On the NCAA Division I FCS level, the University of Central Arkansas’ trip to Missoula, Mont.,in the second round of the playoffs is similar to the University of Arkansas playing Alabama at Tuscaloosa or LSU at Baton Rouge.
Both with quality of opponent and venue.
The University of Montana has made more FCS (or Division I-AA) appearances than any school and has played in the finals seven times with two national championships (1995 and 2001) and has been the runner-up two of the last three years.
The Grizzlies have consistently been one of the FCS attendance leaders and 26,000-plus Washington-Grizzly Stadium is rated among the best (if not the best) in NCAA FCS.
"I’ve heard veteran coaches whom I have talked to in the last 48 hours say that right behind LSU, Florida and Alabama, Montana is right there in the type of atmosphere and crowd noise," said UCA coach Clint Conque. "I am not embellishing that."
Montana is the flagship university in a small-population, vast state that is several hours away from the nearest pro football team, the Seattle Seahawks.
It’s a state that loves its football and has a tradition of playing it well and creating what Conque describes as "a bigtime atmosphere in Big Sky Country."
Apparently, Grizzly nation, and the state of Montana, is in an uproar about the game being only available on ESPN 3, which is the sports network’s internet outlet. The problem is most cable companies in Montana don’t have the band width to accommodate ESPN 3, so a significant portion of Montana fans will not be able to view the game.
The folks are screaming and ranting. They are mad as ... well ... Grizzlies. And they don’t want to take it anymore. They claim there is discrimination by ESPN toward eastern part of the country over the west.
Counter to the culture, nowadays, they want ESPN to "occupy Montana."
An online petition to ESPN got 11,000 signatures in 36 hours. All three members of the Montana congressional delegation have gotten heavily involved in the cause. Some supporters organized a "Burn ESPN" campaign, where they created ESPN posters and signs of all types and held a mass burn.
In preparation or a raucous and volatile atmosphere, Conque is trying to reduce the game to the basics.
"The key is how we handle ourselves physically and mentally," he said. "I met with the team last night. I told them the weather forecast is supposed to be the low to mid-30s. But we’ve never traveled that our university didn’t give us everything we needed to be successful. We need a place to stay, they are going to put us up in a nice hotel. If we need to eat, they are going to feed us. If we need to fly, they will fly us. If we need to bus, we’ll bus. The university has always given our young men and women the resources we need.
"I looked at our team and said it’s gonna be 30 or 32 degrees, no snow. But it’s gonna be cold. We’ll make sure you stay in a nice hotel, we’ll feed you right. We’ll have parkas on the sideline. You’re gonna have sleeves, leggings, hand-warmers. I don’t want to hear about the weather the rest of the week."
He said the UCA coaches will pump crowd noise into Estes Stadium during practice this week to better acclimate the team and coaches to communication issues that go along with the noise.
"I don’t want to hear about the crowd noise; we’re gonna get good at our communication," he said. "They are knowledgeable people. But they are pretty rabid. They are gonna get on you.
"So now, We’re gonna be warm. We’re gonna have things on our hands and legs. It’s gonna be loud, but we’re going to practice in it. We know how the fans are gonna be. That’s fine. So, it gets down to blocking and tackling and our physical execution. And that’s the challenge."
He realizes the Bears will go into the game as a decided underdog. Montana has won nine straight playoff games against Southland Conference teams, most of them decisive.
"It’s the 2011 version of the Grizzlies, which I think are very good against the 2011 version of the Bears, which I think are pretty dadgum good," Conque said. "If we are fortunate to win the game, it will be because of teaching, dedication and preparation."
In other words, the UCA coaches would like the game to come down to the same things that have fired the Bears to eight straight victories.
The basic elements of football.
Just in a different climate and atmosphere.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)