There’s a corner on the top floor of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library that’s set aside for “odditorium” exhibits.
You can inspect the likes of an octopus in a jar, an ostrich egg, a grizzly bear skull, and an intact Emperor penguin specimen.
Emily Ferguson-Steger is under no illusion that the unprecedented flood of high school basketball players, families and fans on campus this weekend will splash so far afield.
The director of undergraduate admissions at UM knows they’re here for two concurrent Class B state tournaments — eight games a day for three days that started Thursday at the Adams Center.
Still, the recruiter in Ferguson-Steger itches to show off what else the university has to offer.
“My nephews run for Browning and Heart Butte, and they were here for the cross-country meet this fall,” she said. “I’m sitting there as a director of admissions and there was a part of my business mind that said, ‘I want to say something. I want do this.’ But also, I was a high-school athlete. I understand why this is a time to celebrate the hard work and dedication that got them here.”
Montana High School Association policy forbids direct college recruiting such as informational booths at the tourney venue.
“With the requests (large, captive audience at our events) we receive we would not have enough room — lobby areas are tight now,” MHSA executive director Mark Beckman said this week in an email. “Approve one and we would have to approve them all to be fair.”
Beckman said Montana State University in Bozeman has hosted MHSA events, including the all-class volleyball tournament, for several years.
“They do not have a table for recruiting purposes,” he said. “They believe having players and parents on campus is what is important.”
State basketball tournaments used to be almost annual events at UM. They’re often the first and best chances for the university to make lasting impressions on potential students.
For a variety of reasons, the opportunities have slowed to a trickle. Before this week, Missoula and UM had played host to just four state hoops tourneys this millennia — Class AA girls in the fall of 2001, AA boys in 2004, Class C girls in 2015 and the Class A boys in 2016.
Each of those events drew eight teams. There are 16 in town this week for Missoula’s first combined boys’ and girls’ state tournaments, for a total of more than 250 players, student managers and trainers. Then there are all the siblings and, just as important to recruiters, their parents, who’ll be in on college decisions sooner or later.
They’re here from as near as Deer Lodge, Anaconda and Bigfork, and from as far out on the eastern plains as Poplar, Lodge Grass and Colstrip. Teams hail from schools on or near four Montana Indian reservations — the Fort Peck (Poplar), the Crow (Lodge Grass), the Northern Cheyenne (St. Labre, Colstrip) and Rocky Boy.
Colstrip and Rocky Boy each sent boys’ and girls’ teams, as did Bigfork and Three Forks.
Ferguson-Steger agrees with the MHSA that this isn’t the time or place for direct recruiting. She called UM’s approach “an organic process.”
Tournament week or not, campus tours are offered weekdays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m.
She has beefed up the on-call ranks of student advocates “just in case (tourney goers) pop over to the admissions office and would like to take a tour” at a different time. The admissions office is in the Lommasson Center, on the west side of campus.
On Thursday there were no takers scheduled from the tourney crowd, which wasn’t a surprise.
“The components are so varying during a tournament, whether your team wins or loses, when you have practice time on the court,” Ferguson-Steger said. “We get a lot more drop-ins, where people just show up.”
Willie Brown, department administrator at the Native American Center, wouldn’t be surprised if some from the tourney crowd came by in their down time. As of Tuesday he said he hadn’t had any specific requests to see one of UM’s trophy newer buildings on the southwest fringe of the Oval.
Ferguson-Steger wanted to make it clear that visitors are welcome across the campus, including classrooms and the library.
“All of our buildings are open, and we would welcome guests who want to come in and talk to students,” she said. “Our students are well aware we have families here on campus this week, so if (high school students) want to ask questions and explore what it’s like to be a Grizzly, that’s all good.”
The open-door policy includes spring football practice in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. When head coach Bobby Hauck returned this offseason, he reinstituted a policy of opening most practices to the public.
Friday’s workout from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. will give interested basketball players and fans looks at both the 2018 team and the stadium that’s considered one of the top venues in FCS football.
Even before the basketball buses started rolling into town this week, UM was brimming with high-schoolers. It started off with two days of the Montana World Affairs’ Academic WorldQuest, a competition that brought teams from around western Montana to campus.
Hundreds more junior high and high school “mathletes” gathered Wednesday in the University Center Ballroom for the Missoula regional Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics contest.
The Ballroom’s on the third floor of the UC. One floor down, a UM billiards class was part of the buzz of activity at the UC Game Room on Wednesday. It’s a common after-school haunt for local teens and a tournament attraction for out-of-towners who want to shoot some pool, play a game of table tennis or hang out in front of a large-screen TV and two free gaming stations.
There’s a Pizza Hut next door, and down the hall the Food Court offers “fast-casual” eats from the likes of Noodle Express, Harvest, 406 Grill, Doc’s Sandwich Shop, and Taco Sano.
Ferguson-Steger said the first stop for many newcomers is on the first floor of the UC. While most of the book selection at the Bookstore has been shifted to Fact and Fiction downtown, the store is awash in maroon-and-silver (and pink, and black) Griz wear and Montana-made products.
There’s no charge to investigate the current exhibit at the UC Art Gallery, which is across the open atrium from the Game Room. The colorful “Trauma Drama” is recent UM graduate Claire Dawn Meyer’s way of “bringing beauty to the dark subject of trauma,” according to the Montana Kaimin.
The Montana Museum of Art and Culture, just a baseball pass from the Adams Center in the PAR-TV Center, is also free. It’s open Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and on Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. Current exhibits include a collection of recently donated contemporary Eastern European prints and “Decades,” which surveys MMAC’s permanent collection that reaches back to the beginning of the American ceramics movement.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture and the MMAC's Saturday hours.