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BOZEMAN, Montana — On January 22, Montana State head football coach Jeff Choate shook up the Big Sky Conference and the Treasure State with the confirmation of his departure to take a job as the defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach at the University of Texas under Steve Sarkisian.

The next day, Choate hosted a press conference addressing the move. He said, “ you can ask me about specifics but I am not at liberty to discuss that at this time. I’ve always considered the University who is doing the hiring, it’s their job to announce the hire, not the university you are leaving.”

Despite deflecting, at UT Choate will reunite with Pete Kwiatkowski, who served as Montana State’s defensive coordinator from 2000 until 2005 before coaching at Boise State from 2006-2013. Choate coached with Kwiatkowski at BSU from 2006-2011. The duo coached together at Washington in 2014 and 2015 before Choate took the head coaching gig at MSU.

Kwiatkowski was hired as Texas defensive coordinator earlier this month.

Montana State head coach Jeff Choate in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

“This has been a really interesting last four or five weeks for me,” Choate said, alluding to his candidacy as a finalist for Boise State’s head coaching job. “I am thankful to have built up a reputation in this business where I’m in the position to interview for a job like Boise State.

“There were some other things that came up. This was not the only opportunity that fell in my lap over the last couple of weeks. But this was the one that was the right fit for me at this point in time.

“The why is irrelevant but that’s what people are going to want to know,” the 50-year-old Choate said said. “But I can promise you that the why is not about Montana State.”

Skyline Sports has tracked the search for Choate’s replacement. Here’s an updated list of the candidates that remain strongly in the mix and those that are no longer involved as heavily.

Head coaching candidates

Ken Wilson

On February 5, Skyline Sports confirmed with three sources with direct knowledge of the hiring process that Ken Wilson has vaulted into mix and could be the leading candidate. Two source independently suggested Wilson is the leading candidate and could be offered Montana State’s head coaching position as early as Friday afternoon.

Wilson, who has been an assistant coach at the FBS level since 1989, has spent the last two seasons on Mario Cristobal’s staff at Oregon coaching linebackers. His career started in the Big Sky Conference as a position coach on Chris Ault’s staff at Nevada from 1989 until 1995. Wilson stayed on at Nevada under Jeff Tisdell from 1996 until 1998. In 1996, Wilson was the nation’s youngest defensive coordinator at the FBS level.

Ken Wilson

From 1999 until 2004, Wilson was not in coaching, serving as assistant athletic director for sports services at Nevada the previous four and a half years (1999-2003). When Ault came out of retirement in 2004 to coach at Nevada, Wilson returned to the sideline as his associate head coach while also coaching various defensive positions.

Wilson coached at Nevada until 2012 before taking a job on Mike Leach’s staff at Washington State. There, Wilson coached on the same defensive staff as Choate for a season. Wilson coached from 2012 until 2018 in Pullman before joining Cristobal’s staff at Oregon in January of 2019.

Over his 19 total seasons at Nevada, Wilson coached the defensive line, linebackers and safeties, while serving as defensive coordinator for four seasons. The Wolf Pack reach a bowl game 11 times, including each of the last eight seasons, and Wilson was part of five Big West Championship teams, two WAC titles and two Big Sky Championships.

Under Wilson’s guidance, Washington State’s linebackers produced a pair of players that finished in the top five in the Pac-12 in tackles in Peyton Pelluer (2015, 2016) and Justin Sagote (2013). A three-time Pac-12 all-conference choice, Pelluer played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl after finishing his career fifth all-time in tackles (352) at WSU. In 2015, Pelluer combined with Jeremiah Allison to give the Cougars two of the top seven leading tacklers in the Pac-12.

Over the last two seasons at Oregon, Wilson has helped mentor some studs, including NFL draft pick Troy Dye.

Ken Wilson file (courtesy of Oregon Athletics)

NFL DRAFT PICKS COACHED

2020 (RD 4) LB Troy Dye – Oregon – Minnesota Vikings
2012 (RD 4) LB James-Michael Johnson – Nevada – Cleveland Browns
2012 (RD 5) LB Brandon Marshall – Nevada – Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 (RD 3) OLB Dontay Moch – Nevada – Cincinnati Bengals
1998 (RD 4) LB Deshone Myles – Nevada – Seattle Seahawks
1998 (RD 6) DT James Cannida – Nevada – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1997 (RD 6) LB Mike Crawford – Nevada – Miami Dolphins

