HELENA (AP) — Upon further review, the University of Montana has decided to remain in the Big Sky Conference.
Less than a month after Royce Engstrom took over as president of the university, he announced Thursday that the school would not move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"It was a complex decision with many pros and cons," Engstrom said in a statement. "In the end, the better course is to stay with the conference we helped establish in 1963 and to continue building on its solid foundation."
Engstrom said there were several key factors to his decision, including maintaining the cross-state football rivalry with Montana State and the cost of moving up to the FBS.
"At this time, FCS football presents the best overall fit for the University, it provides our student-athletes and fans with a great experience, and it is consistent with the strategic direction of the University," Engstrom said, adding that WAC schools spend several million dollars more a year on athletics than Montana does.
"In this environment, that would not have been a prudent decision," Engstrom said.
The Western Athletic Conference had said Montana was high on its list as it looked for new members with the upcoming departures of Boise State, Nevada and Fresno State, but the league was waiting on Montana's decision about a possible move to the FBS before issuing an invitation.
Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton was thrilled with UM's decision to stay in the league.
"Montana's athletics programs have flourished in the Big Sky Conference and its football program is the standard bearer in the Football Championship Subdivision," he said in a statement. "Our presidents have a vision for the future of the Big Sky, and I thank Dr. Engstrom for helping define, and believing in that vision."
The Big Sky is expanding in 2012 with the addition of Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota and Southern Utah.
Thursday's announcement comes after an internal study of UM athletics that looked at funding, facilities, television exposure, athletic success and postseason play. It prompted extended debate among Griz fans.
Several former players — including Dave Dickenson, Colt Anderson and Marc Mariani — opposed the move out of concern that Montana would lose its tradition of success.
The Grizzlies won their first national title behind Dickenson in 1995, picked up another one in 2001 and played in national championship games in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2009. Montana posted a 104-22 mark from 2000 through 2009 and led the FCS with an average attendance of 24,417 last season.
Engstrom said the majority of Griz supporters he heard from favored staying in the Big Sky.
He said those who supported moving up to the WAC were very thoughtful in their comments, but at the same time expressed that they were going to support Grizzly athletics no matter what decision was made, "and I appreciate that a great deal."
Dickenson, a former Canadian Football League quarterback and now the quarterbacks coach for the Calgary Stampeders, said he supports the decision to stay in the FCS.
"I think it was definitely worth the time and effort to explore," Dickenson said Thursday, adding that he was glad there was so much interest in the decision.
"I know they looked at both sides and as an ex-player I'm excited for the Griz to stay in the FCS," he said.
Another former Griz quarterback, Grady Bennett, also supports Engstrom's decision because of the team's success, the opportunity to advance to the playoffs and in "keeping the Montana base, keeping the Montana kids."
Montana athletic director Jim O'Day also supports the decision.
"Right now, Grizzly Athletics needs to concentrate on building its athletics infrastructure," O'Day said in a statement. "That should be our No. 1 priority now and where we should be allocating our energy."
In an e-mail O'Day wrote to a booster earlier this fall discussing the pros and cons of a move to the FBS, he lamented the school's lack of athletic funding.
"We will be looking ... over the course of this next year or so at the total financial picture of Grizzly athletics and seeing if there are adjustments that need to be made," Engstrom said. "I'm not ready to say we are going to pursue any particular avenue."
Western Athletic Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said: "I certainly respect the decision that has been made and wish the Grizzly Nation all the best. The WAC was looking forward to a possible partnership but we will now move on to forge the future for the WAC."
The WAC announced the addition of football members Texas-San Antonio and Texas State on Thursday afternoon.