As much as Boise State’s triumph over Virginia Tech this week made for compelling television nationally, in Montana it was cause for introspection.
To glimpse the Broncos’ ascent in the polls and vault into the national championship picture is, for fans of the Grizzlies, to be at once reminded of their own past and prodded about their future.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Grizzlies were beating the Broncos — not just by a little, either — and winning Big Sky Conference championships. But Boise State went Division I-A in 1996, joined the Western Athletic Conference five years later and has become the celebrated little school from the mountains that could.
Now, as a fractured WAC beckons, Montana is confronted with the question of whether to follow Boise’s path. The Grizzlies’ answer could say a lot about not only their future but that of the WAC, where the University of Hawaii is the senior member.
Montana, currently ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll and winner of 12 consecutive Big Sky titles, has the most cachet of any of the prospective WAC expansion candidates.
The Grizzlies have won two FCS/I-AA national championships and been to seven title games in 15 years. They’ve reached 17 consecutive NCAA postseasons, and haven’t had a losing finish in 23 years. Their average attendance, 24,417, would be in the top half of the WAC most years.
All of which separate it from other WAC expansion possibilities — Texas-San Antonio, Texas State, Portland State, Sacramento State, etc. — and are reasons the WAC covets the Grizzlies to help fill one of the pukas being left by the departure of Boise State in 2011 and Fresno State and Nevada thereafter.
In the past, the WAC has plucked Big Sky graduates to fill out its lineup with ease, adding Idaho and Nevada in addition to Boise State.
But it is a sign of the tumultuous times for the WAC that not only is Montana not an automatic addition, but the Big Sky is putting up a fight to keep its marquee member.
Witness the Big Sky sprinting into its own expansion mode this week with the announcement that UC Davis and Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) will join the conference. It was a preemptive strike against the WAC, which had mentioned both schools as expansion possibilities and reminiscent of one by the MWC, which last month lined up Fresno State and Nevada to help deter Brigham Young from joining the WAC.
Montana athletic director Jim O’Day is noncommittal on the Grizzlies’ intentions, pending the completion of two feasibility studies expected to be finished shortly. But he is keenly aware the Grizzlies’ $13 million budget is half that of UH’s and would have to rise to add the 22 football scholarships and at least two women’s sports necessary for FBS membership. Questions about the next WAC television deal and increased travel costs no doubt weigh prominently.
For several years now Montana has internally debated whether it should take aim at trying to become "the next Boise State" or continue to enjoy the run it is on.
What it decides in the coming months will be a significant statement about the WAC, too.