Staff Photo by Dan Henry Montana's red-shirt freshman Gerald Kemp watches his teammates practice Thursday at Chattanooga's Finley Stadium. Kemp is recovering from surgery on a micro-fracture in his left knee.
A perennial contender for the Football Championship Subdivision national title, University of Montana football coach Bobby Hauck sets a simple goal before each season.
“We expect to win and compete for championships,” said Mr. Hauck, who has his Grizzlies in town for tonight’s NCAA title game against Villanova at Finley Stadium. “But we don’t talk a whole lot about that once the season starts.
“We always talk about getting to Chattanooga.”
The Road to Chattanooga — the familiar refrain embraced by each of the Football Championship Subdivision programs hoping to navigate the playoffs to the title game — could split. Tonight will mark the 13th consecutive year a football champion has been crowned at Finley, but this is the final guaranteed game here.
In February, Chattanooga officials will go to Indianapolis to present a bid to continue its role as host city. A group representing Frisco, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, also will make a presentation and is the only other finalist, according to NCAA director of football and baseball Damani Leech.
Chattanooga and Frisco were selected as finalists last month among a pool of contenders that included Spokane, Wash., Missoula, Mont., and Little Rock, Ark.
Opening the bidding for the rights to host the game “is not a knock on Chattanooga at all,” Mr. Leech said Wednesday. “Our No. 1 goal is what is the best situation for the student-athletes. We discussed (the bidding) last spring, and asked ourselves, ‘How long has it been (since it was put up for bid)?’ This gives us a chance to see what’s out there.”
When Chattanooga first hosted the game in 1997, it was about the only destination that wanted it. Marshall University had hosted the then-Division I-AA Championship game from 1992 through 1996 and played in four of those title games before moving up to Division I-A.
Chattanooga negotiated with the NCAA for the rights to host the 1997 game without a bidding process because there was not another host seriously interested, according to Greater Chattanooga Sports and Events Committee President Scott Smith.
After tonight, though, there is serious competition.
“I’d like to think our chances our better than 50-50,” Mr. Smith said from his downtown office, which is littered with keepsakes from the dozen previous title games in the Scenic City. “We’re the incumbent, and I think we can match any offer they have, and I think we can better it.”
The city secured the rights to continue hosting the game after the 2003 championship. Chattanooga outbid San Antonio, Texas, and Cedar Falls, Iowa, in a process that lacked the current drama or competition.
Frisco’s bid reportedly is centered heavily on its relatively new, soccer stadium — the 20,500-seat Pizza Hut Park, an $80 million facility that features 18 luxury suites and a 6,000-square-foot stadium club. The bid also is financially backed by the Hunt Sports Group, which is named for the late Lamar Hunt, who founded the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and is managed by his son Clark.
“They could throw an awful lot of money at it,” Finley Stadium Chairman Merrill Eckstein said this week. “Our bid is very attractive financially, too, but I think half our bid will be how things go Friday night.”
Attendance, which has increased since 1997, may be down tonight. Montana and Villanova sold a combined 3,700 tickets through their box offices — the lowest figure for participants here, according to Mr. Smith.
As of Thursday morning, right at 13,100 tickets had been sold, but tonight’s weather forecast, which calls for a chance of showers and cold temperatures, could limit the walk-up crowd and possibly attendance among local ticket holders.
Mr. Leech, who is not one of the members of the 10-person committee that will vote on the bids, agreed that tonight’s atmosphere could carry some weight in February.
“I think this is a great chance to leave a lasting impression on the committee,” Mr. Leech said. “It’s an opportunity for everyone involved to see the city embracing the game and putting their best foot forward.”
IF YOU GO
* What: Football Championship Subdivision national championship game
* Who: The University of Montana vs. Villanova University
* When: 8 p.m. Friday
* Where: Finley Stadium
* Cost: $30
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...