SEIZING THE MOMENTUM: Bobcat athletics markets vision for growth during rural road trip


Editor’s note: Montana State revealed its facilities master plan on Friday afternoon. Here is the press release (click)

The wheels of the ironically dark red Suburban burned through hundreds of miles at a time, bringing Leon Costello to stop after stop where Montana State’s first-year athletic director and his Bobcat comrades received much fanfare.

Costello celebrated his one-year anniversary as the head of Bobcat athletics during a four-day whirlwind road trip that took the athletic director and some of MSU’s other top brass from Bozeman to Miles City, through Glendive and Sidney on the way to Plentywood, across the Hi-Line with stops in St. Marie and Glasgow before returning to the middle of the Treasure State.

The second half of MSU’s “Eastside swing” took Costello, head football coach Jeff Choate, head men’s basketball coach Brian Fish, associate athletic director for media relations Bill Lamberty, assistant athletic director for development Hillary Guilford, Jay Sanderson, the “Voice of the Bobcats” radio announcer, and Colter Nuanez of Skyline Sports from Glasgow down to Lewistown to Great Falls, then back up to Shelby before the final 300-mile trek to the Gallatin Valley.

At each stop, the caravan encountered enthusiastic groups of Bobcats in the state’s outposts, each crowd offering generous congratulations due to the on-field successes in the first year under Costello’s watch. The Bobcats recently secured victory in the “Brawl of the Wild” annual series, a competition that keeps score for all varsity sports between the Bobcats and the rival Montana Grizzlies.

From the grasslands east of Billings to the seemingly endless lentil and grain fields of Plentywood, Scobey, Saco and Malta to the picturesque and quaint valley that is Lewistown to the historic sights seen in Shelby, the common sentiment among Bobcat enthusiasts remains the same: beat the Grizzlies and all is well.

MSU lineman Caleb Gillis (73) and Monte Folsom (54) celebrate with the Great Divide Trophy

MSU lineman Caleb Gillis (73) and Monte Folsom (54) celebrate with the Great Divide Trophy/by Brooks Nuanez

Costello’s first year at the helm saw Montana State defeat Montana in football to cap an otherwise bleak season, Choate’s first at the helm. The 24-17 victory in Missoula proved extra sweet, both for the redemption provided former UM and current MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak as well as the powerful yet uncomplicated way Choate and his troops physically manhandled the host Griz.

The Bobcat women’s basketball team swept the Lady Griz for the first time since 1999 en rout to a program-record 25 wins and the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in more than 25 years behind the grit and determination of senior captains Peyton Ferris and Riley Nordgaard.

Behind Tyler Hall’s virtuoso 37-point performance in front of the first sold out crowd to watch a basketball at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse since 2003, Fish earned his first win over Montana, snapping a 12-game losing streak to the Griz in the process.

In the classroom, Montana State’s roughly 350 student-athletes posted a 3.21 cumulative grade-point average. In other words, Costello’s first year had plenty worth celebrating, particularly when recounting those achievements to the Treasure State’s most modest, unassuming supporters in Montana’s almost unending string of small agricultural towns.

Yet as Costello and his fellow faces of MSU athletics drove from post to post for nearly 1,600 highway miles in less than 87 rapid hours, the fresh-faced AD conveyed a consistent message: while beating the Griz is an essential part of attaining success in one of America’s proudest states, Costello does not want that to ever be enough.

“We want to get to that next level,” Costello said during the trip’s first stop to a good sized crowd at the Miles City Club on the first night of the swing. “If you were to ask all the coaches in this room, we had a pretty good year but we are far from satisfied. We want to do better. We want to continue to win championships at all levels with all of our programs.

“We had great success in women’s basketball, good success in men’s basketball, football showed great strides to end the season. That will be a springboard into this next year. But I think if you look around all of our department, I think there is a good sense of pride and people see a little bit of success and they want more. I want to help them do more.”

