On Thursday afternoon, the University of Montana put an end to years of rumors and speculation about where the school’s athletic department would be competing in 2012 and beyond.
But as the debate and discussion raged and drug out for years, especially in the last few months when the Western Athletic Conference made its intentions to court Montana public, the end came swiftly, and it came from the top.
Montana is staying right where it is — for now.
“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," new UM President Royce 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.
Good for Engstrom and good for Montana.
Many may not agree, but when it comes to athletics, it’s not about whether the Grizzlies could or should want to compete against the “big boys”, it’s about what’s best for the school, the students, the student-athletes, the state and the fans. And most of all, it’s about the money, like it or not.
It’s not and shouldn’t ever be about ego.
And through all of this move-up, move-down or move-sideways talk the last few years, my question has always been, where will the money to make a jump come from?
I never got that answer directly, but Thursday it came in jest.
Engstrom saying a move up at this time wouldn’t be prudent tells me the finances just weren’t there, and while it makes no sense to go into the confusing logistics of why, it’s just the way it is.
The machine that is Grizzly football generates millions of dollars in many different avenues, but much of that money doesn’t go back into the football program, or in some stretches, even the athletic budget, so funding an even bigger athletic budget, which the Griz would have needed to not just move to the WAC, but excel there, never made much sense to me.
And it also didn’t make much sense to me to give up the great thing that is Montana football at this point.
Former UM star wide receiver Marc Mariani summed it up pretty well recently and so did perhaps UM’s greatest hero, 1995 Walter Payton Award winner Dave Dickenson.
"I just like what we have going on," said Mariani recently. "I like that we have an unbelievable program. We're a big fish right now. I think a lot of the smaller FBS schools get lost in the wash.
"I have, I guess, a fear that we'd lose some of our tradition there," Dickenson added. "That would bother me."
Concerns I shared too.
And while the other side lamented about wanting to be the next Boise State, I was much more concerned about the Griz being more like Marshall or UConn — not bad FCS to FBS programs, but never so great that it ever really mattered any more.
UM has had a special place in the college football landscape, (The Griz have won more games than any other Division I team the last decade) and to me it’s never mattered that Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN or fans in the SEC don’t care about Griz football. Montana cares, the kids all around the state care and the program means as much to this state as Glacier National Park or Lewis and Clark.
And it wouldn’t be like that today if not for the FCS, if not for the Griz’ success at that level. Nothing would be like it is right now had Montana not played in the Big Sky Conference, had not played at the level it does now and had it not been for young Montanans like Dickenson and Mariani who dared to dream they could play college football at that level.
Just imagine, had Montana been a middle-of-the-road FBS program 20 years ago, there is a chance the Griz would not have recruited a Dickenson or allowed guys like Mariani and Colt Anderson to walk on. Think where we might be today if not for the FCS and the Big Sky.
I for one have always thought the Griz are right where they should be and that doesn’t mean I don’t think things still can’t be better. I think there’s a lot left to do in the Griz programs. They need better locker rooms, better practice facilities and better study rooms and upgrades for all their athletic programs.
I’m not complacent and hopefully UM isn’t either.
And because I think the Griz belong in the FCS and in the Big Sky Conference for all sports, it doesn’t mean I’m selling the athletics at Montana short. It doesn’t mean I think our athletes are inferior or that someday the Griz couldn’t compete with the Boise States and Nevadas of the world, just like they used to when those programs were still in the Big Sky.
What it means is, where the Griz are now, where they have decided to stay is where they still belong right now. It’s what has helped build the University of Montana into what it is, and it’s obviously the best place for it.
In other words, it’s tradition and it’s home.
And I for one am glad the Griz aren’t going anywhere.