If the Western Athletic Conference is planning an FBS comeback, Montana has had no part in the discussion, UM athletic director Kent Haslam said.
Emails between Idaho athletic director Rob Spear and WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd showed discussion of a possible revival of the Football Bowl Subdivision league that would include not only Idaho, but Montana and Montana State. The documents were obtained and published last week by the Lewiston Tribune through a public records request.
Haslam acknowledge trading emails with Spear recently, just as he has with other ADs around the Big Sky Conference. A change in division or conference affiliation was not among the topics, though.
"Never have had a serious conversation about moving up a division or anything like that," Haslam told the Missoulian this week. "... We are happy in the Big Sky Conference. Right now this is where we're focused."
The Missoulian has filed a similar public records request of Haslam's emails through the Freedom of Information Act.
Idaho, which left the Big Sky in 1996 for the brighter lights of the FBS, has since been rebuffed by the Sun Belt Conference. The Vandals' affiliation with the mostly southeastern-based conference expires after the 2017 season and Idaho announced in April its intention to return to the Football Championship Subdivision and the Big Sky in 2018. The school's other sports rejoined the Big Sky in 2014.
After a processing period that lasted from May to August, the Tribune obtained 645 email communications sent and received by both Spear and Idaho president Chuck Staben. Included was one from Hurd at the WAC indicating a possible future football conference.
“Rob: Have you had an opportunity to speak with your President regarding football and whether or not he believes the idea of other Big Sky institutions moving to the FBS level could have any legs?” Hurd wrote. “Although (former Big Sky commissioner) Doug Fullerton had interest, one of my concerns is that the new Commissioner might consider it too much of a risk to have on his/her plate right shortly after being hired.”
Fullerton retired this past summer with Andrea Williams taking over as Big Sky Commissioner.
Spear, wary that the Freedom of Information Act could be used to make such emails public -- exactly as it has -- responded accordingly:
“Jeff, do you have time for a call? I don’t want to respond via email…FOIA.”
In another email, Spear specifically targeted the Grizzlies and Bobcats as potential allies in the WAC's return.
"The WAC has traction and I look forward to influencing the Big Sky from within," Spear wrote. "I know I can convince Montana and Montana State to jump…we need to lock arms with them."
Dates of the emails were not included in the Tribune's reporting.
Montana's flirtation with the FBS goes back many years. The Grizzlies turned down an informal invitation to the WAC in 2010, then watched the conference disband its football membership just two years later after the 2012 season.
The Griz had sat by as former Big Sky programs Boise State, Nevada and Idaho left in the mid-90s -- to varying degrees of FBS success. A slew of fellow FCS powers have jumped in the past few years as well, a list that includes UM's former national rivals like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.
Montana stuck around for reasons both financial and competitive. The Griz were hesitant to abandon their rivalry with the Bobcats, as well.
"I think it's only natural to be drawn to schools that look similar to you," Haslam said. "From the Montana standpoint, you've also got to step back and think: Where do we fit? What do our fans like? It's important for us to be competing for championships."
Geography has been a prime issue for many schools in the West contemplating such a move. Whereas App State, based in North Carolina, had a natural landing spot in the Sun Belt, teams like Montana and North Dakota State have far fewer options.
Especially once you rule out Power Five conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12.
"You've got to have a conference that your fans relate to, that they can connect with," Haslam said. "There's two other (FBS) conferences out West playing football. The Pac-12 isn't coming to knock and the Mountain West hasn't either."
But that doesn't mean it will be that way forever. Asked if a return of the WAC -- which would need eight football members to resurrect itself as an FBS league -- would change his thinking, Haslam deferred, saying he wouldn't try guessing the future.
But he did dangle one carrot; Montana needs to be ready for whatever that future may hold.
"The sands of college athletics shift so rapidly that you do have to be prepared," he said. "The way you prepare is you improve your infrastructure facilities, you strengthen your fan base and you compete at the highest level you can. You control the things that you can control.
"I don't want to pretend that we're not trying to be prepared, but you've also got to be realistic."