The interim tag has been lifted.
And perhaps so, too, have the hopes of a football-crazed Griz Nation.
The University of Montana and head coach Mick Delaney have agreed to a two-year contract, the school’s athletic department announced at a news conference Thursday morning inside the Canyon Club at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Delaney, 70, took over the Griz football program in March, when UM fired then-head coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day.
“He’s done an excellent job in providing leadership for us during this time of transition,” UM President Royce Engstrom said in his opening remarks. “We need to put in place a strong leader who will uphold the grand tradition of Grizzly football.”
Delaney, who is about to enter his 46th year of coaching, said he and his staff are “100 percent” committed to Montana and he’s excited about the administration also making a commitment.
“This tells our players that we are going to do what Grizzlies do, and that’s work hard, do the right things – both on and off the field – and compete for championships, just like we have for 12 of the last 13 years,” Delaney said. “That is not going to change, I can guarantee you that.”
Delaney joked that he wouldn’t guarantee any 15-0 seasons, but he knew the kind of expectations Griz fans have.
He also said that restoring the football program’s reputation, especially in the light of several ongoing federal investigations, starts with recruiting the right kind of players.
“I can guarantee you we will recruit kids of high character, No. 1, good academics, No. 2 ... and No. 3, they have to be able to play a little bit, too,” he said. “We do not have the time or the resources to chase guys around who will not do the right thing.”
Delaney, who had retired from coaching on Feb. 9, was initially asked by Engstrom to take the job on a one-year interim basis.
Engstrom didn’t give any reasons for the firings in the spring, saying only that change was needed.
“He came into a challenging situation and he rallied the coaching staff around him, he rallied the players around him and he rallied the fans around him,” Engstrom said. “He sent a very strong message that he’s here to have nothing but the most excellent football program.”
When Delaney accepted the interim position, just his second head coaching gig ever and first since a stint at his alma mater UM-Western (1991-92), he made sure coaching through the fall was part of the deal, although he knew full well he might not be asked back after the one season.
“This is a very humbling and challenging experience,” Delaney said. “For a poor ol’ mine kid from Butte, this is a great opportunity. But it’s not about me. It’s about our players and our coaches. That’s all that matters is the student-athletes and the department.”
“From Day 1 it has always been about the players,” interim athletic director Jean Gee said. “It has never been about him, it has never been about anything but the students and the coaching staff. That, in and of itself, is why he’s the right person for the job.”
Hiring a head football coach is one of the biggest decisions a college administrator has to make, Gee said.
“The Grizzly football coaching staff, student athletes and the entire Griz Nation deserve the stability and the freedom to focus on the task at hand without the cloud of uncertainty overhead. They also deserve the best football coach. A man who knows the game, a man of integrity and a true leader,” said Gee, whose position is also being decided this summer. “When we contemplated who the next football coach should be, we didn’t have to look too far, because the right man was literally two doors down from mine.”
Exact terms of the contract were not made available Thursday, although Gee said Delaney’s base salary would be near $150,000. That figure could grow if certain performance incentives are met in addition to TV and radio money received on the side. Gee said a handful of signatures were still needed on the contract before it was processed and made public.
The deal, which expires Jan. 31, 2014, means Delaney is under contract for this coming season and the 2013 season. An extension would have to be reached in order for Delaney to coach in 2014 or beyond.
“That was part of the negotiation process with Mick,” Gee said. “We were basically pulling him out of retirement, so that’s what he was comfortable with, and we were, too.”
In recent years, coaches at both Montana and Montana State have been offered three-year contracts.
“That was discussed a little bit, but my feelings and Dr. Engstrom’s feelings were along the same lines – that stuff takes care of itself,” Delaney said. “If we’re successful and do things the right way, we’ll be here three years, four years, five years or however long. ... If we’re not successful, on or off the field, then obviously someone else will be here.”
Engstrom said it was important to make this announcement now to help solidify things like recruiting.
“We were at a point where the need for permanency was paramount,” said Engstrom, who’s gotten to know Delaney much better since March. “After a very short time, just a couple of months, it became very apparent to me that he’s the guy we need at the present time.”
Gee said she discussed the move with the players in an earlier meeting and described their reaction as “excited.”
“We’re all glad to have this settled,” she said. “The relief is palatable.”
The Griz open fall drills on Aug. 6.