Montana State athletic director Leon Costello speaks in Shelby/ by Colter Nuanez

Montana State athletic director Leon Costello speaks in Shelby/ by Colter Nuanez

Victories over the Bobcats’ arch rivals can often mask other struggles, a fact not lost on Costello. On Wednesday, May 10, the 40-year-old celebrated his first anniversary of his first year as an athletic director with lunch at the Gust Hauf pub in Glendive and a stop at Johnson’s Hardware Store in Sidney to give some good-hearted ribbing to a staunch Grizzly supporter.

By the time the maroon-red Suburban pulled into the parking lot at the Sherwood Inn as evening in Plentywood settled, the previous four stops overflowed with ballyhoo and commendation for toppling the fierce rival.

But Choate’s victory was one of just four during a tumultuous campaign for a once-proud program. Fish’s win was part of a streak that saw the Bobcats win 10 of 12 but served as part of a roller coaster season that ended at 16-16 with a loss in the first round of the Big Sky Conference tournament.

“That win is just a start,” Choate said in Miles City. “It’s a good thing to springboard us into the future. It carried us into the off-season, created momentum for us in our recruiting class and I think it’s going to be a really exciting in 2017. But if we think that win is all that matters, we are missing the mark. It’s important but we want more.”

Off the field, Montana has substantial momentum with the opening of a pristine academic center connected to the Adams Center and the construction of a $14 million, 46,000-square-foot Champions Center that’s all part of the $17 million of facility renovations currently underway on the UM Campus. The Griz have been in the lead in the Big Sky’s arms race since the opening of Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1985 and the latest additions seem to reinforce that notion.

“We want to tell you about our vision and hopefully when you see them, you will want to step up and help us,” Costello said in Lewistown. “If you step up and help us, we will see those projects go right to the top. We see what’s happening over the hill. We see what’s happening all over the country. It’s not just them (Montana) that we look at. There’s places all around the country doing good things. We need to be the next ones.”

Beating the Grizzlies in the final match-ups of the season in football and basketball certainly boosts morale for the Bobcats, both internally and around the Treasure State. But that arms race, both on the in-state level and around the landscape of Division I athletics, seems to have no end in sight.

“We want to be the best athletic department not only in the Big Sky but in the region and even in the nation but we have a work to do,” Costello said during MSU’s stop in Lewistown. “There’s a lot of things that are coming.

“When you look at our strategic plan, the one thing you’ll hear us talking about is facilities. I’ve heard it over and over throughout the interview process. What about our facilities? We are definitely going to have a facility master plan. There are things we need to improve on. We are going to have some priorities.”

MSU president Waded Cruzado at Sonny Holland, right, statue presentation/ by Brooks Nuanez

MSU president Waded Cruzado at Sonny Holland, right, statue presentation/ by Brooks Nuanez

In May, Costello said he wanted the facilities master plan to be finished in months. On June 29, Costello released his five-year strategic plan named “Our Heritage — Our Future”, identifying seven things that will “set the course for the department over the next five years.”

At the unveiling press conference, Costello said he wanted to unveil the facilities plans by “the end of the summer.” As Montana State prepares to open its home football slate with its annual “Gold Rush” game Saturday night against South Dakota State, Costello’s most recent employer before MSU, no facilities master plan has been revealed.

Costello took over as Montana State’s athletic director during a time of trying turmoil. The Bobcats were less than six moths out from firing Rob Ash, the school’s all-time leader in football victories. Less than 60 days later, MSU president Waded Cruzado announced longtime AD Peter Fields would not have his contract renewed.

Costello himself had to deal with rejection, albeit in very short time span. Cruzado initially hired Utah associate athletic director Kyle Brennan the first week of May, 2016. Less than a week later, Brennan abruptly resigned, returning to Utah and leaving Montana State looking for another option. Cruzado hired Costello later that day.

