After months of flirting with a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the University of Montana on Thursday announced it will stay in the Big Sky Conference, where the Grizzlies have competed for almost half a century.
"Moving up to the next level, that's seductive in many ways," said President Royce Engstrom. "It's flattering to be pursued. It's something that builds your self-confidence as an institution."
In the end, though, UM decided not to join the Western Athletic Conference, citing three primary reasons.
Maintaining the rivalry with Montana State University is "essential to the state's cultural fabric," Engstrom said during a news conference in Main Hall on a day when campus was quiet - as classes were canceled in observance of Veterans Day.
WAC rules prevent its members from playing Football Championship Subdivision schools. The WAC made an exception for UM, indicating that it could allow Montana's long-standing cross-state rivalry with MSU to continue even if the schools played in separate conferences.
Even so, Engstrom said, if MSU and UM weren't competing for the same conference championship, that rivalry wouldn't "exist in the same way."
"We're proud of that great rivalry," he said. "It's part of who we are."
Second, the Big Sky's expansion in the past few weeks strengthened the conference in UM's view. The Big Sky Conference welcomed the University of North Dakota, Southern Utah University, Cal Poly and UC Davis - universities that UM considers peers athletically, academically and in terms of enrollment and research.
Finally, Engstrom wanted UM to continue its success on the football field and "maintain the prestige and integrity the program has demonstrated over the years," according to a news release.
The Grizzlies' 6-3 record this year - compared to its perfect regular-season record a year ago - had no effect on the decision.
"I'm so proud of our football program," Engstrom said. "It's not going as well as past years, but we have a new coaching staff. If we didn't go through some kind of transition, that'd be unusual."
A formal invitation was never extended to UM, but the WAC made its intentions very clear from Engstrom's first day on the job a month ago. Engstrom heard from supporters on both sides of the issue, but most fans, he said, did not support the move to the WAC.
"We are thrilled that the University of Montana has decided to stay in the Big Sky Conference," said league commissioner Doug Fullerton. "I realize this was a very difficult decision for UM President Royce Engstrom and all involved. Montana's athletics programs have flourished in the Big Sky Conference and its football program is the standard bearer in the Football Championship Subdivision. Our presidents have a vision for the future of the Big Sky, and I thank Dr. Engstrom for helping define, and believing in, that vision."
UM earlier this year contracted with a consulting firm to study the feasibility of a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and officials looked to that study when making the decision.
Jumping to the FBS had serious financial ramifications, including requirements that could have cost millions, such as increasing the number of athletic scholarships and staying in Title IX compliance. Considered as part of the university's overall strategic plan, those costs would have had a significant effect on the campus.
"At this time, FCS football presents the best overall fit for the university," Engstrom said. "It provides our student athletes and fans with a great experience, and it is consistent with the strategic direction of the university."
UM prefers instead to strengthen its athletic programs and facilities, he said. There is a need for a new athletic weight room, study area and visiting locker room. Engstrom said he is committed to seeing those improvements through.
UM Athletic Director Jim O'Day agreed.
"That should be our No. 1 priority now and where we should be allocating our energy," he said.
The decision, however, doesn't mean that UM has forever closed the door on a move to the FBS someday. For now, though, Engstrom said he's committed to the Big Sky "indefinitely."
However, he added: "This is a dynamic situation at all levels. It's important to keep our options open and always keep an eye on how things stand. We never want to close doors."
Meanwhile, shortly after UM announced its commitment to the Big Sky, the WAC announced - as expected - that Denver, Texas State and the University of Texas at San Antonio will join the league in 2012.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy @missoulian.com.