Analysis

Influx of new head coaches drives competition in Big Sky

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Jeff Choate may be one of the new faces on the Big Sky Conference block but he’s been around the West long enough, he’s already garnered the respect of his peers.

In December, Choate took his first college head coaching job as he took over at the helm for the Montana State Bobcats. At the Big Sky Kickoff media conference in Park City, Utah last month, Choate made his first official appearance as MSU’s head coach surrounded by his other 12 head coaching contemporaries. Many of the other coaches from around the league have memories of Choate that go back 20 years.

“I remember Jeff Choate when he was in Chalis High School in Idaho coming to the Montana Grizzlies football camps in the mid-1990s,” said Northern Arizona 19th-year head coach Jerome Souers, Montana’s defensive coordinator during the 1990s before taking the NAU head job in 1998. “To watch his career and the things he’s done, he’s a great football coach. Montana State did well by hiring him.”

Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum

Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum

Portland State second-year head coach Bruce Barnum was an assistant in the Big Sky for years before taking over and leading the Vikings to the playoffs for the second time ever in his first season at the helm last fall. When Barnum was Larry Lewis’ offensive coordinator at Idaho State at the turn of the century, he would put on a golf tournament for assistant coaches. At the time, Choate was working as an assistant on Mick Dennehy’s staff at Utah State. He and fellow Utah State assistant Jeff Hoover would drive up to Pocatello for the event and stay with Barnum.

“We were both close to the same guy, Jeff Hoover. The Hoovermeister, a legend, died in a tragic car accident. Hoov was at Utah State so they came up to Pocatello,” Barnum remembered during the Big Sky Kickoff. “I invited them up for one night to enjoy my golf tournament. Seven days later, my wife said we had to get rid of the two guys sleeping in the garage.

“We were young coaches ready to hit it, had all the answers. But he’s an Idaho-Montana guy who loves that area. He will do great things at Montana State.”

Choate spent the last decade as an FBS assistant, coaching under respected head coaches like Dennehy, Chris Petersen at both Boise State and Washington, Mike Leach at Washington State and Will Muschamp at Florida. Now he will get his chance in a league he grew up watching. The Saint Maries, Idaho native used to drive down to Moscow and watch the University of Idaho play Big Sky games as a kid in the 1980s.

“Jeff Choate comes from a great coaching tree and I think that’s a tremendous hire,” said Cal Poly eighth-year head coach Tim Walsh, who enters his 16th season as a head coach in the Big Sky. “How quickly it happens…they’ve been really good and last year was a tough year for them. The one thing I know about Jeff is they are going to be a tough, physical football team.”

Southern Utah head coach DeMario Warren

Southern Utah head coach DeMario Warren

Choate is one of two new head coaches in the Big Sky this season. The other takes over for the reigning Big Sky Conference champions.

DeMario Warren served on Ed Lamb’s staff at Southern Utah for all eight years Lamb guided the Thunderbirds. The last two seasons, Warren served as SUU’s defensive coordinator, helping design one of the best play-making defenses in the FCS. Last season, SUU led the Big Sky in takeaways while defensive end James Cowser earned Big Sky Defensive MVP honors by notching 11.5 sacks. In the secondary, safety Miles Killebrew (fourth round, Detroit Lions) and cornerback LeShaun Sims (fifth round, Tennessee Titans) transformed themselves into under-recruited prospects from nearby Las Vegas into NFL Draft picks under Warren’s watch.

“I think DeMario Warren is going to be outstanding at Southern Utah,” said Weber State third-year head coach Jay Hill, himself a rising young coach in the Big Sky. “He was a huge part of why Southern Utah has been successful. I know Coach Lamb loved him, pushed hard for him to get that job because he’s a great coach.”

With 13 teams, the Big Sky has a varying level of experience among its head coaches. Souers is the longest tenured coach at a single school as he approaches two full decades at the helm in Flagstaff. Mike Kramer is also entering his 19th year as a head coach in the Big Sky, split between Eastern Washington (1994-1999), Montana State (2000-2006) and Idaho State (2010-present). Walsh spent 14 seasons at Portland State (1993-2006) and helped lead Cal Poly into the Big Sky when the Mustangs joined in 2012. Three-time BSC Coach of the Year Beau Baldwin has been at Eastern Washington since 2008. Earnest Collins has been at Northern Colorado since 2010. No other coach in the Big Sky has more than five years experience in the league.

UM head coach Bob Stitt/by Brooks Nuanez

UM head coach Bob Stitt/by Brooks Nuanez

“The best part of being a head coach in the conference is your experience is so varied, so much more than it would be at a Division I program,” Kramer said. “There is a utility part of our profession that humbles you. You are still a guy who helps set up tables in your staff office. You are still the guy who gets chairs for your meetings. You are still the guy who sits at the front of the bus rather than the front of a plane. You are still the guy who is helping figure out which McDonald’s we are going to eat at because we are all busing.

“In this conference, you can be successful as a head coach if you are humble enough to not accept the role that everyone perceives a head coach to be. You have got to be humble. The more humble you are, you will survive and you will provide. If you have delusions of grandeur about yourself, you will quickly, quickly run yourself out of the league.”

At Montana, Bob Stitt took over a playoff team and led the Griz back to the postseason once again. Stitt’s first Division I season was filled with highs – like defeating four-time defending national champion North Dakota State on ESPN to open the season– and lows, like Montana’s first home loss to Weber State since 1987. All in all, the season was a success, including a home playoff win over South Dakota State. And Stitt is even more optimistic as he enters his second season at the helm for one of the league’s most storied programs.

“It’s fun to have some new guys and I was that guy and I’m glad I’m not that guy now,” Stitt said. “I feel much more comfortable. The first year is really tough, the transition is hard. All these guys are going through a lot of things because they are new that they probably won’t have to next year. They will be able to spend more time on football in the future. I feel like I have more of a grasp on the football side of it going into the season.”

UNd head coach Bubba Schweigert during a post game interview

UNd head coach Bubba Schweigert during a post game interview

The influx of young coaching talent into the league has been catalyst for the competitive balance the league has attained. Bubba Schweigert is in his third year at North Dakota and his Fighting Hawks look primed to make a run at a playoff bid after just missing the postseason with a 7-4 record last fall. Hill is in his third year at Weber State and the Wildcats are ranked in the preseason Top 25 of the FCS for the first time since the Ron McBride era on the heels of last year’s 6-5 campaign that included a win at Montana, Weber’s first since 1987. Northern Colorado finished with its first winning record since joining Division I in 2006 last season. Portland State went from bottom of the league to a nine-win team with two FBS victories and five more over ranked FCS squads as Barnum earned FCS Coach of the Year honors in his first season as a Division I head coach.

“They are new faces as head coaches but they are guys who know the conference and they know and understand the value of the Big Sky and how challenging it is,” Souers said. “I’ve seen coaches come into our conference with very little respect for it. And they paid the price. If you don’t respect the conference and the people and the coaches and the players who are in it and you think you are above it, you are going to be in trouble.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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