During his tenure at South Dakota State and before that, Northern Iowa, Costello helped raise money and worked closely with an athletic department that saw its competitive FCS-playing football team pair with rising and competitive men’s and women’s basketball teams.

South Dakota State raised $67 million privately to fund a stadium renovation and build an indoor practice facility. The benefits have already been seen on the field. The Jackrabbits come to Bobcats Stadium with a No. 4 national ranking. The SDSU offense is led by the trio of quarterback Taryn Christion, wide receiver Jake Wieneke and tight end Dallas Goedert that could be the best in the country.

Meanwhile, despite the success against the Grizzlies last academic year and the fact that UM’s enrollment is shrinking while MSU’s is booming, Bobcat athletics seems stuck in neutral, at least in terms of garnering significant fundraising dollars.

Choate calls Montana State athletics a “sleeping giant.” Fish agrees. From the MSU basketball coach’s experiences, taking the next step takes resources. It’s a lesson he learned full well while at Oregon with the omnipresent shadow of Nike president Phil Knight looming over every decision.

“The athletic department has a chance right now to grow at a more rapid pace than the city of Bozeman,” Fish said. “We have a lot of really talented people involved in the athletic department right now that all have the same goal. Having worked in seven other athletic departments, that’s not always the case. And the fans of Montana State are starving for success as well, which feeds that fire.

“Now we need to find the money to match that.”

Montana State 13th-year women's basketball coach Tricia Binford addressing a crowd in Shelby in May/ by Colter Nuanez.

Montana State 13th-year women’s basketball coach Tricia Binford addressing a crowd in Shelby in May/ by Colter Nuanez.

The Eastside Swing embodied the first step of that mission. Montana State has seen its campus swell to the largest in the Treasure State. MSU’s reputation as a top-notch STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school has helped it grow in enrollment, exposure and reputation.

Since Waded Cruzado took over as the president of MSU in 2010, the school has grown from 13,559 students to an anticipated enrollment of more than 16,000 this fall. Montana State has overtaken the rival University of Montana as the state’s largest.

Cruzado made an instant impact at MSU, helping raise $6 million in 90 days as part of a $10 million fundraising effort to build the Sonny Holland end-zone at Bobcat Stadium her first year on the job. She spearheaded a capital campaign that had netted $308 million in donations as of last October. Cruzado has overseen the renovation of Gaines Hall ($32 million) along with the opening of a $15.7 million Animal Bioscience Building and the remodel of the business school into the sparkling $20 million Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship.

In 2019, Montana State plans to open the Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center, a $50 million addition to the already nationally recognized College of Engineering. The fact that Bozeman and Gallatin County are among the fastest growing in the country helps add to the allure of Montana State as well.

Costello wants to share in that momentum.

“President Cruzado always says athletics is the front porch to the university,” Costello said in Plentywood. “I always tell our people, ‘We have to have our front porch clean’ because when people come, we want them to see great things. But when they open the door to our house, they want to see a very, very beautiful house.

“There are so many great things happening on our campus. We’ve had new dining halls, new residence halls, the Jake Jabs Building, the Norm Asbjornson Center is going up. Now it’s our turn. Athletics need to be part of that conversation too. We need to improve our facilities to support our student-athletes. Hopefully, that’s coming next.”


Montana State fourth year men's basketball coach Brian Fish/ by Colter Nuanez

Montana State fourth year men’s basketball coach Brian Fish/ by Colter Nuanez

As the suburban first pulled on to Interstate 90 headed east from Bozeman, the conversation quickly turns to the smallest towns in Montana. Costello, a native of rural Iowa who’s spent time in small college towns for most of his career, is familiar with rustic lifestyles. Fish is familiar himself, growing up in Seymour, Indiana the son of a man who worked in the Cummins Diesel factory for nearly 40 years.

