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Blanchette: Griz pause to consider their future

After the parade downtown Tuesday afternoon, there was a charter plane waiting to whisk the University of Montana Grizzlies off to Chattanooga, Tenn., and this weekend’s FCS championship game – for the fifth time this decade.

Wonder if the citizens would be as amped for a fifth trip to the ShamWow Bowl? Would they even look up from their pints of Olde Bongwater to see the team bus rolling to the airport and a flight to the Freecreditreport.com Bowl?

The debate only simmers when Missoula has the championship flu, as it does once again, but in October when the Grizzlies are sleepwalking through another date with Idaho State it reaches a weekly boil: Does Montana owe it to itself and its peeps to take a swim upstream to the bigger pond of bowl subdivision football?

There is no particular urgency to the discussion. But on Tuesday, the Big Ten announced exploratory work into expansion, which as it grinds toward reality will have a chain reaction across the FBS landscape – and likely into FCS, by the time the NCAA’s moratorium on moves from one classification to another ends in August 2011.

Now, the Eastern Washington fan with a snootful of Montana conceit might help the Grizzlies pack and sit back and wait for any comeuppance they might get at the next level. But it could be hollow satisfaction. All you have to do is reference how the flight of Boise State, Idaho and Nevada from the Big Sky a decade ago hurt the league. And if political machinations somehow mandate that Montana State go up in tandem, there may be no effective triage for the Sky.

Try to get a peek at Montana’s poker hand and you discover that athletic director Jim O’Day trying to get a read at everybody else’s cards.

“Our supporters are passionate about the place we’re at,” he said. “In the future, I don’t know if that will be the case.”

The visceral arguments against a move up are compelling. In the last month alone, the Grizzlies have lived through some of the most stirring playoff football there is – a comeback from 27 points down to beat South Dakota State and last Saturday’s snow carnival semifinal that ended with Appalachian State on the UM 4-yard line.

Thirty-four bowl games will be pressed to produce that kind of drama.

For the sentimentalists among us, there’s something else. More than half the Grizzly roster is homegrown and part of the charm – as it is at Eastern with kids from Odessa and Ritzville – is watching rural heroes play for a national title. The odds get a lot steeper for those kids in FBS: Boise State has but three starters from Idaho, and Idaho’s two-deep for the Humanitarian Bowl will not include a single in-state player.

But neither of those will factor into the decision.

O’Day’s concerns are many-fold, though more of them have to do with staying rather than moving up – which, of course, won’t happen without an invitation from a conference like the WAC that figures to get cannibalized a bit in the inevitable shuffle.

But he sees FCS mainstays like Northeastern and Hofstra dropping football. He knows that several of FCS powers elsewhere – Georgia Southern, James Madison, Texas State – have commissioned studies “to see if they’re in the right place.” He hears rumblings that UC Davis and Cal Poly are looking at a move.

“The ability to schedule teams in the west and knowing how expensive it is to get teams out here will be a factor,” O’Day said.

And money is an ever-present concern. At the moment, the Grizzlies generate about $4 million in football ticket revenue – “easily the highest in our subdivision,” O’Day said. But the shared TV and NCAA tournament-share monies available to FBS conference members is not there in the Big Sky, which will forever be a one-bid basketball league with very minor markets.

“We watch Idaho very closely,” said O’Day. “While people may have questioned their move up initially, since they got into the WAC they probably have a steadier funding base than the University of Montana. And now you see their programs getting better.”

Can Montana get better, in the company it now keeps? Yes, the Grizzlies have won just once in those previous four Chattanooga trips this decade. But were they to win four straight in the next decade, it might not be because of gains in the program.

“I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me in 10 years what teams are still in the FCS,” O’Day said. “If you lose that top caliber of opponent, your subdivision will suffer.”

So will the parades.

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