BOZEMAN, Montana — To paint Montana State as some downtrodden football program when Jeff Choate took over following the 2015 season would be inaccurate. To paint MSU as a wayward program that had lost its vision would be closer to the mark.
Montana State won its third national championship in 1984, its first as a member of Division I-AA, a tier of D-I founded in 1978. Over the next 15 years, the Bobcats were in fact awash in mediocrity.
A team that had earned nine Big Sky Conference championships in 20 years and 14 overall conference titles in the last 45 did not win a league title between 1984 and 2001.
Cliff Hysell managed to lead the Bobcats to their only winning records during that span, a 7-4 mark in 1993, 6-5 finishes in 1996 and 1997 and a 7-4 mark in 1998.
Each of Earle Solmonsen’s five seasons and each of Hysell’s eight seasons ended in the same fashion: with a disheartening loss to the rival Grizzlies of Montana, who at the time were in the midst of one of the greatest runs in college football history.
Enter Mike Kramer. The man who came to be known as the “Big Human” brought personality, charisma and a newfound confidence to the program. Year 1 meant 11 losses in 11 games. But by Kramer’s third season in 2002, the Bobcats were Big Sky contenders. And when Travis Lulay hit Junior Adams for a long touchdown to spark a 10-7 win over the Griz in Missoula, “The Streak” of 16 losses to the hated rival finally came to an end.
Since MSU shared that 2002 Big Sky title, the ‘Cats have won or shared six conference crowns. Rob Ash led Montana State to three straight Big Sky trophies between 2010 and 2012, the first time that had ever happened at Montana State. And the Bobcats again reached the FCS playoffs in 2014, MSU’s seventh playoff appearance in 13 seasons.
All that said, to watch the downfall of the 2013 Bobcats because of a rash of injuries and to watch the collapse of 2015, a season once filled with national expectations, because of a porous defense that couldn’t stop anybody, most observes could see Montana State needed a change.
Enter Choate. The fiery, passionate, articulate and driven leader began proselytizing his vision from the first day he took the job. He would maintain Montana State’s high academic standards. He would continue emphasizing MSU’s academic and campus lifestyle opportunities to recruits. He would reinvigorate the Bobcats with toughness and a team-first mentality.
And the rebuilding process would be one that took four years. Choate proclaimed the Bobcats would first lose big, which they did several times during an 0-6 start to Big Sky play during a 4-7 finish in 2016. Choate said the Bobcats would then lose close, which was encompassed in a 37-36 loss at Northern Arizona on a failed two-point conversion that ultimately cost MSU a winning season during a 5-6 campaign.
Choate said the Bobcats would win close in the third season, which they did more often than not last season during an 8-5 campaign that included MSU’s first playoff berth since 2014 and its firs playoff win since 2012.
“I’ve tried to be really realistic with our guys,” Choate said in an interview in mid-July. “I didn’t stand in front of them Year 1 and put national championship on the top of the pyramid because I didn’t think that was realistic. And year 2, probably not as much.
“Last year, we talked about making the postseason, making that a priority for us. And this year, clearly we have to take the next step.”
The next step basically begins on Saturday. Montana State’s football team Twitter account says it all: #WinBig. The Bobcats opened their season last week with a 45-10 loss at Texas Tech. Saturday, MSU hosts its annual “Gold Rush” game with No. 12 Southeast Missouri State coming to Bobcat Stadium.
The first chance to make progress toward the next step is upon these Bobcats.
“I would be lying to you if I didn’t say my goal was to have a ring or two on my finger,” Montana State fifth-year senior running back Logan Jones said in August. “We are finally damn near to that point where we are tightly knit. We have been through a lot together. If what I’ve seen in the off-season, in the winter, in the summer is true, we’ve damn near earned it.”
Kane Ioane played a pivotal role in Montana State’s resurrection at the beginning of the 21st century. The former four-time All-American safety was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year in 2003. He was a member of Kramer’s coaching staff by the 2005 season.