Lamberty, a native of Fremont, North Dakota, Guilford, who grew up in Idaho Falls and Sanderson, a native of Wichita are all familiar with a way of life that revolve around agriculture and industry. But the vast stretches of Montana, the slight but vibrant pockets of sparse populations make Montana unique. It’s what the riders in the suburban the red suburban want Costello to understand before making his first stop in places like Miles City, Plentywood, Glasgow and Shelby.

The first stop of the trip is in Billings at Jake’s, an upscale steakhouse downtown in the Magic City. The group of greeters is a small one but includes influential Bobcat supporters like businessmen Todd Buchanan, Mike Noland, and Scott Hatler, the last one a former MSU point guard who helped the Bobcats to the 1996 Big Sky title. Jeff Welsch, the sports editor of the Billings Gazette, also attended the luncheon.

A spirited conversation about the youth of America and the dependence on constant stimulation dominates the private room. Those in attendance praised Costello for his leadership, recognizing a story that Gazette ran just days earlier talking about his first year on the job.


Following the filling meal, the red suburban trudged on, arriving in Miles City around 5 p.m. The destination for the evening is the Miles City Club, a venue more than 100 years old. Miles City itself, now a town of 8,500 with a Class A high school that uses a cowboy as its mascot, is an old cattle town. In the 1880s, the railroad extensions coupled with fertile grasslands caused cowboys to push thousands of cattle from Texas to Eastern Montana. Miles City became a hub for the beef trade.

The draw of the wild America west drew rustlers, wranglers and cowboys from all over the Eastern Time zone. Following the 1884 presidential election, Theodore Roosevelt moved to Medora, North Dakota. His forming of the Little Missouri Stockmen Association trickled into Montana. Roosevelt found himself in Miles City from time to time, hence the exclusive “Roosevelt Room” in the already private Miles City Club.

One current member of the club proclaimed that in its height in the late 1890s, it cost $1 million to join.

The Roosevelt Room at the Miles City Club/ by Colter Nuanez

The Roosevelt Room at the Miles City Club/ by Colter Nuanez

“It doesn’t cost a million bucks anymore,” the Bobcat supporter said. “We still have a few millionaires but it’s not $1 million anymore.”

In front of a crowd of about 50, Montana State women’s basketball head coach Tricia Binford gives the first address of the tour. Binford, MSU’s longest tenured head coach with 12 seasons under her belt, bookended the trip with appearances in Miles City and Shelby. She told stories with pride of Big Sky MVP Peyton Ferris, a Bobcat legend from Class C Twin Bridges not yet a year removed from the program.

Fish garnered laughs with his comedic and witty style of orating at every stop. Choate, who drove himself and his wife Janet on this year’s swing, stole the show in Miles City.

“I take great pride in Montana,” the native of Saint Maries, Idaho and Montana Western alum said. “I promise you no one is working the state like we are.”

Choate has earned the upper-hand in recruiting and the cultivation of relationships with high schools across the Treasure State. A huge factor in that, he said, has been the personality and tireless work ethic of director of high school operations B.J. Robertson.

“B.J. has helped us visit every single football-playing high school in the state,” Choate said to the amazement of the crowd in the dimly lit room. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Sunburst, Plevna, Ekalaka or Eureka, we are going to be there. This place is our state first and there’s no question that we are doing a better job of the team across the hill. And that’s the way it’s going to be as long as I’m here.”

The Roosevelt Room at the Miles City Club/ by Colter Nuanez

The Roosevelt Room at the Miles City Club/ by Colter Nuanez

Much of Montana State’s in-state momentum stems from MSU’s physically dominant victory at Washington-Grizzly Stadium last November. The presence of the Championship Center behind the hallowed venue coupled with UM’s omnipresent recent tradition has helped the Griz regain their footing in the in-state recruiting war this year. Montana currently holds a verbal commitment from Billings Senior stud Gabe Sulser, the undisputed top recruit in the state. The Griz have also garnered commitments from Eureka athlete Garrett Graves, Helena Capital offensive lineman Conor Quick and Missoula Sentinel wide receiver Nick Germer, all among Montana’s top prep talents.

