Pillars of Choate

PILLARS OF CHOATE: Strength, nutrition and well-being


Editor’s Note: On January 22 of 2021, Jeff Choate shook up the Montana sporting landscape with his abrupt departure as the head football coach at Montana State to take a position on Steve Sarkisian’s staff at Texas. Choate leaves his position with a variety of proclamations, revelations and predictions for what MSU could have been under his direction as well as what the Bobcats can become after his departure.

Choate is most famous for going 4-0 against the rival Montana Griz. What follows is a six-part Skyline Sports series – Part II: The Pillars of Choate ; the six ways Jeff Choate changed the Montana State football program for the better.

BOZEMAN, Montana — When former Montana State All-Big Sky offensive lineman Dylan Mahoney told stories of his weight gaining process, his tales basically centered upon going through the drive-up late at night to feast on burgers and fries.

When former MSU offensive lineman Leo Davis used to reminisce about what it took to transform from a long and lanky defensive end into an all-conference offensive tackle, the member of the Blackfeet Nation would joke that he had to load up on fry bread tacos to pack on the pounds.

Now when Montana State football players try to put on weight, it comes with a scientific plan. And a coach.

It’s just one of the internal ways that former MSU head football coach Jeff Choate altered the inner workings of the Montana State football program and athletic department as a whole.

Montana State dietitian Brittney Patera during a football practice in 2017 upon first getting hired at MSU/ by Brooks Nuanez

“We have always gotten money for food and you can eat at some places on campus, but we never had a plan for not only how to put on weight but how to put on good weight,” former MSU captain Derek Marks said leading up to the 2019 season. “Choate takes care of us. Not only are we not hungry but we are learning the impact nutrition can have on our performance on the field.”

That was the plan when Choate first hired Brittney Patera as MSU’s first ever registered sports dietitian in February of 2017. The Bozeman native spent time at Cincinnati and Washington before returning to the Gallatin Valley to become the first registered dietitian for any athletic department in the Big Sky Conference.

Since Patera’s hiring, there has been a noticeable difference in the Bobcat body compositions, particularly among football players striving to put on lean muscle mass and gain weight.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of our player development,” Choate said. “Part of that is job (former strength and conditioning) Coach (Alex) Wilcox did in the weight room but the nutrition is the biggest thing for us. Our fueling station, the job that Brittany Patera does is second to none. Regardless of where I’ve been, she’s as good as there is.”

Heading into the 2019 season, the last campaign Choate led the Bobcats, the head coach mentioned specific players like wide receiver Kevin Kassis, defensive end Bryce Sterk, strong safety Brayden Konkol, running back Lane Sumner and tight ends Derryk Snell and Ryan Davis as those who made noticeable, sizeable and healthy gains leading up to the season. He also gave credit to the dedication of offensive linemen like Lewis Kidd, Connor Wood and Zach Redd to add the necessary pounds to compete at the Big Sky Conference level along the trenches.

The task of adding mass is different than even in the early 2010s when Leo Davis (Ryan Davis’ oldest brother) was helping MSU to conference championships or in 2016 when Mahoney was one of the last stalwarts of former offensive line coach Jason McEndoo’s stable.

Montana State wide receiver Kevin Kassis (85) scores an 8-yard touchdown/by Jason Bacaj

Instead of pounding cheese burgers and eating all the available, cheap food they can find, instead MSU has access to nutrition plans designed by Patera. The added weight is more sustainable, healthy and, if a player gains a significant amount, they can also get help after their playing careers end to shed that weight if needed or desired.

In an interview last summer, Patera said her goal is to help Montana State’s offensive and defensive linemen consume between 4,100 and 5,500 calories per day. She has designed plans to help each big man get meals that include high fat and healthy fat foods to help meet those calorie demands in an efficient and sustainable manner.

“I have a lot of fun teaching the guys how to eat 5,500 calories because you basically have to put food in your body any minute you can,” Patera said with a laugh.

“Coach Choate has pushed a lot of funds to help these guys have a lot more nutrient dense, high-fat foods. At the fueling station, we are able to offer them a lot of high calorie snacks and things they can take home as well. And we have weight-gain powders. For those guys who need that, they have access to it.

“Surprisingly, many of them do a good job of maintaining this on their own but a lot of them have the same meals every day they can cook themselves.”

Entering his senior year, Montana State offensive lineman J.P. Flynn already had a pair of all-conference and All-American nods on his resume. Following a stint playing for the San Francisco 49ers, The 6-foot-6 and once 335-pound guard looked like a lean, mean fighting machine.

