When the NCAA's so-called Power Five conferences agreed in January to increase the value of athletic scholarships to cover expenses beyond tuition -- the "full cost of attendance" -- athletic directors and conference commissioners around the country took note.
"As soon as it was starting to be discussed at the national level, we knew it was going to have repercussions throughout Division I membership," said Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslam.
The conversation quickly spread, first from the Power Five -- which features the Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences -- to the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest competitive level in college football. And now down to the Football Championship Subdivision.
This week Liberty University announced it will become the first FCS athletic department to provide full cost of attendance to its student athletes. The move may be the first steps down an uncharted path with many to follow, but Montana and the Big Sky Conference aren't ready to take that leap.
They just can't.
"If we had unlimited financial abilities, I would be a proponent of doing everything we possibly can in supporting our student athletes," Haslam said. "The reality is we don't have those resources."
Covering the full cost of attendance for each of Montana's 178.1 scholarships (money can be split among multiple student athletes in all sports other than volleyball, women's tennis and men's and women's basketball) would add close to $600,000 to the athletic department's budget annually.
Each athletic scholarship covers tuition, room and board and books, but Montana estimates that expenses not covered at UM -- such as transportation, off-campus meals and further athletic supplies -- ranges between $3,228 and $3,928, depending on the student's residence status.
Expenses are higher for out-of-state attendees.
Even if all 178.1 scholarships go only to Montana student-athletes, which they do not, that's still $575,000. Tack on another $125,000 if each scholarship were reserved for non-Treasure Staters.
Added expenditures will vary based on institution.
One way to make up for that added expense to the university would involve cutting non-revenue sports. That's not something Haslam would ever be comfortable with at Montana, he said.
To maintain a seat at the Division I table in athletics, a school must offer at least 14 NCAA sanctioned sports (UM currently has 15). Eliminating one would eliminate opportunities for student athletes, the AD added, a major detriment especially after Montana just added softball, which began competition this spring.
You have free articles remaining.
Of course those budget-breaking numbers assume that all Grizzly scholarship athletes receive the extra aid. Some schools and conferences have opted to provide it only for certain sports.
The Horizon League board of directors voted unanimously this week to expand scholarship coverage for only men's basketball. As required by Title IX, an equal number of athletes from women's sports must also receive the same aid.
The league did not specify in which sport the equity would come.
Haslam sees that model as dangerous to the cohesiveness of a university's athletics.
"If you just start to pick and choose certain student athletes or teams, gosh, it further fragments your student athlete population," he said. " 'That team's getting something that I'm not.' I understand that all the time life's not fair, but once you go down that road, it's really hard to back up over that tire ripper."
So the question becomes, can Montana and the Big Sky remain competitive in a sports landscape that appears to be shifting, and for how long?
Liberty, a private Christian institution in Lynchburg, Virginia with about 14,000 undergraduates, may be improving its bid to become an FBS member in the near future -- "Liberty has the resources to jump into that pool and say, 'Look, we're all in on this,' " Haslam added -- but the Flames are hardly the only current FCS program weighing its options.
North Dakota State Athletic Director Matt Larsen mentioned on KFGO radio earlier this year that the four-time FCS football national champion Bison are looking at adding stipends for football, men's basketball and women's basketball to remain competitive in the recruiting realm.
The Griz play both schools during the opening four weeks of the football season this fall.
"We certainly want to do all we can to be competitive," Haslam said. "We also have to do it financially in a responsible way.
"It's going to be something where folks kind of stand back and see, OK, what are the others gonna do? Are we gonna go as a conference and how are we going to tackle this as an institution?"