“I understand how important it is to beat Montana and I’ll tell you this: I knew we were going to beat them that day,” Choate said. “I told our guys on Friday night before we played them, ‘Listen, as messed up as things have been this season, you guys are still a family and you are still a team.’ I knew we had them. You could sense it when we took the field.

“But we can’t let that one win define us.”

The first day of the trip wrapped with dinner and drinks at the Branded Iron restaurant. Kelly Reid, the father in law of former MSU women’s basketball standout and Miles City native Kalli Durham, provided most of the entertainment with his uproarious nature.


The red suburban rolled along as the landscape shifts more and more into the Badlands on the way to the smallest television market in the United States.

Montana State athletic director Leon Costello talks to a supporter at the Gust Hauf pub in Glendive/ by Colter Nuanez

Montana State athletic director Leon Costello talks to a supporter at the Gust Hauf pub in Glendive/ by Colter Nuanez

Glendive, Montana is an old Northern Pacific Railway town of nearly 5,000. Former Montana State All-American left tackle Mike Person, an NFL Draft pick and veteran entering his eighth season in the league, prepped at local Dawson County High.

The convoy stops at the Gust Hauf, a quintessential sports bar on par if not superior to any offering in Bozeman. The owner, B.J. Berry, meets the group welcomingly, inviting them into a bar adorn with jerseys from Dwayne Wade to Terry Bradshaw.

Montana State offensive lineman Jarad Asche, a 6-foot-8 walk-on from Glendive who has gained nearly 80 pounds in his one season in Choate’s program, also attends to event.

Choate orders taco pizza for lunch despite pizza the meal to be served in Plentywood later that night, a choice that will cause him to absorb a collection of good-hearted ribbings for the rest of the week, particularly from Lamberty and Fish.

After a brief lunch and a talk from Costello, the tour cruises on to Sidney.


The trek from Glendive to the high plains of Plentywood must first go through oil country. After leaving the Gust Hauf, Fish receives one of the many phone calls from notable members of the sports world. He talks to Oregon head men’s basketball coach Dana Altman, his mentor and former boss, daily. He talks to several athletic directors from across the country on this day. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, UCLA head coach Steve Alford, men who work in the highest level of hoops are men who Fish communicates with on a regular basis.

Another call Fish receives is from Sixth Man Club member Steve Sparks, one of the MSU men’s basketball program’s biggest supporters. He tells Fish to stop the suburban at Johnson’s Hardware Store, a century-old institution in the 8,000-person town who Sparks says is owned by a Griz fan.

After some creative alley driving by Costello and an in-and-out visit inside the store, Fish and the MSU AD emerge beaming after giving the maroon-clad owner a razzing.


Plentywood is occupied by just 1,700 residents but the tiny farming town is also home to some of Montana State’s most dedicated followers. A good portion of the supporters make the 500-mile one-way drive to Bozeman for football games and even in the harsh of winter for basketball games.

“I wrote Plentywood into my budget this year and Leon asked me why,” Fish joked during his speech to the group of about 100 at Cousins Family Dining . “I told him, ‘When Plentywood is in the house, we are undefeated.’ We need them there.”

Sherwood Inn in Plentywood/ by Colter Nuanez

Sherwood Inn in Plentywood/ by Colter Nuanez

Before the event, the MSU dignitaries converge at the watering hole attached to the Sherwood Inn, a Robin Hood-themed relic. With Choate back with the group, the conversation quickly turns to the evolution in recruiting, particularly at the Power 5 level.

Choate spent five seasons at Boise State, a season each at Washington State and Florida and two more at Washington before taking his first college head coaching job. Fish spent most of his career working for Altman with successful stops at Creighton twice and Oregon before he too took his first head coaching job in Bozeman.

While working for Will Muschamp, Choate’s office in the Florida athletic department sat right next to the office. The influence digital media and social media has on the recruiting game, Choate said, has completely revolutionized and muddied the process.

