For the tenth year in a row, the Montana Grizzlies football team exited spring practices with the title of “reigning Big Sky Champions.” In August, they’ll resume practices and begin preparing for a season that could hold their fifteenth consecutive playoff appearance. Until Missoula brings another gorgeous autumn and with it, football season, Griz football fans can only talk and speculate. There’s one debate that reigns over all the rest. It’s something every passionate Griz fan has an opinion on: whether or not the Griz have grown too big and too good for this level of competition.
The Montana Grizzlies football team currently plays in the Big Sky Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly know as Division I-AA. While it is technically considered Division I football, it is not home to college football’s best programs. No, the USCs, Notre Dames and Floridas play in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly know as Division I-A. While some numbers may support a move up to the FBS—20 straight regular season wins and a 25,000-seat stadium already sold out for every game next season—financial, competitive and political obstacles loom in the way.
“We just are not in a position to move up right now,” Athletic Director Jim O’Day said.
Even if the Griz were currently ready to make the jump from the FCS to the FBS, they would not be able to do so. During its August 9, 2007, meeting, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors established a Division I membership moratorium. The moratorium, effective until 2011, prohibits any school from reclassifying to Division I (including reclassifying within Division I from the FBS to the FCS) unless they have already begun the process.
There are currently 20 schools who have already begun the process, with their expected timeframes for a move ranging from one to six years. While only these twenty schools have officially declared themselves as being in the preparation and transition phase, countless other schools are taking a look at making the move.
“So many teams in the Football Championship Subdivision are constantly talking about it,” said O’Day, who will be attending a meeting in June in Dallas where he will discuss the issue with other athletic directors.
So many teams are talking about it, but some take the issue more seriously than others. One mark that a team is seriously looking at moving up: they choose to conduct a feasibility study examining exactly what it would take in terms of money, facilities and competitive ability for a team to move up.
O’Day said the University of Montana isn’t quite ready to conduct a feasibility study of its own, but they do look at studies done by other schools.
“At this point, it’s just not a priority for us, a priority for me,” O’Day said. “Sometimes you kind of wish you had the answers but there’s no reason for us to do anything right now because of our health and where we’re at right now.”
Financially, Montana is one of the “healthiest” football programs in the FCS. When the Griz play Division II Central Washington at home next season, they will net just under $500,000. When they play rival Montana State, the net gain for the University of Montana will be $1 million. The increase comes from higher ticket prices and UM creating a standing room only crowd by selling more tickets than the stadium has seats.
By comparison, the $25,000 the University of Albany netted after traveling out to Missoula in 2007 and getting beat 35-14 was more than they made for a home game.
Because the University of Montana makes so much off its home games, the team doesn’t have to travel to FBS powers and risk injury for payouts that would seem very lucrative to some schools, but are beneath what UM makes for staying at home.
Travel costs are another reason the Griz play so many games at home. These costs could potentially go up if the Griz were to move to the FBS. If the Griz were to play in the Western Athletic Conference—home to former Big Sky teams Boise State, Idaho and Nevada—they would have to travel to the University of Hawaii and Louisiana Tech.
Every time the Griz travel, they are forced to charter their own flight because there isn’t an airline that offers a big enough plane to fly the team and coaching staff out of Missoula. O’Day said the cost of chartering a plane ranges between $60,000 and $100,000.
With so many factors off the field that play into the decision, it’s almost easy to forget what could happen on the field of play. The wide range of issues includes how well UM would compete at a higher level, the type and caliber of player the Griz could recruit and the effect on sports other than football.
“People say ‘Well, what happens if we go 4-7?’” O’Day asked. “I think that would be very realistic.”
The Griz haven’t finished below .500 since they went 3-8 in 1985. That season, they averaged 5,599 fans per home game; that's less than the basketball team averaged for the same year. One has to look no further than UM's men’s hoops program to see what losing does to a fan base, attendance has plummeted 42 percent since the 1991-1992 season.
At the FCS level, Griz fans not only get to see a winning team, but also a large chunk of homegrown talent. Of the 67 kids currently on Montana’s 2008 roster, 52 percent of them are from Montana. By comparison, only 13 percent of the University of Idaho’s current 2008 roster is from Idaho. Some of the best talent in Montana wouldn’t be able to compete on the state’s biggest stage and many fans wouldn’t get to see players they watched excel at the high school level.
Another crop of talent Montana may not be able to get at the FBS level: the “tweeners” who may be good enough to play at the FBS level, but choose to play in the FCS for an increase in playing and a better chance at winning.
Tyler Joyce, a senior linebacker who led the Griz in tackles in 2007, said he had opportunities to play football at Colorado University, Colorado State University and the University of Idaho.
"I chose to go to Montana because, first, I wanted to go somewhere where I felt wanted," Joyce said. "Second, I had the opportunity to play as a true freshman, and I wanted to win."