Former Montana State center Alex Neale (70) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

Alex Neale was a three-year starter at center for MSU. By the semester after his final football season, he looked more like a linebacker. That’s part of the comprehensive plan that Choate, Patera and the MSU support staff crafted thanks in large part to Choate’s implementation and motivation.

“For those big guys, they have to do it right away,” Choate said. “They have to lose it right now or they will probably never lose it. I don’t know if you’ve seen J.P. lately but J.P. is lean and mean. Alex has dropped more than 40 pounds.

“(Neale) looks totally different than some of those big gainers on the other side of the spectrum. He looks good and he’s healthy. I think that is really important for those big guys. We tell them to gain all this weight for these four or five years and if they don’t get it off right away, it’s going to be harder, harder, harder to get it off. For their long term health, it’s important.”

All of the nutrition improvement and innovation is part of a larger picture of ensuring the physical and mental welfare for his players that Choate made a high priority when he took over as Montana State’s head coach in December of 2015.

Choate spent most of the 1990s as a high school coach in Idaho, helping work with teenagers as a football coach and athletic administrator, making stops in Challis, Twin Falls and Post Falls before joining the college ranks at Utah State in 2002.

For all but a brief stint at Eastern Illinois when Choate made his first foray into the FCS coaching ranks, he spent most of his nearly two decades of collegiate coaching at the FBS level. He made stops at Boise State (2006-2011), Washington State (2012), Florida (2013) and Washington (2014-2015) before coming to Bozeman.

Those FBS training grounds influenced Choate, particularly when he was coaching at Power 5 schools like Washington and Florida who have nearly limitless resources.

“With the exception of nine months I spent in Charleston, Illinois 15 years ago, I only know one way to do it,” Choate said. “I think that does change my approach. These are the things I know to be true. How do I take care of our student-athletes? How do I do that? You tell me you need a toaster? I get you a damn toaster. You tell me you need a clock in the weight room or the fueling station so you’re not late? I’ll get you the clock.”

It’s a microcosm of the detailed way Choate went about building trust throughout his roster and throughout the athletic department as a whole.

“It’s the little things; You have to earn the trust of your players so when they come in and talk to you, they tell you the truth,” Choate said. “I think that’s rare in most college football programs. How many guys in most college football programs are going to come complain about something? Nobody.

“I want our players to know this is their program, to have ownership in it and to know that they can come to me if they have things that can help us be better. They need to come to me with the problem and the solution. And we can have a dialogue. But that’s powerful.

MSU head coach Jeff Choate before his team’s 2016 showdown against North Dakota/ Brooks Nuanez

“I tell these guys all the time that my No. 1 job around here is to eliminate excuses. If you tell me you have to have something to do your job, it’s my job to get it for you.”

In a circumstantially ironic way, Choate’s dedication to his players’ well-being was perhaps on best display during the last calendar year, a time period that has left may across the country and the globe bewildered because of the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last spring when most folks — and most Montana State football players — were quarantined, Choate and his staff had a routine of calling or communicating with every player on the MSU roster between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. to do check-ins about “physical well being, psychological well-being and academic well-being.”

Choate said he had one player that “got into a bad situation” where upon returning to his out of state home, his parents had lost their jobs and they were temporarily homeless. The Bobcat coaching staff was able to “intervene”, Choate said, and use some of the program and department’s student-athlete special assistance money to help get that player back to Bozeman “into a stable environment.”

“That’s one thing I think people don’t get about football is I would say one-third of our roster and maybe more, they are not just relying on Montana State football for a place to work out or a place to play and recreate; they are also reliant on Montana State football for basic needs – food, shelter and safety,” Choate said. “That’s not the case in most Olympic sports.

“I think most tennis players come from families that have the ability to buy court time. Women’s basketball, it’s a travel sport. Most of these kids come from affluent backgrounds. The highest percentages of kids who receive Pell grant money, FAFSA money in our athletic department are football players. That’s a piece people forget when we start getting kids back on campus to work out.”

Perhaps one of Choate’s greatest gifts is his ability to diagnose issues analytically and craft tangible solutions that are not influenced by emotion yet still drive connectivity and love. It’s one of the lasting impressions that Choate leaves on Montana State.

Montana State head coach Jeff Choate jumps into Ty Gregorak’s arms after a play at Eastern Washington in 2017/by Blake Hempstead, Skyline Sports

“I don’t even care if they let us work out,” Choate said back in May. “I just want to make sure my kids are safe and that they have a roof over their heads, they have a way to get meals, pay their rent. There’s a lot of kids in our football program that, mom and dad are going, ‘please leave’ because you are one more mouth for us to feed.

“We want to be that support system, that family that can bring them in, provide them safety and opportunity and, ultimately, add value to their lives.”

Brooks Nuanez contributed to the reporting of this story. Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. 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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