Fish expresses similar sentiments when it comes to star rankings and websites as well as the concept of club basketball and the AAU craze that had dominated modern-day round ball. Both MSU head coaches agree the evolution is concerning, but there’s really no answer than to just play the game along with anyone else.

After a pizza dinner and a social hour filled with boisterous, mostly unrepeatable stories from Fish, Costello addressed his biggest crowd of the trip. His message remained the same.

The Robin Hood Bar

The Robin Hood Bar

“If you ask Trish Binford, there were things she wanted to do better even though she hung a banner,” Costello said. “Coach Fish, great year, we were right there, right on the cusp but if you ask him, he’ll tell you we can do better. Coach Choate, same thing. Ended the year great, spring boarded into this year. But he’ll tell you that we have to get better. That’s my job: help them do better, provide the things they need to be better.”

What the coaches want and need is different than what the boosters think are the highest priority. What basketball stalwart contributor Keith Ueland of Plentywood thinks is the biggest priority might differ from what large football donors like the Thayer family of Bozeman think Bobcat athletics needs to build.

Choate’s experience at Boise taught him the value of facilities, financially and emotionally from fans and the advantage of living in a thriving, growing town. When Choate first arrived in Idaho’s capital, Boise State had 12,500 undergrads, thousands less than MSU even though BSU left the Big Sky 13 years before Choate got there. The town was the fastest-growing mid-sized city in America and the tech boom resonated around the Treasure Valley.

The same can be said for Bozeman. The dialogue of what Montana State’s potential might be trickles over from Cousins to the local VFW bar where Ueland and the local everyone in Montana simply refers to as “Bear” join in to give their two cents. They also offer entertaining anecdotes about farming lentils in the Northeast corner of nowhere.


The following morning, Fish is ready to roll as the sun is still rising. The group hits Cousins one more time where everyone orders breakfast but Fish orders a slice of pecan pie and a sausage patty that resembles a hamburger.

Day 3 of the trip proves to be tedious as the definition of Big Sky Country is put on full display for Costello and everyone in the red suburban. While many from out of state might be taken aback by the vast stretches of open space, Costello says it reminds him of rural Iowa, bringing him a strange sense of comfort.

With Fish behind the wheel, the tour takes an unexpected sightseeing stop.

“You really cannot believe this place unless you see it,” Fish says to the vehicle.

The St. Marie Air Force base used to be occupied by nearly 10,000 people. About 15 miles short of Glasgow, the abandoned structures now resemble something out of a modern-day zombie movie.

RELATED: St. Marie – A Montana Ghost Town

Montana State radio announcer Jay Sanderson in Glasgow/by Colter Nuanez

Montana State radio announcer Jay Sanderson in Glasgow/by Colter Nuanez

The base, established in 1955, was a part of the Air Defense Command and a home to a good deal of the U.S. Military’s interceptors. The base closed in 1968 and 16,000 people left Glasgow and the surrounding area. It re-opened from 1971 until 1976 but the population never returned. Now the base is all but unused except for the testing of cold tolerance for aircrafts by Boeing done from time to time on the remaining airstrips.

The stop in the 4,500-person town in Glasgow is just for lunch. The crowd is the smallest so far but Fish still reveals one of his most interesting theories on boosting the revenue of MSU athletics.

“The shoes come from the shoe company, the jerseys, the gear, it’s all paid for…there’s a lot of profit,” Fish said. “You look at the really good mid-major programs, Gonzaga has gone from a mdi-major to a high-major, Creighton has done the same thing Wichita State has done the same thing where they’ve started to become huge revenue streams because of their success. I believe that’s what we can do here. I believe we can get 5,000 fans a night like it used to be.”

Fish packed a full house in his last home game against the rival Griz. With Hall’s return, the progress of point guard Harald Frey and the addition of exciting freshman Isaac Bonton, that goal could become a reality of MSU can figure out how to string together its first winning season of the Fish era.


