As I noted in this blog space last summer, until last season, Nevada (71 percent), Boise State (65 percent) and Idaho (63 percent) had the all-time winningest records in Big Sky football competition. The Griz, who come lumbering into Holt Arena in search of a 12th consecutive conference championship on Saturday afternoon, edged pass the Vandals with a 7-1 mark last fall, which put them at a 64 percent winning clip coming into this season. Prior to 1996, when BSU and Idaho left the league (Nevada had departed a few years earlier), Montana had compiled a 52 percent winning percentage in Big Sky play. With their 5-0 mark this year, the Griz have gone 91-13 in the league since 1996 -- 87.5 percent.
The Griz have steadfastly built on a foundation that was already in place -- whether by good planning, happy coincidence or both -- when the Big Sky's Big Three departed. That foundation included a new stadium, a progressive coach with a wide-open offensive philosophy, a tremendous, home-grown quarterback and a recruiting and fan base both ready to explode. And explode the Griz did -- to bigger and better facilities, larger and more fanatic crowds, and consistently talented and productive football teams. As befitting their mascot, the Griz took their place atop the Big Sky Conference food chain, at least when it came to the bellweather sport of football.
Idaho State, meanwhile, has lost its two natural rivals and a good Nevada program, all of whom attracted local crowds and brought fans of their own. It's no coincidence that Idaho State's all-time largest crowd for football came against BSU, and it's largest regular-season basketball home gathering was for the Vandals. The Big Sky has replaced these teams that were guaranteed draws no matter how bad the Bengals might be in a particular year with Sacramento State, Portland State and Northern Colorado -- three teams no one in southeastern Idaho cares about, and who bring no fans of their own. In basketball, meanwhile, BSU and Idaho games that used to draw 5,000 or more per game as conference affairs are just like most other non-conference games these days, with the Broncos and Vandals attracting fewer than 3,000 during recent visits to Pocatello.
I bring all of this up because, with Montana's crushing of wanna-be contender Weber State on Saturday, the inevitable subject of how long the Grizzlies are willing to continue to put up with their inferior conference brethern has arisen once more. Bill Speltz of the Missoulian wrote a column Sunday with the headline, "Griz have what it takes to start thinking bigger." The upshot of the column was that it's time for Montana to start preparing to move to the Western Athletic Conference when the NCAA moratorium on such moves ends in August of 2011. UM Athletic Director Jim O'Day was quoted as saying the Griz weren't actively making such plans, but added, "...You always have to keep your options open."
Now, if you want to generate a viral food-fight in Griz Nation, just get on their message board and type in the words, "It's time to move up to Division I." Really, that's all it takes to generate 150 responses, both pro and con, and you can do it just about any day you're really bored. To say the subject has been hashed and rehashed is like suggesting Idaho State's football team has a few problems on offense. Conference and ISU administrators have heard so much speculation about whether Montana and its sister institution, Montana State, might head for the WAC they have grown immune to it. But I'm here to suggest that those people, particularly at Idaho State, ought to start taking that possibility seriously.
There are some folks in Missoula who will tell you the die is already cast. They believe the joint proposal by the UM and the community to host the 2010 FCS National Championship game in Missoula (in January 2011) is a thinly veiled attempt to begin the upgrades to the press box, visiting lockerrooms and other facilities that will be necessary if Montana moves up to the WAC. They believe that a number of traditional FCS powers are already making plans to jump once the moratorium expires and the Griz do not want to be left without options if their national "peers" take the plunge. O'Day seems to be alluding to that possibility when he tells the Missoulian, "When it ends, you're going to see a lot of movement. I think you have a lot of teams, even in the FCS, who are in the stage of study and are starting to look at what they should do."
Then, in the next breath, O'Day says the Grizzlies are not one of them. Do you believe him? It doesn't really matter if you do, prudence suggests that Idaho State officials should begin seriously considering what a future would look like without Montana -- and very likely, Montana State -- on the schedule. The two Montana schools are really the glue to the Big Sky, and some folks envision the league shattering in so many parts if they go. Would current Big Sky schools start looking for better geographical fits? Would some suggest dropping football? What would supply the attracting force to pull the remaining schools together?
Unfortunately for Idaho State and the rest of the left-behinds, a future Big Sky without the two Montana schools is not very appealing. Sure, you could start adding new members -- Southern Utah, the Dakota schools, Dixie State, Utah Valley, etc. But the basic fabric of the conference -- heck, the "Big Sky" state itself -- would be gone. You'd be losing two more of the original rivals that are guaranteed to attract local fans and bring fans of their own, and replacing them with more schools no one cares about, and who won't bring any fans to speak of.
I don't think there is an obvious or easy path for ISU and the rest of the league should one or both of the Montanas eventually leave the conference. But I do know that ISU's response the last time the league suffered a large defection -- essentially, do nothing and plod on -- would be unacceptable this time around. I would strongly suggest that some deep strategic thinking needs to be done, and not just based on whether or not the Montanas stay. As I mentioned in a previous blog, ISU needs to develop a sustained identity for its athletic programs, in particular the football program. It needs to identify what makes ISU's programs distinctive and how they can be best positioned for the long haul -- in or/out of the Big Sky, with or/without the two Montanas.
The timing for such a study couldn't be better. John Zamberlin has been given two years to figure out how to revive the Idaho State football program. And the NCAA has given the Big Sky two years to plan how to hold onto the Montanas -- or how to survive without them.
Shots in the Dark
The playoff hopes of two Big Sky teams took near-fatal plunges last week: Northern Arizona, who lost to Sac State, and Weber State, who fell at Montana. I picked the later, missed on the former, and finished 3-1 overall. This week, Montana State tries to keep its playoff hopes alive and NAU, well hopefully they stay in Memphis and get a chance to see Graceland, like we ISU fans did when we visited Ole Miss in 1996. Here are this week's shots in the dark:
Sacramento State at Northern Colorado: Both schools got big home wins last week. The Bears, at 3-6, just might save Scott Downing's job with a fourth win. But I'm picking the Hornets to run their record to 4-0 against UNC, even on the road. Sac just has too many offensive weapons, even against a pretty good Bear defense.
Montana State at Portland State: The Bobcats kept their playoff hopes alive with a win over the Bengals last week, now they get another conference bottom feeder. Even though this is on the road, MSU will win its fourth straight over the Vikings.
Northern Arizona at Mississippi: When the Bengals played Ole Miss 13 years ago, the Rebels were coming off probation and were in rebuilding mode. Ole Miss still dominated the game. This year's version of the Rebels is a more legitimate SEC complement. They'll win handily.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.