The University of Montana announced Thursday that it will remain a member of the Big Sky Conference and not move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The decision opens the door for Seattle University to join the Western Athletic Conference. The WAC had hoped to add Montana – long a power at the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision level – to make up for the impending loss of Nevada, Boise State and Fresno State to the Mountain West Conference.
Instead, it’s been reported that Denver, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State will join the WAC in the 2012-13 season. The two Texas schools will compete in all sports, while Denver will compete in everything except football. That would leave the conference with nine basketball-playing schools and eight football-playing schools. By adding Seattle U – which made a presentation to the WAC earlier this year – it would make it an even 10 schools and eliminate any scheduling difficulties.
Montana president Royce Engstrom said that it was a difficult decision to stay where the school is at.
“In the end, the better course is to stay with the conference we helped establish in 1963 and to continue building on its solid foundation,” Engstrom said.
Engstrom said the importance in maintaining its football rivalry with Montana State was a key in the decision, as was the desire to maintain the prestige the program has established.
“At this time, FCS football presents the best overall fit for the University,” Engstrom said. “It provides our student-athletes and fans with a great experience, and it is consistent with the strategic direction of the University.”
Seattle, which is in its third year of transitioning from NCAA Division II to Division I, is currently playing as a basketball independent. The school originally set its sights on the West Coast Conference, which is made up primarily of other Jesuit institutions such as Gonzaga and Loyola Marymount. Joining the WAC would be a significant move, though, as the conference is well-established, has a television contract and an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, which Seattle University would first be eligible to compete in in 2012-13, the year it would join the conference.
Seattle University would join Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, Idaho, New Mexico State, Utah State and San Jose State, along with the three other new schools, in the WAC.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson has said the conference was waiting on Montana’s decision before it announces plans for the future. With Montana’s future now decided, it’s likely an announcement about WAC expansion – and Seattle University’s future – will come quickly.