 The ramble from Glasgow to Lewistown is the longest of the Treasure State traverse aside from the final leg. The rolling hills and interminable crops are not conducive to those who suffer from motion sickness. A reprieve is offered, albeit in scary fashion.

After hours of not seeing a soul, the suburban pulls up on a long line of stopped cars. Fish decides to get out and check out what’s ahead. He finds a van that has rolled off the highway with a police barricade surrounding it. Soon, the MSU crew will watch as a helicopter flies in to take the accident victim to the hospital.

The tediousness of the leg is quickly eased by the comedic nature of Lewistown quarterback club head man Bill Miller upon arrival at the Pine Meadows country club. He’s the punch line of many of Fish’s jokes at after being the “chauffeur” of the tour in 2016 but is quick with a retort each and every time.

Montana State quarterback club member Bill Miller/by Colter Nuanez

Montana State quarterback club member Bill Miller/by Colter Nuanez

During Costello’s address to the sizeable crowd, he praises the women’s basketball team for their run to the first NCAA Tournament bid in 25 years. He says he wants a similar experience for every student-athlete at Montana State.

Choate emphasizes the student-athlete experience in his amusing address. He said his goal as a coach is to be demanding but not demeaning while helping develop upstanding young men steeped in discipline.

“My job is to create an experience for these young men and you help me create that experience for them,” Choate said. “The No. 1 thing we have to do is we have to add value to these young men’s lives. There’s several ways we can do that. Your contributions will allow these young men and women to receive an education at Montana State, a world-class institution. That’s a huge value added to their life. That’s a big deal.

“That’s just part of the equation. In my program, I hope the guy to the left of them and the right of them add value to their life too. Traveling, being a Division I athlete, learning to overcome obstacles, facing an opponent on paper that might be better than you, hold hands to the guy next to you and say, ‘let’s go get this done.’ That adds value to their life.”

That student-athlete experience can be cultivated and accelerated through internal competition, Fish said after taking the stage and declining the use of a microphone. Fish harkened back to his four years at Oregon and the strength of all the men’s teams wearing various Ducks’ jerseys.

“Every single men’s program participated in their NCAA Tournament my last year there,” Fish said. “Every one. I saw the pressure every single program put on the other programs to be successful. And it was good pressure. When I got to Montana State, one of the things I thought walking the hall is there wasn’t the pressure in the weight room, the training room to be successful. That has completely flipped in 36 months.

“Our guys are jealous the girls got to go to the NCAA Tournament. That’s a good thing.”


To cut down on drive time the following day, the suburban rolls out of Lewistown to Great Falls. Driving through the dark in the middle of central Montana isn’t as tedious as it may sound as Fish continues to entertain with his boundless collection of stories both interesting and amusing.

On the fourth and final day of the expedition, Fish meets MSU first-year athletic director for marketing Bethany Cordell at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls in the morning. Montana State will make an announcement later that afternoon to officially confirm MSU’s November 11 season-opener against Nebraska-Omaha in the Electric City. Fish is optimistic that he can fill the 5,100-seat venue with blue and gold-clad supporters given the popularity of the Bobcats in north central Montana.


MSU east side swing - Boxing Shelby GibooonsThe second-to-last leg of the journey conjures up a conversation about beer. The Montana Hi-Line is known for its grain cultivation, specifically barley sold to major brewing companies like Anheuser Busch.

Costello is fascinated by the burgeoning micro brewing industry in the Treasure State. Montana has more breweries per capita than any state in the union. Much of the grain is harvested in the immense fields in and around towns like Belt, Power, Dutton, Conrad and Shelby.

Shelby doubles sleepy town that once thrived because of a fruitful oil industry and the presence of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1922, drillers found black gold in Shelby, making it the only town in Northern Montana with the resource. In an effort to legitimize itself as a real western boomtown, Shelby went all in financially to lure the boxing world heavyweight championship fight to town.

