By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA — You know its been a weird year for the world of the Football Championship Subdivision when off-field news continues to dwarf the on-field musings just days before the announcement of the field for the 2010 NCAA Division I Football Championship.
This week, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State, along with non-football-playing member Denver, accepted all-sports membership to the Western Athletic Conference to start the process of joining the ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The WAC, raided by the Mountain West Conference of its best potential revenue-generating teams, Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada, were desperate to get new membership to not only keep their troubled football conference together but to even keep their status as a legitimate NCAA conference.
Ironically, Boise State and Nevada were one-time powers in the FCS, then known as I-AA, and the Big Sky Conference.
But the bigger news was made by the school that didn't take the plunge into the murky waters of the WAC and FBS.
Montana, seen by WAC commissioner Karl Benson as a highly desirable member to join the WAC, was also offered a chance to join the conference. The debate, internal and external, was intense.
After a whirlwind of activity the past couple of months, Montana president Royce Engstrom delivered his final verdict. Montana would not be joining the WAC. They would remain in Big Sky country.
For sure this is a big announcement for anyone who follows the Big Sky conference, or FCS football.
The Griz are seen locally and nationally as the types of athletic programs that other Big Sky schools and FCS schools in general aspire to become — football programs that rally the students and alumni, athletics programs that do well nationally, yet do not succumb to the issues and problems that come with so-called "big time" sports. \
The "Brawl of the Wild" between Montana and Montana State shuts down the state.
The Grizzlies' semifinal game against Appalachian State last year on ESPN, played in a light snow, was must-see TV for all FCS and many other football fans as well (the highest rated FCS game in TV history) and put the school in Missoula in a great light.
In a report from KPAX in Montana, Engstrom details his reasoning.
"It was a complex issue with many pros and cons," said Engstrom, who started his new duties as UM's 17th president Oct. 15 and recently attended his first meeting of Big Sky Conference university presidents in Park City, Utah. "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 three principles guided his decision," the report stated. "First, he wanted to maintain the cross-state rivalry between UM and Montana State University-Bozeman, which he regards as essential to the state's cultural fabric. The two institutions played their first college football rivalry game in 1897. Now nicknamed the Brawl of the Wild, it's the fourth-oldest active rivalry in the FCS and the oldest west of the Mississippi.
"Second, he wanted UM to compete with more mission-similar institutions. He said the recent addition of the University of North Dakota strengthened the Big Sky Conference in that regard.
"Finally, he wanted to ensure that UM athletic teams can compete successfully and maintain the prestige and integrity the program has demonstrated over the years.
"We are thrilled that Montana has decided to stay in the Big Sky Conference," Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton released in a statement. "I realize this was a very difficult decision for president Royce Engstrom and all involved."
"Montana's athletic programs have flourished in the Big Sky Conference," Fullerton added. "and its football program is the standard bearer in the Football Championship Subdivision. 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."
Lost in all of this is that Engstrom's "no, thanks" was historic. It marked the first time an FCS school said no to a conference from the so-called "big time" subdivision.
Think about that a second. Engstrom looked at the landscape carefully. On the one hand, he saw membership in the WAC as "the next Boise State" (something Karl Benson seemed to be saying every day since Boise State announced they were leaving the conference — it would make quite a YouTube montage, I bet).
On the other, he saw an expanded Big Sky Conference - who had just expanded by four teams in football, Cal Poly, UC Davis, Southern Utah and North Dakota - and a situation for the Griz where Montana would play on average seven regular-season home games a year, not counting playoffs.
And he chose the Big Sky and FCS football.
That's the first time that a school has publicly been offered a spot in an FBS conference - faced the bogus arguments that riches were right around the corner; that BCS bowl invites were right over there, in a year, or maybe two; that they could be the "next Boise State". Engstrom and Montana took a look at the situation, and declined.
It's too early to tell if this is a watershed moment for FCS football. But right here, right now, it sure feels like one.
