HELENA, Mont. - The University of Montana Grizzlies will stay in the Big Sky Conference and not move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, President Royce Engstrom said Thursday.
“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 three keys to his decision — he wanted to maintain the cross-state football rivalry with Montana State, he wanted UM to compete against institutions with similar academic missions and he wanted to maintain the prestige and integrity the program has demonstrated over the years.
“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.
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.”
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 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.
“I just like what we have going on,” said Mariani, a Havre native who walked on at Montana, played in two national championship games and is now the kick and punt returner for the Tennessee Titans.
“I like that we have an unbelievable program,” he said in mid-October. “We’re a big fish right now. I think a lot of the smaller FBS schools get lost in the wash.”
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.
Montana athletic director Jim O’Day, Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns and Board of Regents Chairman Clayton Christian all said they agreed with 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.”
O’Day referred any further questions to Engstrom, who planned an afternoon press conference.
Stearns said she is sure “the regents would agree that this is a wise decision by President Engstrom. He has the full support of the Board of Regents and my office.”
Christian called the decision “the right move at this time. It’s the right decision for the state, the University of Montana and the Big Sky Conference.”
Montana State athletic director Peter Fields also supported the decision.
“It’s good for the conference and its good for the state of Montana and for both fan bases,” he said.
Montana will compete in an expanded Big Sky Conference in 2012, as the league recently added Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota and Southern Utah.
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 was expected to announce the addition of football members Texas-San Antonio and Texas State on Thursday afternoon.