BOZEMAN — Montana State coach Jeff Choate has been scarce around these parts since his team’s 31-23 victory over rival Montana on Nov. 18.
Without a playoff game to prepare for, Choate quickly hit the recruiting trail in advance of the NCAA’s new 72-hour early signing period, which begins Dec. 20. Choate said the Bobcats will host many of their verbal commits over the course of the next couple weeks to make sure they do sign.
Finally with some time on his hands Wednesday, Choate met with reporters to recap the Bobcats’ 5-6 season and their plans going forward. He made note of his team’s ability to compete with all comers in 2017, and the fact that MSU lost to three quarterfinal playoff teams — South Dakota State, Weber State and Kennesaw State — by a combined 14 points.
The Bobcats’ efforts didn’t always produce victories, but it bodes well for the future, Choate said.
“One of the things that I talked to our young men about before I went on the road recruiting is this is really the first time since I’ve been here that we can have conversations about some more-lofty goals,” he said.
MSU wants to boost its record in 2018 and keep pace at or near the top of the Big Sky Conference. It also wants to keep hold of the Great Divide Trophy, which will spend another year inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse after the Bobcats beat the Grizzlies for the second consecutive season.
About that: One consequence of MSU’s win roughly three weeks ago was a whirlwind coaching change at Montana. Incumbent Bob Stitt was let go two days following the game and native son Bobby Hauck was re-hired as coach eight years after departing for what he thought would be greener pastures at UNLV.
The non-renewal of Stitt’s contract underscored the outright importance of winning the Cat-Griz game. MSU’s Rob Ash suffered the same fate after the 2015 season.
“I feel bad for coach Stitt,” Choate said. “People that don’t understand this profession can’t really appreciate what we do for a living. How many people go to work every day and have 19,000 people looking over their shoulder criticizing every decision they make? Not very many.
“Coach Stitt had a winning record up there, had a playoff appearance his first year. I certainly feel for him and the coaches on his staff and the families that are involved. That’s a side of this thing that people don’t always appreciate and understand. So I want to wish him the best. Now it’s coach Hauck up there, and like I said before, I think it will add to an already great rivalry.”
Hauck, a UM alum with roots in Missoula and Big Timber — and whose intensity and fervor as a football coach are perhaps matched only by Choate — went 80-17 overall with the Grizzlies from 2003-09 including a 47-6 mark in the league and beat the Bobcats in five of seven matchups.
When asked, Choate spoke candidly about Hauck’s re-introduction at Montana and what it means.
“I don’t know him well, but I do know Bobby,” Choate said. “I know his family and the history and tradition that they have in the state.
“I mean, this guy was 80-17, I believe, at the University of Montana, played for three national championships, so he’s obviously got a good blueprint and understanding of what it takes to win in this state and at that university.
“If you know me very well, you know I like a good fight. So I’m excited about what’s going to take place here in the state. It’s going to be good for Montana kids because both of us value Montana kids and understand what they bring to the table maybe better than people from other places would.”
Choate said he and Hauck have a bit of a history with one another.
Boise State, when Choate was an assistant there, played in the Las Vegas Bowl in both 2010 and 2011. In those years, Choate said, Hauck spent time visiting with the Broncos’ coaching staff.
During his press conference in Missoula, Hauck vowed that the Grizzlies would return to dominance with a tough, physical brand. Those are hallmarks of Choate’s coaching style, too. To wit: MSU rushed for a combined 690 yards and seven touchdowns in its past two meetings against Montana.
With the Bobcats seemingly on their way up, and with the Grizzlies intent on revival as a conference-title contender, the rivalry has been ratcheted up.
“Bobby’s a Montana native (and) he understands how important football is in this state,” Choate said. “Big Sky football is at its best when Montana and Montana State are on top. And so I look forward to playing for the Great Divide Trophy and the Big Sky trophy.
“And I know if we’re going to do that we’ve got a lot of work to do. But they’ve got to be good, too.
“Great universities, great fan bases, passionate people ... it’s only going to make this whole thing better.”