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

2019 Pac-12 Conference – Oregon (Linebackers)
2019 Pac-12 North – Oregon (Linebackers)
2010 Western Athletic Conference* — Nevada (Associate Head Coach/Defensive Ends)
2005 Western Athletic Conference* Nevada (Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers)
1997 Big West Conference* — Nevada (Defensive Coordinator)
1996 Big West Conference* — Nevada (Defensive Coordinator)
1995 Big West Conference – Nevada (Assistant Coach)
1994 Big West Conference – Nevada (Assistant Coach)
1992 Big West Conference – Nevada (Assistant Coach)
1991 Big Sky Conference – Nevada (Assistant Coach)
1990 Big Sky Conference – Nevada (Assistant Coach)
* – Co-champions

BOWL GAMES

2020 Rose Bowl – Oregon (Linebackers)
2018 Alamo Bowl – Washington State (Linebackers)
2017 Holiday Bowl – Washington State (Linebackers)
2016 Holiday Bowl – Washington State (Linebackers)
2015 Sun Bowl – Washington State (Linebackers)
2013 New Mexico Bowl – Washington State (Linebackers)
2012 New Mexico Bowl – Nevada (Associate Head Coach/Linebackers)
2011 Hawaii Bowl – Nevada (Associate Head Coach/Defensive Ends)
2010 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl – Nevada (Associate Head Coach/Defensive Ends)
2009 Hawaii Bowl – Nevada (Associate Head Coach/Linebackers)
2008 Humanitarian Bowl – Nevada (Associate Head Coach/Linebackers)
2007 New Mexico Bowl – Nevada (Defensive Coordinator/Safeties)
2006 MPC Computers Bowl – Nevada (Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers)
2005 Hawaii Bowl – Nevada (Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers)
1996 Las Vegas Bowl – Nevada (Defensive Coordinator)
1995 Las Vegas Bowl – Nevada (Inside Linebackers)
1992 Las Vegas Bowl – Nevada (Inside Linebackers)

1-AA PLAYOFFS
1991 Quarterfinals – Nevada (Inside Linebackers)
1990 Championship {runner-up} – Nevada (Outside Linebackers/Defensive Ends)

ALL-AMERICANS COACHED
2010 DE Dontay Moch – Nevada (Sports Illustrated)

CONFERENCE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR COACHED
2009 DE Dontay Moch – Nevada (WAC Defensive Player of the Year)
1996 OLB Deshone Myles – Nevada (Big West Defensive Player of the Year)

ALL-CONFERENCE SELECTIONS COACHED
2019 LB Troy Dye – Oregon – Pac-12 (AP – 1st, Coaches – 2nd)
2018 LB Peyton Pelluer – Washington State – Pac-12 (Coaches – HM)
2018 LB Jahad Woods – Washington State – Pac-12 (Coaches – HM)
2017 LB Frankie Luvu – Washington State – Pac-12 (Coaches – HM)
2016 LB Peyton Pelluer – Washington State – Pac-12 (Coaches – HM)
2015 LB Peyton Pelluer – Washington State – Pac-12 (Coaches – HM)
2014 LB Jeremiah Allison – Washington State – Pac-12 (Coaches – HM)
2012 LB Albert Rosette – Nevada – Mountain West (Coaches/Media – 1st)
2010 DE Dontay Moch – Nevada – WAC (Coaches – 1st)
2009 LB James-Michael Jackson – WAC (Coaches – 2nd)
2007 LB Ezra Butler – Nevada – WAC (Coaches – 2nd)
2006 LB Ezra Butler – Nevada – WAC (Coaches – 1st)
2005 LB Roosevelt Cooks – Nevada – WAC (Coaches – 2nd)
2004 LB Jeremy Engstrom – Nevada – WAC (Coaches – 2nd)
1998 OLB Jason Burk – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1998 CB Don Morgan – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1998 S Maxzell Williams – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1998 DL Rick Cross – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 2nd)
1998 ILB Ken Sapolu – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 2nd)
1998 S Reggie Mitchell – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 2nd)
1997 DL James Cannida – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1997 CB Dan Morgan – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1997 ILB Ken Sapolu – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – HM)
1996 DL James Cannida – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1996 ILB Mike Crawford – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1996 OLB Deshone Myles – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1996 CB Darnell Hasson – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1996 S Molech Blythe – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 1st)
1996 CB Don Morgan – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 2nd)
1996 S Garnett Overby – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 2nd)
1995 ILB Mike Crawford – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 2nd)
1993 ILB Steve Bryant – Nevada – Big West (Coaches – 2nd)
1991 ILB Matt Clafton – Nevada – Big Sky (Coaches – 1st)

Charlie Ragle

Ragle’s name was one of the first to surface when Choate initially left. Upon first impression, the connections to the Montana State program seemed minimal.

