Move up? The question has never been more honest for Montana, Montana State

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Posted at 4:40 PM, Aug 09, 2023

BILLINGS — There are three Division-I football-playing conferences in the western United States, and one of them is being ripped to pieces.

If you’re a Montana or Montana State fan, this should pique your interest.

The Pac-12’s ongoing, shall we say … “shakeup,” is undoubtedly causing consternation about the league’s future following the latest announcements that Washington and Oregon, along with similar disclosures by USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah, will no longer be with the now-beleaguered Conference of Champions in 2024.

The latest reports say longtime rivals Cal and Stanford could also be on their way out — to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Someone please make that one make sense.

Realignment and the chase for those almighty television dollars is nothing new to college sports. But when it happens out west we tend to notice it a little bit more.

“There have been a lot of transitions in the past 10 years, but this is the one for us that truly hits home,” Montana State athletic director Leon Costello told MTN Sports.

The Pac-12’s sudden freefall might have Cats and Griz devotees wondering what ripple effects may exist for their teams in the not-so-distant future. There’s been plenty of “move up” talk before, but this feels different.

Despite its glaring lack of a TV deal beyond 2023-24, there’s still too much money tied to the Pac-12 for it to simply fold up shop regardless of who’s leaving, right? But the league now needs a bunch of schools to come on board to stay alive. Mountain West schools would seem like obvious targets.

If that happens, would the Bobcats and Grizzlies and others in the Big Sky Conference then be in position to shift to the MW or elsewhere in the FBS? What, then, would become of the Big Sky? Or FCS football in general?

So many questions, so few answers. At least at the moment.

“I think it’s really going to depend on what the Pac-12 does. Are they going to reconstitute?” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam told MTN Sports. “If they reconstitute and start to take schools from the Mountain West, and then the Mountain West tries to take schools, that’s where you’ll see the trickle down.

“So really, whatever happens in the Pac-12 will have a bigger impact on those down the line.”

Before we get too far out over our skis, it should be noted that if the Bobcats and Grizzlies are to make any kind of move up, several criteria would have to be met. Major criteria.

For one, Montana and Montana State would have to increase their total scholarship allotments to 210 full offerings and would have to dole out 85 football scholarships rather than the current 63 that are divided among 85 players.

They’d also have to add another sport to get to the required number of 16, mostly likely a women’s sport to comply with Title IX. And then there would be the need to increase their annual athletic budgets from roughly $23 million to perhaps as high as $40 million to be competitive.

For what it's worth, Haslam and Costello both said their respective departments are already above the $6 million in scholarship distribution that would be required.

But the biggest factor could be this: Per recent approval by the NCAA Division I Council, there is now a $5 million cost-of-transition fee to join the FBS, up from the mere $5,000 fee that existed prior.

These challenges are not lost on the ADs.

“It’s hard,” Haslam said. “I’m not trying to be really opaque on this because you really don’t know what will happen. I’ve said all along that if we were to change conferences it would take a significant commitment from the university and a commitment from the state of Montana.”

“There are definitely financial obstacles we would have to overcome — just a lot of obstacles to overcome for (a move) to happen,” Costello offered. “We’re part of one university system, we’re all governed by the same entities. It would take a commitment from all of those entities, but we’re already working together to make sure our institutions and our departments are in the best possible position given our current situation.”

And then there’s this question: Do Cats and Griz football fans have an appetite for a move to the FBS?

There’s plenty to be said for having the chance to compete for a national championship at the FCS level. A transition up would effectively end those chances, at least how things are currently structured at the zenith of college football.

Remember: The Cats and Griz rely on ticket sales for a large amount of their athletic revenues and would probably want to be careful not to alienate folks hungry to see their team win a national title. After all, 1984 and 2001 do feel like ancient history.

How would playing a game on a Wednesday night at 8:30 sit with longstanding supporters?

“I think playing for a national championship is important, and having that be a possibility is important,” Haslam said. “Our fans like us competing for championships, there’s no doubt about it.”

Thirteen years ago Montana was being wooed by the Western Athletic Conference. A move never materialized, and that turned out to be a very good thing considering what became of the WAC.

Nothing is being contemplated yet, but here we are again.

Said Costello: “We’re definitely not looking, but we are watching.”

To move up or to not move up? It’s an enduring question. But suddenly it’s much more persistent at Montana and Montana State.