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BOWL ELIGIBLE?: Grounded in FCS: Moving up not imminent for Montana football program
BOWL ELIGIBLE?: Grounded in FCS: Moving up not imminent for Montana football program

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.

When conference championships become so commonplace that suspense wanes, expectations are bound to change.

For 10 straight seasons, the University of Montana football team has owned the Big Sky Conference. In recent years, preseason chatter has centered not on whether the Griz will win their league, but whether they'll reach the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) final for a sixth time.

From there, it's just a hop and a skip to the hypothetical horizon. Fans, the media, maybe even a few players and coaches wonder what it would be like running with the big dogs of college football in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).

"There's no doubt I'd like to see us go up," said Gordie Fix, a prominent Montana sports booster and owner of the Press Box Casino Sports Bar. "But I don't know if people really know what it entails with extra scholarships and extra women's sports.

"Heck, the Mountain West Conference and the (old) Big West Conference - we've played those (FBS) teams and competed with them. Those coaches come up here and always say, 'You'd be right in the middle of the pack in our conference.' "

The idea of Montana moving up is not exclusive to Griz supporters. Even outsiders like Western Athletic Conference (WAC) commissioner Karl Benson know enough about Montana's situation to have formed an opinion.

"Montana has established an infrastructure that is better than some WAC schools," he said. "History shows there has been a migration of Big Sky schools that have ended up in the WAC, from Nevada to Boise State to Idaho."

Montana athletic director Jim O'Day believes the Griz are right where they belong and enjoy being "the bigger fish in a smaller pond." Robin Selvig, one of the most respected basketball coaches in the nation and skipper for the Lady Griz the past 30 years, feels the same way.

"I don't think it would be good, especially for football," Selvig said. "I just think they've got a great situation right now.

"I like the idea of traditional rivalries, all the history. I don't see any advantages for us being in the WAC. It wouldn't be the end of the world for basketball because there are some schools with traditional ties. But you've got a sold-out (football) stadium. Why mess up a great thing?"

Even if everything was in place, the Griz still couldn't make the move to big-time college football. Not until 2012-13 when an NCAA moratorium is lifted on ambitious FCS teams.

In the meantime, Montana would need to come up with funding for two more women's sports - complete with locker room and practice facilities - 20 additional football scholarships and several more assistant football coaches.

Until that day, Montana fans will continue to ask the same tired questions of their beloved Griz juggernaut, which at times seems to have outgrown its Big Sky rivals.

"I would like to see it more competitive," Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said. "But Montana has the absolute best football situation. Maybe the best in all of the (FCS) except Appalachian State."

When the Griz line up to play at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturdays, it's as if Montana stands still. Even the state's most prominent politicians show up to root for Griz teams heaping with homegrown talent.

Would Montanans continue to pack the stadium if the Griz were a mediocre first-year member of the WAC? How much patience would they have should the Maroon & Silver suffer back-to-back losing seasons?

"They all say they would keep coming to games, but it's about winning," said Fix, who has followed the Griz for 38 years. "If we lost two or three games in a row, they'd say, 'Why the hell did they move up? They screwed it up.'

"You'd have to do like Marshall or Boise State. When you move up, you better start winning right away."

Just beyond Montana's backyard are a pair of former FCS programs that have experienced contrasting results in the FBS. Idaho represents a hard-luck scenario, Boise State a best case.

Unlike many FCS jumpers, Boise State didn't have to add sports when it moved up in 1996. Montana, for example, would be forced to add two.

The Broncos' biggest hurdle to FBS status, other than providing 20 additional scholarships and several assistant coaches, was providing the required 30,000 seats at Bronco Stadium. That requirement has since been phased out by the NCAA.

"It was a bit of a budget strain, but not significant," Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said of the Broncos' move. "There's been years since where there's been just as much strain put on our budget, whether it's medical costs or salary increases.

"Fortunately, we were sound financially and could afford to add those scholarships and coaching positions and expand attendance."

For Boise State and Montana, the similarities are as intriguing as the differences. The Broncos, like the Griz, have an intensely loyal football fan base and have enjoyed powerhouse status in the Big Sky Conference in the past.

Boise won the league and reached the FCS championship game in 1994, two years before going big-time. Montana reached the FCS championship game as recently as 2004 and has won two national titles.

The Broncos have drawn sellout crowds of more than 30,000 per home game the past three seasons and 3,000 fans are on a waiting list for season tickets. Montana draws sellout crowds - it averaged 22,800 fans in 2007 - and has a waiting list for season tickets.

Boise, like Montana, also has an in-state rival to consider. When the Broncos moved up in 1996, so did Idaho. If Montana moved up, the same could happen with Montana State.

Or maybe not. Montana State president Geoff Gamble does not feel as though his institution is "intrinsically linked" to Montana.

"My experience, having been at Washington State for quite some time, is when you look at the success stories of what used to be I-AA programs moving to I-A, there are some, but those stories are in the minority," Gamble said. "It's not something I think we have interest in over here.

"A lot of universities like Idaho have made the move and not been successful. I sat on an NCAA task force and one thing we do know is it's very expensive in a lot of ways."

Too expensive, or so it seems, for Montana's two FCS football programs.

"It's driven so much by the dollar," O'Day said of college football on the FCS and FBS levels. "People don't want to believe it, but it is."

Coming Friday: A look at struggling FBS member Idaho - past, present and future.

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

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