O'Day reasoned that factors like watching Montana players and the team’s readiness to compete would weigh heavily on the minds of the fans. When guessing what their stance on the issue would be, he said he “bet it favors, at least 10-to-1, to stay where we’re at.” Not quite.
In a poll on eGriz.com, a popular Internet message board for Montana Grizzlies diehards, 53 percent of the 128 people who responded said they would like to see the University of Montana move up to the FBS. It’s worth noting that this only represents the fanatics and not necessarily your average fan. However, they are passionate and opinionated.
“It's not just football for me,” an anonymous commenter said. “I'd like to see our basketball programs get into a higher profile basketball conference so they would have a chance for a 6 or 7 seed [in the NCAA Tournament]. As it is in the Big Sky, we were lucky to get a 12 a few years back and a 14 to 16 is the norm.”
If the Montana football team were to move to another conference, all other sports would be forced to come with. This may be best for revenue sports like football and men’s basketball but there are sports where, competitively, it wouldn’t even matter and may even hurt.
For example, in 2007, the Big Sky Conference actually had a higher RPI (a computerized ranking used to rate how well conferences and teams compare to each other) than the Western Athletic Conference when it came to women’s basketball. In men’s basketball, where the Big Sky is rated far lower than the WAC, the Montana Grizzlies beat conference powers Boise State and Nevada in the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons respectively.
O’Day said in Olympic sports like soccer, track and field and tennis, “we’re all pretty much on the same level.”
Football, however, is the money sport and there are a lot of obstacles in the way of a move. University President George Dennison would have to approve; then it would go to the Montana Board of Regents. It’s very possible the Board of Regents would turn down any move unless it included Montana State University tagging along. O’Day said he would be “very surprised” if the Board of Regents and State legislature allowed the Griz to move up without the Bobcats. O’Day said he believes the state would like to see the two teams playing in the same conference and division, where their century-old rival would mean more.
In 1996, a similar packaged deal was made with Boise State and the University of Idaho. Boise State has excelled since the move with seven conference championships (two in the Big West and five in the WAC) and a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Idaho has struggled.
“Obviously, we would’ve liked to have been more competitive in our revenue sports,” Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spears said.
Spears pointed to the school’s facilities as one of the reasons for a disappointing beginning in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“In the past ten years, we didn’t do the things we needed to do to prepare to be in this league,” Spears said. “From 1982 until 2004, this athletic program did not do one facility enhancement. Had they been preparing for success over that twenty year span, it would’ve been a lot easier.”
Appalachian State Athletic Director Charlie Cobb, whose school has won three straight FCS National Championships, said facilities are currently a much higher priority than any potential move to the FBS.
Appalachian State is currently spending $50 million to enhance its facilities, including $35 million on 4,500 new seats for the football stadium and a 125,000 square foot athletic complex adjacent to the stadium.
“If you’re going to write anything,” he said, “say that we haven’t spent more than one second trying to decide whether we’re going to move up in the near foreseeable future.”
He pointed to the moratorium and the schools current budget as reasons to stay in the FCS. Appalachian State currently has an athletic budget of $11 million, about $500,000 less than Montana. Both Cobb and O’Day said their budgets would need to be about $16 million to compete in the FBS.
O’Day said improving athletic facilities is also a goal the University of Montana has focused on.
“Right now, you do your best to get your facilities in place because you can’t be running scared,” he said.
O’Day said facilities like a new locker room, an indoor practice facility, and a new academic center for athletes—all things the athletic department is working on—help draw in the best student-athletes.
Montana and Appalachian State do have some similarities in their hesitance towards moving up and attempts to ready themselves by building facilities but there are major differences.
Appalachian State tries to play one FBS team per year—a scheduling challenge issued to Cobb by head football coach Jerry Moore—and already has one on the schedule for four of the next six seasons, including a sure-to-be-hyped battle of national champions with reigning FBS champ LSU in 2008. Montana does not currently have any scheduled FBS opponents.
Also, Appalachian State currently supports 20 varsity sports, four more than what’s required to compete in an FBS conference. Montana only has 14 varsity sports.
Right now, University of Montana is not in a position to make the move or officially looking to do so. However it is tough to deny that the university and athletic department are doing their best to prepare, whether it’s intentional or not, for a move to the Football Championship Subdivision.
The fans should do so as well, not necessarily by dumping in money, but by savoring what we have now. The Grizzlies are at the top of their division, winning conference titles and competing for national championships every year. The administration is currently content with the football program staying in the Football Championship Subdivision, but eventually, their opinion and other circumstances may change.
“We will continue to improve facilities, build the program and do our best to make UM Athletics the special place it has become—knowing that some day we might have to make a decision that will affect the future of our athletics program and its fans,” O’Day said.
“Only time will tell. Stay tuned.”