Charlie Ragle

But Ragle, who is confirmed to at least have had a Zoom interview with the MSU hiring committee, comes from a similar background as Choate. He has served as the special teams coordinator at Cal for the last four seasons on Justin Wilcox’s staff.

Choate worked at Boise State from 2006 until 2011. Wilcox was the BSU defensive coordinator from 2006 until 2009. Ragle has been a Power 5 special teams coach for close to a decade.

Before diving into college coaching in his mid-30s, Choate was a high school coach and administrator in Idaho. Before Ragle joined Rich Rodriguez’s staff at Arizona in 2012 (he coached there through 2016), he was a high school coach in the Phoenix area for more than a decade.

The 44-year-old was the defensive coordinator at powerhouse Moon Valley High (2000-2004), highlighted by an undefeated run to the Arizona State A title his final season there.

Ragle took a job as the defensive coordinator at Chaparral High in 2005. He was a graduate assistant at Arizona State on Dirk Koetter’s staff in 2006. Koetter, a native of Pocatello and an alum of Idaho State, went 26-10 at Boise State between 1998 and 2000 before becoming the ASU head coach in 2001. Koetter was fired at ASU after the 2006 season.

That prompted Ragle to return to the high school ranks, this time as the head coach and athletic director at Chaparral. He led the team to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, then three consecutive state championships between 2009 and 2011. While at Chaparral, Ragle coached Tennessee Titans All-Pro left tackle Taylor Lewan along with Washington Football Team starting guard Wes Schweitzer.

Chaparral posted a 63-7 record in Ragle’s final three seasons at the helm.

Over his last near-decade coaching in the Pac 12, Ragle has mentored honors candidates and record-setters at both UA and Cal.

Tim Drevno

The former Jim Harbaugh assistant spent nearly 20 years alongside Michigan’s head coach, making stops on Harbaugh’s staff at San Diego, Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and Michigan.

Tim Drevno

Drevno’s stock has taken a bit of a hit after his dismissals as Michigan’s offensive coordinator and USC’s offensive line coach. Some who played for Drevno call him a likable and driven coach who relates well to players that fans will want to root on.

Drevno, who coached at Montana State from 1991 until 1997, interviewed with Montana State earlier this week according to sources close to the search. Bruce Feldman of The Athletic also confirmed that Drevno has “emerged as a strong candidate” at MSU.

Ilaisa Tuiaki

The defensive coordinator and defensive line coach has been the defensive coordinator on Kalani Sitake’s staff since 2016. The Southern Utah alum has also spent time coaching at Utah State (2009-2011), Utah (2012-2014) and Oregon State (2015). Tuiaki was a part of the Zoom interview process with the MSU committee per three sources last week.

Ilaisa Tuiaki

Tuiaki was nominated for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2013 when he was coaching the defensive line at Utah on Kyle Wittingham’s staff. Under Tuiaki, Utah led the nation in overall sacks in 2014 with 55 and was sixth for average tackles for loss per game at 7.9 after ranking second in sacks per game in 2013 at 3.25.

At Utah, he mentored first-team All-Pac 12 linemen Nate Orchard and Trevor Reilly; the latter went on to earn the Morris Trophy as the Pac 12’s top lineman along with the Ted Hendricks Award as the top defensive end in the country. Reilly was a second-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns.

At Utah State, Tuiaki was the running backs coach and special teams coordinator. He helped the Aggies finish sixth nationally in rushing (282.7 yards per game) as running back Robert Turbin was named the 2011 WAC Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for 1,517 yards and a school-record 19 touchdowns. Two Utah State running backs were drafted during Tuiaki’s time as the position coach, including Turbin and Michael Smith.

The native of Provo, Utah played for Gary Anderson at SUU and also played rugby. He worked for Anderson at Utah State and Oregon State.

In the mix

Brent Vigen

Wyoming’s offensive coordinator and Montana State have had mutual interest. Then Vigen was not one of the candidates included in the Zoom interviews, according to a source connected to Vigen at Wyoming.

Brett Vigen

But when Matt Lubick did not accept the head coaching position, Vigen vaulted back into consideration. Sources have been quiet about Vigen’s traction for the position but the former North Dakota State offensive coordinator has the credentials and connections to transition to a fellow FCS power.

