HELENA, Mont. — There's no easy answer to the question: Should the University of Montana move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision or stay in the Football Championship Subdivision?
It's a complicated issue taking into account finances, facilities, national television exposure, athletic success, postseason play and the continuation of a 109-game rivalry with Montana State dating back to 1897.
The Western Athletic Conference has said Montana is high on its list as it looks for new members with the upcoming departure of Boise State, Nevada and Fresno State. However, WAC Commissioner Karl Benson said Wednesday, the conference is waiting for Montana to decide whether it is willing to move up to the FBS before issuing an invitation.
UM executive vice president Jim Foley said Wednesday that decision is expected in a few days.
University of Montana President Royce Engstrom will take into account information gathered during an internal assessment, as well as input from coaches, faculty, students and boosters.
Several former players like Montana's position as one of the top teams in the FCS, while others think looking at the Football Bowl Subdivision could be a good move.
In all cases, they don't want to see Montana lose its tradition of success while fielding teams that consist mostly of players from the state.
"I just like what we have going on," said Marc 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. We're a big fish right now. I think a lot of the smaller FBS schools get lost in the wash."
It's hard to argue with Montana's recent 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.
The Griz posted a 104-22 mark from 2000 through 2009.
"You can check this, but there's no team at any level in football that won more games than the Grizzlies from 2000 through ... last year," said Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, whose son, Brandon, played at Montana. "It's just a great program with a terrific tradition."
Dave Dickenson, the Great Falls quarterback who led the Griz to their first national title and went on to a successful career with the Calgary Stampeders and the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League, said he likes what the Griz have going.
"There's people that always think the grass is always greener," said Dickenson, now the quarterbacks coach for the Stamps. "I loved my experience there. I wouldn't want it any other way.
"I have, I guess, a fear that we'd lose some of our tradition there," he said. "That would bother me."
Miami Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter of Helena said he has mixed feelings about a potential move. He thinks the Griz deserve the recognition of playing in the FBS, but added: "I don't know how to put it, but you might not get that hometown feeling if you're moving up. I think overall it's going to be a good experience if it happens."
Colt Anderson of Butte, a former Griz walk-on who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles on Wednesday, would like to see the Griz stay where they are.
"I feel like what Montana has going on right now is a great thing," he said. "You never want to lose that."
Kroy Biermann of Hardin, who plays for the Atlanta Falcons, said he thinks a move up would be good for Montana, and that the team could still have success with in-state players.
"Montana does a great job of finding that talent and working with it," he said. "Kind of like me, I was a small-town kid. I didn't get looks because my high school wasn't good and we didn't win many games."
Grady Bennett, a former Griz quarterback and coach of the Kalispell Glacier football team, said he thinks Montana players could still be the base of a Griz team in the WAC, but that UM would have to go out-of-state to recruit some speed.
"There's no way you could turn away your Montana base and still have this program," he said.
A team like Idaho State may have more overall talent, Bennett said, but they're never going to beat UM because those players are all Montana kids, and the Grizzlies are all they care about.
"It's their passion," Bennett said. "If Montana ever lost that, they'd be done, I don't care who they brought in talent-wise."
Just to the west in Idaho, fans have witnessed two very different outcomes as the result of moves from the Big Sky Conference to the FBS.
Boise State has made one of the most successful moves, while 330 miles away in Moscow, Idaho, the University of Idaho has struggled since its 1996 decision to leave the Big Sky.
In the first years after their departure, Idaho actually put up better numbers. Boise State was 13-21 in its first three seasons in the FBS, while Idaho posted a 32-24 mark in its first five seasons. But then things shifted.
Boise State has posted a 130-20 record since 1999, including its 8-0 mark this season, while Idaho is 30-86 over the past decade, including a 4-5 record this year.
However, despite its recent success, including unbeaten seasons in 2006 and 2009, Boise State has not played for a national championship.
Dickenson said Montana has an easier job recruiting now than it would if it moved up to the FBS.
"Any time you can recruit a kid and tell them, 'We should have a chance to compete for a national championship,' that carries more weight than 'You might get to go to a bowl game,'" he said.
Dickenson rejected some of the 'cons' of staying in the FCS, including playing up to 15 games a year, which athletic director Jim O'Day has said is tough on student-athletes.
He said his professors worked with players to make sure they focused on their schoolwork, and that some FBS television contracts require weeknight games, which also would be tough on the players' academics.
Fisher said one of his concerns about a move up would be the long-running series between Montana and Montana State.
It is against WAC rules to play FCS schools in FCS stadiums, but Benson said Wednesday the conference and Montana have discussed being able to continue the Cat-Griz rivalry.Comment on this story
"If and when we have that conversation, I'm sure that the WAC would accommodate the University of Montana to allow them to continue to play home-and-home with their in-state rival."
O'Day said all the discussion and study and debate has just one goal.
"At the end of the day, all I ask is that we know who we are and are content with who we are," he said. "If that satisfies you, then that is where you should be."
Associated Press writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and George Henry in Atlanta contributed to this story.