HELENA — It’s pretty hard to argue with the success Carroll College has had as a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
Take a trip past Nelson Stadium, and the board declaring the Saints six-time national football champions stares you straight in the face.
In the PE Center, Frontier Conference championship accolades are tightly packed in a trophy case.
For fans, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Nothing like that has happened to an NAIA school in the last half-century,” longtime Carroll fan and football alum Bill Darcy said. “I was there for them all.”
With all the championships the Saints have brought home to Helena, it's easy to wonder how Carroll would compete consistently against higher competition.
The athletic department asked itself the same question in 2014 when it brought in a team from Strategic Edge Athletic Consulting in Kansas to help conduct a study about joining NCAA Division II's Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
At the time, the conference included Montana State Billings, Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks, Seattle Pacific, Saint Martin’s, Western Oregon, Northwest Nazarene, Simon Fraser, Western Washington and Central Washington.
“They were very good and very thorough,” said Bruce Parker, Carroll’s athletic director at the time. “They talked to a lot of people, not just within the athletic department, but others on campus. They talked to the faculty, the boosters, people around town and tried to look at it from every angle. Was it something that we wanted to move to?”
For an NAIA school to move up to NCAA Division II, there is a three-year transition process that includes the institution needing to increase its budget. According to the NAIA, Division II schools spend 70 percent more to offer high-quality athletic programs.
Azusa Pacific University, just southwest of Los Angeles, made the move to Division II in 2011. The school increased its budget from $5.8 million during its last year as an NAIA school to $9 million three years after fully establishing itself in NCAA Division II.
When Carroll was entertaining the idea of making the leap, Parker said his budget was somewhere between $4 and $5 million, but more thought went into it than simply increasing the budget.
“They want you to have a good academic institution, they want you to have (a minimum of five sports for men and five sports for women with two team sports for each gender) and you need to have up-to-date facilities,” Parker said. “They literally check everything.”
Parker and then Carroll College President Tom Evans flew to San Diego for the NCAA Convention. They met with GNAC Commissioner Dave Haglund and the rest of the GNAC school’s athletic directors.
Sitting in on the meetings and getting to know everyone over dinner, Parker knew he still had to think about the decision.
“There was nothing about Carroll College that the members of the GNAC did not like,” he said. “They loved how strong the academics were, they loved our wide range of sports and knew we were very competitive.”
But two things in Parker’s gut made him graciously decline the offer.
It was a decision he doesn’t have any regrets making.
“We looked at it hard, but (NCAA Division II) wasn’t the right place for us,” Parker said. “Look what (Carroll) has done. It has great coaches and they are going to win wherever they are.”
Unknown future of GNAC Football
For more than 80 years, Carroll College football has known who was going to be on its conference schedule.
A trip to Butte to take on Montana Tech was most likely in the works, and dates against Rocky Mountain College, Montana State-Northern and Montana Western were always circled on the calendar, regardless of whether the teams were in the Montana Collegiate Conference or Frontier Conference.
That has not been the case with the GNAC.
Since the conference was formed in 2001, it has seen its four founding members -- Central Washington, Western Washington, Western Oregon and Humboldt State -- grow into as many as seven football programs in 2014, but that has dwindled back down to four entering the 2019 season.
South Dakota School of Mines and Dixie State moved to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference after the 2015 season because it is more beneficial to those geographically. Humboldt State dropped football last year.
That trend didn’t sit well with Parker.
“One of my main concerns was football,” he said. “Carroll was very competitive in football on a national level (at that time) and I didn’t feel that the GNAC was where we wanted to be. It was having trouble keeping teams. We didn’t want to be in a conference where it wasn’t competitive.”
And Parker certainly wasn’t worried playing against Division II competition.
During Mike Van Diest’s 20 year tenure as the Saints coach, they defeated Division II Central Washington in back to back seasons in 2003 and 2004.
“Mark Gallik caught two touchdown passes that day.” Parker said, thinking back to 2003. “I think there is one defensive back for Central Washington still looking for him. They couldn’t find him all game.”
Van Diest went on to win national championships those two years, and eventually won six in nine years before he retired last season.
While all his success came at the NAIA level, Van Diest was happy. He didn’t want to head for the GNAC because he didn’t need to go far for a challenge.
“You always like challenges I think, as coaches and players. You want to go up against the best that you can, but when we are playing teams like Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon, Rocky (Mountain) and Montana Tech, those teams are pretty darn good,” Van Diest said. “The challenge was in our own backyard.”
After the 2018 season, Haglund announced that the GNAC signed a two-year scheduling alliance with the Lone Star Conference, based just north of Dallas. The agreement will create 13 total games between GNAC and Lone Star schools.
Haglund said he “did not like to talk about internal conversations” when asked about if he talked to any other Frontier Conference teams about joining the GNAC, nor did he comment on whether he was in contact with Carroll College.
Carroll athletic director Charlie Gross said the GNAC has not been in contact with him since he was hired in 2016.
Troubles of traveling
Those who want to come and go from Helena have two main ways to accomplish that goal: they can either drive over the mountain pass of their choice or fly in, though tickets can be expensive.
The Helena Regional Airport is served by just three airlines and offers four destinations: Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Minneapolis.
If Carroll were to move to NCAA Division II and join the GNAC, it would have a natural in-state rivalry with Montana State Billings during basketball and volleyball seasons (MSUB doesn't have football) but would also have to travel to destinations such as Seattle, Portland and as far as Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska.
“You have to ask yourself, what is it going to cost us fly to Seattle or Portland? How much does it cost to fly to Alaska?” Parker said.
A non-stop round-trip flight from Helena to Seattle on Alaska Airlines can cost $300 or more per seat. A flight to Fairbanks on Alaska Airlines costs more than $600 per seat, with stops in Seattle and Anchorage.
College athletic departments in the GNAC are required to go through travel agencies such as Short’s Travel Management, where the department will pay the lowest available fare. According to the travel agency, these fares can cost up to $1,000 per person for a direct flight. Trips to bigger hubs such as Los Angeles to Denver or New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Minneapolis are much cheaper.
Because of the close proximity, Carroll’s athletic department charters buses from Tucker Transportation in Butte for all its Frontier Conference games and others in the Pacific Northwest. This includes two-day trips to Caldwell, Idaho, and Ashland and La Grande, Oregon, during the football season.
Much like NCAA teams, Carroll has flown to games, such as when the men’s basketball team played in the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. To save money, however, the team first drove to Spokane to fly from there.
Other benefits of cutting down travel to a drivable distance include keeping natural rivalries within the Frontier Conference.
“When you play the games, you can see the interest level of the fans,” Gross said. “They talk about a (Montana) Tech-Carroll game and other evolving rivalries when other (Frontier) teams start to become highly competitive.”
Commitment to the Frontier
After much deliberation on all these issues and more, Parker decided not go to through with the jump to Division II. Carroll was going to stay in the NAIA.
“They didn’t say why specifically,” Haglund said. “They just said they weren’t ready at that time.”
“I really like Carroll College a lot as an institution and athletics program. They have great people and great coaches. I thought it would be a good fit, and I still think they would be a great fit in the GNAC.”
Now five years later, Gross said that although he was flattered by the invitation he’s committed to the Frontier Conference.
“It’s hard to even think outside that box,” Gross said. “We want to compete for conference championships, and being in these successful conferences gives us opportunities to play for national championships. We are positioned well from a standpoint right now to having our teams competing against others that could translate into the national level.”
The accolades Carroll athletics has accomplished will remain on display, and while some people may still ask, “What if the Saints were a part of the NCAA?”, the answer apparently will have to wait.