New University of Montana President Royce Engstrom made the biggest decision of his young tenure last week when he announced Griz athletics would stay in the Big Sky Conference and decline an invitation to the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Depending on what side of the stadium you sit in, Engstrom's call was either a prudent decision or a yellow-bellied retreat from competing with the big boys. And as with any heated sports argument, both sides adamantly believe they're right—and the other's as dumb as a Montana State grad. Actually, both make valid points.
From the beginning, the decades-long debate over moving up to the high-profile Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) revolved around money. Athletics Director Jim O'Day clearly explained UM's predicament a year ago: UM has maxed out its revenue in the Big Sky and, geographically, struggles to find opponents for non-conference football games. On the other hand, O'Day knew UM didn't have the infrastructure—adequate locker rooms, enough women's sports, etc.—to meet big-league requirements. It'd take money to make money, so to speak, and O'Day wasn't sure the money existed. Adding pressure to UM's dilemma was the FBS's ongoing scramble to rearrange every conference in the country. If Montana wanted to make a move, now was the time.
Engstrom's decision to stay put speaks to economic uncertainty. Stepping up without the resources to maintain UM's usual winning ways would be disastrous for both the school and community; each home game brings in tons of money to the local community—but not if the team loses, and people stop driving their maroon-painted RV from Havre for the weekend. Seasoned bleacher bums who remember when UM was more a basketball school than a football powerhouse cheered the choice to stay in the Big Sky. Their refrain: Enjoy the wins, folks, even if they're against Western State; it's more fun than getting unceremoniously whipped by Hawaii. Trust us.
But the argument didn't fly with all fans. The promise of warm-weather bowl games and Erin Andrews working the sidelines sounded much cooler than, well, anything involving Western State. Griz Nation, long fed-up with outsiders belittling their JV brand of sports, wanted to show it belonged on a bigger stage. By shunning the WAC, Engstrom basically said UM isn't up to the challenge. It didn't help when, by way of explanation, he added UM was better suited to compete against "mission-similar" programs like...Southern Utah. That doesn't exactly sound right to proud Griz faithful.
Engstrom managed to make the reasonably sound choice, and simultaneously chicken out. So, um, go Griz? Discretion may be the better part of valor, but discretion sure is anticlimactic.