Ioane worked for Ash in all nine of his seasons, coaching linebackers and bringing Montana State a bushel of talented players from the recruiting trail. Ioane spent the 2016 season on Choate’s staff as the associate head coach.
The last two seasons, Ioane has served as a defensive analyst for Washington defensive coordinators Pete Kwiatkowski and Jimmy Lake. The dyed in the wool Bobcat is now back at his alma mater as Choate’s new defensive coordinator.
“I love the fact that the expectations are where they should be for this program,” Ioane said. “This program should be a powerhouse at this level. We should be competing in the conversation of playoffs and when we get in the playoffs, we should be in the conversation of winning that national championship.
“That should be the standard every single year and it’s awesome to be a part of a team that has those expectations and standards. “
Another difference Ioane has noticed is how “the players handle everything in the locker room and in meetings,” which allows the coaches to coach instead of worrying about those aspects of the team.
“This is a player-run locker room,” Ioane said. “Those guys over the course of the summer did an amazing job as far as the leadership is concerned and setting the standard for all the guys. And you can just see it as we go about practice every day, how these guys come prepared. It’s just a drastic flip as far as the culture is concerned.”
Jones, safety Brayden Konkol, offensive tackle Mitch Brott, linebackers Josh Hill and Walker Cozzie and defensive end Marcus Ferriter are the last six players on the Bobcat roster who signed to play for Ash. All six hail from Montana. All six committed to a Bobcat program that had been the cream of the Big Sky crop during their years in high school.
“The d-line always jokes with me, calls me the old man because I was the only one that was even in the room for the old staff,” Ferriter said. “It’s like 180. I can’t even really compare it to the old coaches. It’s totally different, the meetings, the practice, how they treat us.”
Ferriter, a Butte native who is expected to play a key depth role on both the inside and outside of the Bobcat defensive front, remembers the days when food provided by the program meant takeout pizza from a chain. Things are much different now when it comes to nutrition.
“There will be days where we might not get fed the full deal and the young guys will complain. We have to remind them how it used to be,” Ferriter said. “They take care of us so well now and sometimes the younger guys don’t realize how good we have it. But look at our bodies. The nutrition has improved so much.”
The tangible elements and nurturing of players has improved under Choate according to every Bobcat you ask. Montana State employs the only full-time registered dietician in the Big Sky in Brittany Patera.
The intangible elements have also shifted. A pillar of Choate’s program is the development of young men on a personal level. Ferriter said “seeing how far he has come with the core values he lives with is inspiring.” Those are core values Choate tries to pass along to his team.
The change has been noticeable, particularly to the players who played for two coaching staffs.
“It’s been crazy to watch the culture evolve,” Jones said. “I was here Ash’s last year and that was wild. You can see how much we did need a coaching change. Now with the way our culture is and the way that Coach Choate makes us work, it’s totally different.
“We didn’t have the best of guys, the smartest of dudes. Now you have guys worried if we are drinking enough water, are we taking our vitamins? We have guys who are committed and disciplined and they want to be the best for this team so they can be the best for the guys next to him.
“The selfishness has been totally squeezed out of this program.”
The fundamental changes have not come without pitfalls. Montana State has defeated one ranked team other than the Grizzlies over the last three seasons: the 35-14 win over No. 24 Incarnate Word in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
MSU has gone blow for blow with South Dakota State but also been blown out by the Jackrabbits. Montana State has battled with Weber State but also been buried by the Wildcats.
Last season’s 52-10 playoff loss to North Dakota State provided a benchmark and motivation heading into the off-season. Last week, Montana State played “by far the most athletic and fast team we’ve played in our time here,” Choate said, when they faced off with the Red Raiders. Saturday night in Bozeman, the Gold Rush will also feature a primetime opponent and a chance for the Bobcats to make a statement.
“We are really ready to take the next step this year,” MSU All-American and captain Troy Andersen said. “We played the best last year and we got shown where we were. This year, we are ready to compete with them and I think we can do some special things.”