The biggest knock of the Choate era has been the lack of quarterback development or continuity at the position. Vigen recruited and coached Carson Wentz and Easton Stick at NDSU while helping develop Josh Allen in Laramie.

Tim Polasek

Like Vigen, Polasek has deep North Dakota State and midwestern ties. The offensive line coach at Iowa was a coach at NDSU from 2006 until 2016, including coordinating the offense for a pair of national championship teams. Polasek has had mutual interest through most of the last two weeks, including participating in the Zoom interviews with McEndoo, Drevno, and Tuiaki.

MSU athletic director Leon Costello is from Iowa and has spent time as an athletic administrator at Northern Iowa and South Dakota State before coming to Bozeman.

For what Montana State returns in terms of personnel — a ferocious front seven defensively, the best offensive line in the Big Sky and a stable of hard-running, physical running backs — Polasek might be the best instant option.

During the above podcast, Fargo, North Dakota sports columnist Mike McFeely told a story of Polasek pounding on the glass of the coaches’ box during an NDSU game and passionately yelling to spur his offense on to “run the ball down the opponents’ throats”. That would be a perfect fit for Montana State’s bruising run game, one of the most diverse and gashing rushing attacks in the country.

JEFF FISHER

Sources connected to Fisher expressed interest almost instantly when the MSU job came open. Fisher’s connections to the Treasure State are many; his son, Brandon, was an All-Big Sky linebacker at Montana from 2006-2009. The family has owned a cabin in Big Sky for quite some time.

Fisher was in the mix. Then he wasn’t. Then he tweeted a picture from an airplane taking off from the Bozeman airport, prompting media reports from coast to coast that he was in fact a candidate.

Fisher is an NFL lifer who has not coached since 2016. The former USC linebacker played from 1981 to 1985 for the Chicago Bears before starting his NFL coaching journey.

Jeff Fisher

Fisher is most well known for his time as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans from 1995 until 2010.

He helped the Houston Oilers transition to Nashville in 1997 and led the Titans to the AFC championship and a berth in the Super Bowl two years later. During his time with the franchise, Fisher went 142-120, winning three Division titles, advancing to the playoffs six times and winning five playoff games.

Fisher coached the St. Louis Rams for four years and helped the Rams in their transition to Los Angeles in 2016. He was fired after a 4-9 start to that season and has not coached since.

No longer candidates

Jason McEndoo

The longtime Montana State offensive line coach has been in consistent contact with the search committee, per sources. The current Oklahoma State tight ends coach was part of the committee’s Zoom interviews last Friday.

The Bozeman Chronicle reported Saturday that McEndoo removed his name from the search.

McEndoo’s oldest son, Luke, spent much of his childhood in Bozeman. Since the family moved to Stillwater, Luke has developed into a high-level football prospect. On Wednesday, Luke signed a letter of intent to play for Oklahoma State.

During his time at Montana State from 2003 until 2014, McEndoo coached a collection of offensive linemen that earned All-Big Sky or All-American honors, including some of the best linemen in the history of the Bobcats.

FATHER AND SON…..CSU head football coach Sonny Lubick, left in his office Wednesday with his son Matt, who has become wide recievers coach for the CSU Rams in Fort Collins. (DENVER POST/JOHN EPPERSON)

Matt Lubick, Nebraska OC

The former Bozeman resident and the son of former MSU head coach Sonny Lubick rose to the top of the list of candidates during the first week of the search. Sources confirmed he was in Bozeman over the weekend and was offered the job upon his return to Lincoln, but declined the position.

Husker OC Matt Lubick staying at Nebraska instead of pursuing head coaching job at Montana State

Mike Riley

The former Oregon State and Nebraska head coach was in the mix for a brief moment but removed himself from the search, telling the Omaha World Herald the search “was a tight one.” Skyline Sports also confirmed with a source close to Riley that he was no longer pursuing the opening.

Travis Lulay

The former Montana State and BC Lions quarterback has worked in the front office in British Columbia the last two years. He has never been a coach but still had support from a group of Montana State boosters to return to his alma mater and lead a program he once helped guide to shares of two Big Sky titles and three wins in four years over Montana, including a win in 2002 to snap a 16-year skid to the rival Grizzlies.

Roger Cooper

The former Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year who starred for the Bobcats during Mike Kramer’s time as head coach in the early 2000s had direct contact with the committee. Although he is likely not in the fold for the head coaching job, several sources have said that he is angling to potentially get the defensive coordinator job under one of the offensive-minded candidates. Cooper is currently the defensive coordinator at Idaho State.

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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