Updated 3 years ago by Mark Thorsell (Missoula)
University of Montana officials have announced that they will not be leaving the Big Sky Conference.
UM President Royce Engstrom says that the Griz will stay in the Big Sky Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision.
University officials had the opportunity to consider a move to the Western Athletic Conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"It was a complex issue with many pros and cons," said Engstrom, who started his new duties as UM's 17th president October 15th and recently attended his first meeting of Big Sky Conference university presidents in Park City, Utah. "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 three principles guided his decision. First, he wanted to maintain the cross-state rivalry between UM and Montana State University-Bozeman, which he regards as essential to the state's cultural fabric. The two institutions played their first college football rivalry game in 1897. Now nicknamed the Brawl of the Wild, it's the fourth-oldest active rivalry in the FCS and the oldest west of the Mississippi.
Second, he wanted UM to compete with more mission-similar institutions. He said the recent addition of the University of North Dakota strengthened the Big Sky Conference in that regard.
Finally, he wanted to ensure that UM athletic teams can compete successfully and maintain the prestige and integrity the program has demonstrated over the years.
"At this time, FCS football presents the best overall fit for the University, it provides our student-athletes and fans with a great experience, and it is consistent with the strategic direction of the University," Engstrom said.
"I agree this is the best course for The University of Montana at this particular time," UM Athletics Director Jim O'Day said. "Right now, Grizzly Athletics needs to concentrate on building its athletics infrastructure. That should be our No. 1 priority now and where we should be allocating our energy."
UM will compete in an expanded Big Sky Conference starting in 2012. On Nov. 1, UND and Southern Utah University accepted invitations to become core members of the conference. California Polytechnic State University and the University of California, Davis, also joined the conference in recent months as affiliate members for football.
"I am quite sure that the regents would agree that this is a wise decision by President Engstrom," said Sheila Stearns, state commissioner of higher education. "He has the full support of the Board of Regents and my office."
"This was the right move at this time," said Clayton Christian, Board of Regents chair. "It's the right decision for the state, The University of Montana and the Big Sky Conference."