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Montana running back Chase Reynolds tries to get around Villanova's Fred Maldonado, left, and Osayi Osunde. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Vile weeds have gained a foothold in my backyard.

It seems like only yesterday I was celebrating the emergence of spring. Now I'm dealing with dandelions, thistles and an unstoppable force that grows between rocks.

Picture my situation in your head and then imagine instead that I'm Jim O'Day, athletic director at Montana. My lawn (department) seems perfect, with a wildly successful football program, a perennially powerful women's basketball team and a men's basketball program coming off an amazing NCAA tourney run.

No weeds. Utterly immaculate. So why am I so doggone nervous?

Lots of reasons. New ones every day. Alarming reports and rumors that grow like weeds.

O'Day's concern is not just Missoula or the Northwest. He's monitoring what's going on across the country in big-time college football. If you don't think Big Ten expansion or serious talk of Boise State leaving the WAC affects Montana, you've been breathing too much thin mountain air.

This isn't the same old tired talk about whether the Griz should bolt the Big Sky Conference. This is different.

Those who like things the way they are, be advised that may not be an option in 18 months. Athletic departments nationwide are bracing for change, and Montana must do the same.

"This is not a time where we can close our eyes and hope that we wake up and everything is the same," O'Day told the Missoulian. "There are huge decisions that are going to have to be made in the next year or two.

"Something that seems so far away, like the Big Ten, really is tied somewhat to the Big Sky Conference and all the schools in the West. We don't know which way the dominoes will fall."

Montana's first priority is to hire an independent consulting firm to do an internal study of the athletic department. Someone funded by private donors that gathers and weighs all pertinent information.

For months we've been hearing this might happen. It still hasn't.

"If somebody would come knocking at your door and you felt it was an opportunity," O'Day said, "you better have the right information available to make a good decision to do things in the best interest of the University of Montana and the state. Right now that's very unclear."

An interesting piece appeared in the Honolulu Star Bulletin last Sunday. It centers around Boise State's inevitable defection to the Mountain West Conference.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson was asked who might replace Boise State and Louisiana Tech, which is also likely to bolt. He mentioned Sac State, Cal Poly and UC Davis. He didn't mention Portland State, but the Vikings are also rumored to be thinking big.

Where would that leave the Griz? With a terrible scheduling situation. WAC and Mountain West by-laws prohibit member schools from visiting FCS venues like Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

In 14 months the NCAA moratorium on conference realignment and schools moving to the FBS will be lifted. From Montana's perspective, staying in the Big Sky may still turn out be the best option. Maybe if Sac State or Portland State defect, it will open the door for a stronger league with new members.

Or maybe not.

"Montana and Montana State are both in situations that they could be attractive to other conferences based on their location, their competition and academically is a big way people are grouped," O'Day said.

College athletics revolve around - brace yourself - money. Montana has by far the best television package in the FCS and this year it made around $72,000. O'Day has had roughly the same $13 million budget the past three years while costs have increased. His budget is stretched thin.

Meanwhile, Southeastern Conference schools are making about $24 million a year in television money. Big Ten schools are at $17 million.

Nobody is suggesting Montana is Big Ten or Pac-10 material. A study may confirm the Grizzlies don't belong in the WAC or Mountain West, either.

But for now it's nice to know at least one Griz has his ear to the ground. Imagine the damage a close-minded athletic director could cause.

"I'm just an information source," O'Day stressed. "I hear a lot of things and all I can do is bring the information back to campus and provide it to our president.

"The new president is the one who is going to have to make some decisions as well as the Board of Regents and probably the state of Montana."

For those who embrace change and abhor the Griz pounding on Big Sky schools year after year, it's an exciting time. For those who despise change, better get used to it.

Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@lee.net.

 

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