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Montana, Montana State opt out of Big Sky spring football season due to health, safety concerns
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Montana, Montana State opt out of Big Sky spring football season due to health, safety concerns

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Jeff Choate, Bobby Hauck

Montana State coach Jeff Choate, left, and Montana coach Bobby Hauck didn't have their pregame handshake in November and it won't happen this spring, either.

BOZEMAN — Montana and Montana State won't be playing a Big Sky Conference football schedule this spring.

The schools announced jointly Friday morning that they will potentially play a "modified" spring schedule of nonconference games due to health and safety concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the proximity to the fall 2021 season and weather.

Big Sky member Portland State also announced Friday that it would play a modified schedule.

The traditional fall football season was postponed due to the pandemic as well. In October, the Big Sky Conference subsequently unveiled a six-game "league-only" football schedule for the spring.

The teams were set to participate in the league's six-game spring season from Feb. 27 to April 10. Neither team will now be eligible for a spring Big Sky championship or the FCS playoffs.

In a joint release, both Montana schools now look to develop a slate that allows each team to schedule up to two live competitions, falling in line more closely with the traditional spring practice period. Opponents and exact dates are still to be determined. 

At the time, Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill tweeted that spring football "is going to be fantastic!" The 13-team league was to play with 12 teams because defending champion Sacramento State opted out in October.

The Bobcats and Grizzlies did conduct fall practices in preparation for a spring season.

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said he and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado made the joint decision with the health and safety of student-athletes as their primary concern for not participating in a full spring season. 

"Throughout the pandemic, we have made decisions in the best interest of the students. After much discussion with the athletic directors and coaches at both schools, we feel this decision allows our student-athletes to compete with adequate time to prepare," Bodnar said. 

Cruzado said her focus is trained on the well-being of students.

"The safety of our students is always our No. 1 priority at Montana State," she said. "This decision was difficult, but it will help ensure our student-athletes are as safe and healthy as possible when they do take to the field again. We are proud of their hard work and look forward to cheering them on."

Directors of athletics Kent Haslam of Montana and Leon Costello of Montana State echoed the presidents' concerns of the difficulties in safely preparing football student-athletes for competition starting in February while focusing on implementing a successful fall 2021 season.

"We know that student-athletes want to play and coaches certainly want to coach, but a reduced number of games in the spring will give our team a greater chance of success in the fall of 2021," Haslam said. "This decision allows our student-athletes to compete in some way but gives them more time to prepare in a more controlled environment."

Costello said the modified schedule allows student-athletes to maintain a normal cycle of preparation for the upcoming fall season. Montana State's most recent game was in December 2019.

"The health and safety of our student-athletes is paramount," he said. "The timeline for our football student-athletes to be physically prepared for the current conference schedule can't be guaranteed given our climate and related circumstances. By altering our spring season, we will be able to focus on their physical training during the appropriate conditions and proper recovery for the fall season."

Montana and Montana State are two of three Big Sky schools that have chosen to participate in a modified spring schedule along with Portland State. Sacramento State announced in the fall that it will opt out of the entire 2021 spring season.

"With the uncertainty of the football season, we have determined this is the best course of action for our program this spring," PSU athletic director Valerie Cleary said.

Added Vikings coach Bruce Barnum: "We have been out of competition and practice for nearly a year and to get our team ready by a scheduled Feb. 27 game doesn't make sense. Playing potential games in April and preparing for the 2021 season makes more sense for the safety of our team."

As a result, nine Big Sky teams will play the full six-game football conference schedule in the spring to compete for the conference championship, the league said in a release.

"We want to compete this spring but we don't believe playing a complete conference schedule is in the best interest of our program," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. "We feel like we have a championship-caliber team, and preparing to win a championship in Montana in February with no indoor facility would be difficult at best. I think this modified schedule allows our players to compete while keeping the focus on the fall of 2021."

Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said the spring season's timeline wasn't feasible in Montana.

"This has been a trying year for everyone," he said. "We respect the fact that each institution is in a different place in its ability to practice, compete, and meet testing protocols. Here in Montana we're uniquely challenged in keeping our student-athletes safe and healthy, which is our top priority, while preparing and playing in deep winter conditions. This is nearly impossible to accomplish given the Big Sky Conference schedule timeline. Finding a way to compete in some fashion when circumstances allow remains important to me and our administration."

A source told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that MSU is trying to be flexible with its new scheduling and that “everything is on the table.” The Bobcats could play more than two or none depending on the situation.

A Cat-Griz game is not scheduled for now, though nothing is concrete.

In September, the NCAA extended student-athletes' eligibility by a year, making players who participate in the modified spring season eligible to compete in the fall 2021 season as well.

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