Canzano: A drive through Big Sky country
Simple stuff wins sometimes.
Tom Wistrcill left his hotel on Saturday morning in Missoula, Mont. and headed to McDonald’s in a rented black Hyundai Santa Fe.
The commissioner of the Big Sky Conference pulled onto Interstate-90, and pointed his SUV toward the Idaho border with a McGriddles sandwich and a bottle of water riding shotgun.
The skies were clear.
The sunrise was magnificent.
I reached Wistrcill early in his four-hour drive to Moscow, Idaho. He was celebrating. Saturday marks Wistrcill’s official five-year anniversary on the job. Also, his conference has two football teams — Montana and Idaho — still alive in the 24-team Football Championship Subdivision playoff bracket. If both continue to win, they’ll play each other for the title.
Idaho hosts Albany at 7 p.m. Saturday in a quarterfinal. The commissioner will be there to see it. On Friday, Wistrcill watched Montana beat Furman 35-28 in overtime to advance to the semifinals.
“It was snowing off and on,” he told me.
“It was 25 degrees and a packed house,” he added.
“It was all the great things about FCS football.”
Before the season began, I spent a weekend with the Big Sky Conference football teams. I spoke with players and coaches. I met with more than a dozen league assistants. And I sat down 1-on-1 over breakfast with Wistrcill, who insisted there was still a place where college athletics remained simple, joyful and pure.
You know, like the college game used to feel.
“I am using cruise control in a car for the first time,” Wistrcill told me during his drive, “I’ve got the thing all set. I’m using it, but I’m not sure I like it.”
College football has evolved immensely in the last two seasons. A ‘Power 5’ conference imploded. Lawsuits are rampant. More than 1,000 football players are currently in the transfer portal. Players are opting out of bowl games and coaches are swapping zip codes. And the NIL world is the wild west.
Said Wistrcill: “In the Big Sky, we’re really proud. We know who we are and we’re comfortable with that. All the stories out there — the never-ending chase for money, ‘We gotta pay kids more money’ and ‘We need more NIL money for the collective’… that just doesn’t exist for us.
“We certainly have our eyes open to what’s going on, but that’s not us.”
I love FCS football.
There are terrific rivalries, good players and great stories. The rabid fan bases make towns come alive on game day. But the best part of FCS football is rooted in the fact that the eco-system is far less impacted by outside forces, particularly deep-pocketed boosters, greed and television money.
The Big Sky signed a media-rights deal early in Wistrcill’s tenure that put more than 600 conference events on ESPN+ and the ESPN app. Two conference football games this season aired on ESPN2. The men’s and women’s basketball championship games will be televised, too. The exposure has been a positive.
Last summer, I asked Wistrcill what the TV deal was worth to each school. He declined comment. The Big Ten had just signed a media-rights contract with FOX that will distribute $72 million per school. The SEC will distribute north of $50 million per school this year. The latest tax filing for the Big Sky shows that the conference’s total revenue from all sources was $14 million.
Media-rights distribution per school: ~$80,000
It’s why some of the FCS schools lean into “payday” non-conference football games. Montana didn’t play a “money” game this season. The Grizzlies are a rare case — they live off robust home ticket sales. But Portland State, for example, earned $575,000 to play at Oregon this football season and collected another $400,000 to play at Wyoming.
Vikings lost by a score of 81-7 to the Ducks. And the Cowboys beat PSU by a 31-17 margin. But Portland State walked off with $975,000.
“That revenue helps fund all of our sports,” John Johnson, the Portland State AD told me on Saturday. “It may sound trite, but the funding from those games helps provide services for all our student-athletes in the entire athletic department.”
There are glaring differences between the schools in the FCS vs. FBS tiers. The upper division (FBS) allows a maximum of 85 scholarships and the stadiums look like cathedrals. The lower division (FCS) allows a maximum of 63 scholarships. Idaho’s home stadium on Saturday — the Kibbie Dome — has a capacity of 16,000.
Major college football has a four-team invitational playoff. Florida State went undefeated this season (13-0) and got snubbed. The College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams next season. For years, Division II and III and the FCS football playoffs have offered proof that a more comprehensive playoff format works.
“We have a true playoff,” Wistrcill told me. “It’s not perfect. We still have regionality as part of it. But bottom line, you decide it on the field.”
Friday night’s quarterfinal game was a thriller. Montana wide receiver Junior Bergen was electric. He scored on a kickoff return (99 yards) and a punt return (59 yards). And Furman forced overtime when quarterback Tyler Huff hit tight end Mason Pline with a TD pass in the back of the end zone with only 13 seconds left in regulation.
Pline is 6-foot-7 and weighs 260 pounds. He has a degree in mechanical engineering and played three seasons of basketball before switching to football. He out-jumped two Montana defenders to come down with the ball.
The play caller on the play?
You’ll love this.
Former Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Roper. He’s the offensive coordinator at Furman. I smiled when I found that out. I saw Roper throw four touchdown passes in a Sun Bowl victory for the Ducks in 2007. He left Oregon and finished his playing career at Montana, of all places.
“Those kids from Furman didn’t win the game,” Wistrcill said, “but they played great. They’re going to remember being in the playoffs for the rest of their lives.”
It’s 250 miles from Missoula to Moscow. Wistrcill said he was happy to make the drive. He had a breakfast sandwich, a bottle of water, and a smile on his face. Two of his Big Sky schools are still in contention.
Montana needs one more win to get to the title game. Idaho needs to win twice. The Big Sky schools played each other in October, a 23-21 Grizzlies’ victory. How about a rematch for the title?
Said Wistrcill: “The Big Sky is a really good place for people to play the sport they love.”
It’s simple stuff. That sounds appealing right about now.
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