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Into the looking glass: UM's winning ways could mean leap into Bowl SubdivisionJune 26
Into the looking glass: UM's winning ways could mean leap into Bowl SubdivisionJune 26

Editor's note: This is the first installment in a four-day series on the viability of Montana moving up to big-time college football. The series will examine FBS schools Idaho on Friday and Boise State on Saturday. Montana's future will be the focus on Sunday.

Over in the Gem State, a former Big Sky Conference athletic department is sporting some major new digs these days: A glassed, high-ceiling weight room with a million-dollar hydrotherapy pool on the third floor. New and spacious locker rooms. Three football meeting rooms under construction, along with a state-of-the-art academic center.

And it's not Boise State.

"You hear about the arms race," University of Idaho athletic director Rob Spear said. "We have to make up for those years of malaise. That 22-year period where nothing happened. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing."

Idaho, which moved up to what is now the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision from what was then I-AA football in 1996, has certainly had its growing pains. These days, the Vandals seem to have a blueprint for success in place. It may be anywhere from 10 to 22 years late, but it's in place.

Boise State made the same jump out of the Big Sky in '96, and has had few if any of the same problems. Four years before that, Nevada left the Big Sky - and now all three teams are in the Western Athletic Conference.

Which for some fans, begs some questions:

Could the University of Montana Grizzlies leave the Big Sky as well? Would UM want to? Is it feasible, financially or athletically? And if so, when?

"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it," says Montana athletic director Jim O'Day. "You have enough day-to-day pressure on you and on your department to not spend a lot of time on that.

"But I think everybody looks and wonders. I would think that someday we would probably do a study. But I assume that if we did a study, it would say you need to stay where you're at right now."

Montana is near the pinnacle of the newly christened Football Championship Subdivision. The Grizzlies own 10 straight Big Sky titles, and have made the postseason an FCS-record 15 straight seasons.

They've gone to the FCS title game five times in 13 seasons, winning twice. Football and UM's other two revenue-producing sports - men's and women's basketball - have had ample success of their own.

But when Western Athletic Conference Commissioner Karl Benson says Montana has an infrastructure that is better than some WAC schools, he must not be referring to Idaho, with its recent construction.

It can't be Boise State, which would like a new weight room, but built an indoor practice facility - "overnight," in the words of Spear - and is completing a $37 million stadium expansion that includes a new press box.

Move on up? O'Day knows that Montana has other things to do first. In fact, some would argue that the most recent expansion of the football stadium, set to be finished for the 2008 home opener against Southern Utah on Sept. 13, put the cart before the horse.

"The fans come to see Grizzly athletics, and they see 25,000 people packed into Washington-Grizzly Stadium, they see a beautiful Adams Center, they go to Dornblaser (Stadium) and see a great soccer field and a great track," O'Day said.

"Our student athletes spend probably 85 percent of their time in the practice facilities, lifting weights, academics, in the locker rooms - and those places are sorely in need of repair and renovation. And the general public doesn't see those."

A quick tour brings O'Day's worries to light. The football locker room is tight and cornered, without a space for 60 or so players to gather around their coach. And if the close quarters didn't create a breeding ground for MRSA - a nastier form of staph infection that has struck Griz players through the years - it certainly didn't help.

The academic center has 10 cubicles, a scant number to offer 300 student athletes. The shower space is cramped, and the weight training facilities need improvement. That's for starters. Head upstairs, to where the Adams Center renovation walled off part of the old west side concourse, and there's a makeshift meeting room maybe 10 feet wide.

It's in these close quarters that the offensive linemen watch film.

"We have some of the worst infrastructure facilities in the Big Sky Conference," O'Day said. "For our fans, we have some of the best facilities. But the infrastructure, for the athletes, for the students, for their welfare - it's not very good. It's acceptable, but we would like it to be better."

The potential income from stadium expansions - this latest, along with the addition of 4,000 seats in 2004 - could pave the way for more internal improvements. And those in turn may pave the way for, well, who knows.

There is a moratorium, seemingly spurred on by the big money CBS has paid for the NCAA basketball tournament, on NCAA schools jumping up a division until after the 2011-12 school year.

By then, Montana may no longer be content to sit atop the Big Sky. Then again, the Griz may not be on top by then.

"This year, you're going to have really good (football) teams in Weber State, Eastern Washington," O'Day noted. "The other thing … is we lost 25 seniors this past year and we're replacing them with 30 freshmen.

"To say that Montana is going to make the playoffs next year - I don't think that's near a given."

The time is not now, clearly. Whether it is four or five years from now remains to be seen. But Montana can look at a cautionary tale in Moscow, Idaho, and a Cinderella story in Boise, and make the call then.

One thing is clear: Making such a move would obviously be easier if the Griz continue their current success.

Reporter Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or by e-mail at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

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