THE TROUBLED WAC
Objectively, going to the WAC may not be the smartest thing an FCS school could do, especially at the moment.
Set aside, for a moment, the increased expenses, in terms of scholarships, Title IX compliance, decreased revenue due to fewer home games, and a host of others. With FBS football comes expenses — a whole lot of them — and too frequently, not enough revenues to make it worthwhile.
But in this specific situation, too, their potential destination, the WAC, will be losing almost all the programs that gave it value (Boise State, Nevada and Fresno State) and the remaining members with significant value in football (Hawai'i, Utah State) have been publicly mulling their options.
Objectively, what remains after Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada leave will be not much more than a glorified FCS conference, competing with the likes of the Sun Belt Conference, Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference for the last servings from the picked-over FBS carcass.
If Hawaii decides to leave the WAC by 2012, all the FBS teams remaining in the conference currently have records under .500. Two of those schools in particular, New Mexico State and San Jose State, are very well known for having almost permanent residence in the lower reaches of FBS.
To put this in perspective: using the latest Sagarin ratings, Lehigh weighs in at 140 in terms of Division I programs. San Jose State and New Mexico State are 156 and 167, respectively.
And one of the teams that accepted an invite to the WAC — Texas-San Antonio — doesn't even have a football team this year, and is both feverishly trying to get their program up to speed and simultaneously attempting to delay their entrance into WAC football to 2013.
That doesn't seem like the best of situations for either the Roadrunners or the WAC.
Unlike Texas State, who had wanted to join the ranks of FBS for more than a decade, and had students vote themselves a student fee hike for this very purpose, and UTSA, who stated in no uncertain terms they planned to be in FBS by 2014, Montana was in a very different situation in the Big Sky.
Montana had its historic rival in Montana State in the same conference, and also have been the sun around which the other schools in the Big Sky have historically rotated. The center of gravity of the Big Sky has been Montana for the past two decades, and if the Grizzlies moved to the WAC, they would have given that up to be "the next Boise State".
While Engstrom gave a variety of reasons for his decision, my feeling is that it came down to one simple thing: they would have given up being a mover and a shaker in the Big Sky (and FCS football) and instead just become just another wannabe FBS program, chasing the big-money bowls but not really having a legitimate chance at a national championship.
EXAMINING MONTANA'S CHOICE
Most important to followers of Football Championship Subdivision football, though, is what Montana's choice means for the sport they follow.
Too many times, FCS football has been treated as a sort-of minor league for football programs — some sort of football purgatory that schools are obligated to sit through before all the (supposed) treasure gets showered upon them when they're done.
At one time, I-A meant "a chance to be recognized nationally", and I-AA meant you'd maybe make a name for yourself in Boone, N.C., Statesboro, Ga., Bethlehem, Pa. or San Luis Obispo, Ca. — but not many other place. The gap between the subdivisions was a lot more than an extra "A".
But nowadays, FCS no longer means suffering from limited coverage of your exploits.
Ask Appalachian State about that. The Mountaineers introduced themselves to the average sports fan in the first game of Big Ten Network history with their upset of Michigan, and have made a lot of appearances on ESPN, in the regular season and the playoffs, since.
Twenty years ago, "following your team" meant tuning into ESPN SportsCenter and waiting for your team's final score to appear in the crawl, or checking the newspapers for the finals.
Now every school at a bare minimum has a webpage and a place to follow games, and in many cases live video streams. An increasing number of FCS teams show up on ESPN3, ESPN's live streaming solution.
Granted, it's not the same as the operations the BCS conferences have in place. But it's a lot different, now, to claim that "nobody's going to hear about you" if you play FCS football. Once, that was true. That's abjectly not the case anymore.
THE VALUE OF FCS
Montana looked at FCS football, and said at some level, "What we have here is something of value, and it's not at all clear that a depleted WAC is something of value that we want to be a part of."
In Engstrom's decision, it feels like FCS has truly, honestly, come of age.