Kent Haslam

University of Montana fifth-year Athletic Director Kent Haslam has a firm grasp on the importance of hiring head coaches with strong ties to Griz history and the state of Montana. That's a good thing, says Missoulian sports columnist Bill Speltz.

MISSOULA — Near as I can tell, there are no college courses on how to be a Big Sky Conference athletic director.

Truth be known, I didn't do much research on the subject, not even at my alma mater. I passed the best course that place will ever offer anyway — meeting a nice girl and somehow swaying her with limited charm, no clue how to do laundry and nothing in the kitchen cupboard but Post Toasties.

You can study athletic administration in college and find all kinds of courses that claim to combine theory and practice. But becoming a successful Big Sky Conference AD is mostly just like a lot of things in life — you learn from doing and making mistakes.

Last Tuesday I bumped into Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslam outside the Adams Center and we chatted for a while. He told me he was having trouble sleeping and I suggested he join the club.

It struck me that we in the media have not said enough about what this humble family man has meant to Grizzly Athletics. We've never really given him the credit he deserves for doing all those things few care about (fundraising in tough times, budgeting, dealing with unhappy fans, unhappy coaches, unhappy parents of athletes, unhappy athletes, etc.).

Negative Nellies will read those first few paragraphs of my column this week and say, "Hey Speltz, grab ahold of your hair and pull your head out of your ... Didn't that Haslam hire Bob Stitt? Didn't he hire that volleyball coach back in 2014 who turned out to be a total clunker?"

Yeah, yeah, go ahead and slam away. Folks around these parts seem to be really good at that lately. I find a lot of the comments beneath Missoulian stories posted online to be nothing more than a combination of venom, bitterness and seasonal affective disorder.

Casual Griz fans could care less that Haslam oversaw the addition of women’s softball, secured the largest private gift in department history and played a pivotal role in making the Washington-Grizzly Champions Center a reality. They want to know about his track record hiring head coaches for high-profile sports.

Which brings me to my point: These are mighty exciting times for Griz Nation  and Haslam is a big reason why.

The fifth-year AD has a firm grasp on the importance of hiring head coaches with strong ties to Griz history and the state of Montana. As examples, consider his recent hirings in football, men's basketball, women's basketball and softball.

Like it or not, the hiring of Bobby Hauck to a second term as head football coach is a monster coup for Grizzly athletics. Hauck is to Montana sports what Jim Harbaugh was to Michigan sports when he was hired as football coach for the Wolverines in 2014.

Fan loyalty, patience and faith are bound to last longer when there's a connection to the coach. And any skipper will tell you patience is conducive to success.

As Exhibit A, I give you Montana women's basketball coach Shannon Schweyen. Everyone knows she's the greatest Lady Griz player to ever don a uniform. Her hiring as head coach in 2016 speaks to Haslam's appreciation for Griz family.

It hasn't been easy for Schweyen. Two years in a row her teams have been devastated by season-ending injuries to the two best players. The result last year was a 7-23 record. This year the Lady Griz have shown vast improvement but their record is 2-5.

Yet they still lead the Big Sky in home attendance. It's not even close really.

Would that be the case had Haslam hired someone from out of state to replace Selvig? Hard to say for sure, but my guess is the crowds would be thinner and someone would be calling for a change.

Instead there's patience for what Schweyen is doing. Patience that will be rewarded.

Hauck in football, Schweyen in women's basketball, Travis DeCuire in men's basketball, Melanie Meuchel in softball — I really like the coaching lineup for Montana's most visible sports right now.

My guess is that special times are ahead. There's just no substitute for legacy and tradition. Both have powerful motivational pull.

"Our girls always love playing at home because our fans are great, the crowds have been great," Schweyen gushed last week.

"I remember as a player being here at Montana. There was just something special about always running out of the locker room and coming onto the floor and seeing the fans up there. It gets you fired up to play some good basketball."

It's not just players and coaches feeling fired up this weekend. Most of Griz Nation is brimming with optimism, and that's a good thing.

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Email Bill Speltz at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @billspeltz.

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