On July 4 of 1923, champion Jack Dempsey pounded challenger Tommy Gibbons for 15 rounds before earning a unanimous decision. More people — an estimated 13,000 — watched the fight for free than the 7,702 that actually paid as the investment to lure the fight to the young town and build the grandioso arena backfired.

The large venue the size of a football field did not attract patrons from across the country like the fight promoters had hoped. Most of the residents of the Hi-Line and surrounding areas could not afford the ticket prices. The 40,000-seat stadium was largely empty, making the fight one of the biggest economic disasters in boxing history. Four Shelby banks went bankrupt in the months following the fight and the town’s dreams of prosperity went up in flames.

The caravan, fittingly, takes the MSU brass to Ringside Ribs, a local barbecue joint decorated with various authentic artifacts from that infamous fight. The original ring bell, the original fight card and much more are on display.

The ring bell from the 1923 heavyweight championship fight in Shelby/ By Colter Nuanez

The ring bell from the 1923 heavyweight championship fight in Shelby/ By Colter Nuanez

The food spread is the most impressive of the trip. Prime rib, crab and ribs are all a part of a feast prepared by the welcoming crowd.

Fish has spoken about his team’s foreign tour throughout the week, a venture up to Calgary that occurred the second week of August. In Shelby, Fish announces that the team bus will stop in town for a prime rib dinner once again, which happened before MSU crossed the border last month.

The dialogue from the coaches begins with Binford telling the heart touching story of Ferris’ heartbreak. Just days after returning from Reno, Big Sky championship trophy in hand, Ferris learned of the death one of childhood friends because of a motorcycle accident.

With a heavy heart on the day of the funeral, Ferris went into home arena of the third-seeded Washington Huskies and out-dueled the future No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, UW star Kelsey Plum. Ferris scored a career-high 33 points in the final game of her college career.

“She made all of Montana proud that night,” Binford said. “She showed she really has the heart of champion.”


The satiated group loaded into the car for one last three-hour traverse south as the rain began to pour down. The voyage, at least in terms of spreading the Bobcat brand and getting Costello’s face in front of influential boosters, seemed like a success.

The final stretch is driven and orated by Fish once again. He tells stories of his time playing for current Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, an assistant at Western Kentucky during Fish’s first two years of college basketball in 1985 and 1986. He also tells a story of his first college game, a showdown in New York City with national powerhouse Georgetown. As Fish tells it, he pulled up for a mid-range jumper in transition only to have future No. 1 pick Patrick Ewing swat the shot “10 rows up in the stands,” Fish recalled.

Montana State head football coach Jeff Choate in Shelby/ by Colter Nuanez

Montana State head football coach Jeff Choate in Shelby/ by Colter Nuanez

The story is one in a million that the charismatic 51-year-old has stored in his razor sharp brain. If nothing else, Fish has proven to be a dynamic recruiter and a strong ambassador for the athletic department in his three years in Bozeman.

The influence both Fish and Choate have had on the culture of MSU athletics has been noticeable already. Much of that has to do with the duo’s prior experience at some of the premier athletics departments on the West Coast.

The men’s head coaches for MSU’s two premier sports provide an inspiration that is contrasted and accentuated by Binford’s steady hand guiding a winning program with academic high achievers on its roster.

The Bobcats are on the brink, both because of the thriving reputation of the university and the escalating population in the Gallatin Valley. MSU’s reputation as a high research institution with top-notch engineering and architecture programs makes for a thriving economy in the valley as well, making the county one of America’s fastest growing.

All that remains is for the Montana State athletic department to slice its piece of the pie.

“We have great momentum, not just our athletic department but our university,” Choate said. “If I’ve learned one thing in this life, the time to put the hammer down is when you’ve got the momentum. Don’t wait to catch up. Just separate yourself even further. We have that opportunity right now.”

Photos by Colter and 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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