consecutive trip to the national championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn., and fans are finding the best venues for cheering on the University of Montana football team as they take on Villanova. The game will be broadcast on ESPN 2 at 6 p.m. MST.

The UM Office of Alumni Relations has sent out 40,000 e-mails since Monday to alumni, friends and donors, providing them with ticket information and locations of Griz satellite parties across the country.

For fans in Missoula, Wilma co-owner Rick Wishcamper is opening the historic theater free of charge, while also capitalizing on the game to generate goodwill.

The Wilma is asking Griz fans to bring donations to benefit the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. workers, who learned earlier this week that the Frenchtown pulp mill will permanently shut its doors at the end of the month. All donations are tax-deductible and checks can be made out to Missoula Community Foundation.

Bresnan Communications quickly installed cable in the theater and the game will be shown on the big screen.

"We like to see the theater used and serving the community," Wishcamper said.

All donations collected Friday will be turned over to the United Way, which will work with union representatives to see that the workers benefit, he said.

"It's time for our community to rally, not just around these employees, but around the entire community itself."

The Wilma collected six truckloads of nonperishable items for the Missoula Food Bank during the 2008 FCS title game. Scott Gill, owner and cook of Scotty's Table, sold chili and donated all the proceeds. The Wilma collected about $500 in donations for the food bank, he said.

Wishcamper hopes to build on the 450 people who turned out to watch the Grizzlies fall to the Richmond Spiders a year ago. Minus the balcony, the theater seats 600 people. Doors open at 5 p.m.

"When you get 600 people in here, it feels like a rockin' party," he said.

Across town, employees at the Broadway Sports Bar are transforming the watering hole into a mock Washington-Grizzly Stadium, complete with a 50-50 raffle to benefit UM, game announcer and even the infamous "Twinkie tossers."

Not to mention, a new Griz rendition to the tune, "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."

Speaking of a new take on an old song, the national title game has a tendency to bring out Mark LoParco's creativity and holiday spirit.

On Tuesday, before departing for Tennessee, the Griz football team enjoyed a meal of chicken alfredo, tilapia with Veracruz sauce and prime rib, compliments of University Dining Services. There, dressed as Santa Claus, LoParco, director of Dining Services, delivered his rendition of "The Night Before Griz-mas."

For the past decade, each time the Grizzlies have reached the title game, LoParco sits down and pens new stanzas to the popular holiday poem, turning the Griz playoff highlights into rhythmic phrases. LoParco spends quality time with the players throughout the year, preparing them pregame meals during the regular season.

"It becomes more than just the business of feeding the players," LoParco said. "They are much more than players. Some of them become friends."

This poem, being his fifth in a decade, took just an hour to craft. His favorite stanza this year refers to last week's hit by Grizzly cornerback Keith Thompson, which earned No. 1 on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 plays of the day.

"Thompson went hunting

A quarry he found

The hit of the day

Smashed into the ground."

Griz spirit spreads far outside Montana's borders, however.

In Washington, D.C., U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester on Thursday challenged Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey Jr. to a friendly wager on the game. Baucus and Tester are betting Montana elk and bison jerky against Specter's and Casey's Philadelphia soft pretzels that UM will be victorious.

"I have no doubt that I will be joining my fellow Montanans in celebrating their victory and enjoying some nice Philly soft pretzels at Senator Specter's and Senator Casey's expense," Baucus said in a release.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy @missoulian.com.


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