MISSOULA — The Montana football team made a large jump in Year 2 under head coach Bobby Hauck and could be on the cusp of an even more successful season in his third year — if there’s a season to be played amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The league’s coaches and the media covering Big Sky Conference teams recognized the potential for the Griz, who advanced to the FCS quarterfinals in 2019. That was reflected in the preseason polls that were released Thursday during the first day of the Big Sky Football Kickoff.
Montana was tabbed second by the media and the coaches, behind Weber State in both polls. It’s the highest preseason placing for the Griz since Hauck returned to his alma mater ahead of the 2018 season and tied for their highest during the 13-team iteration of the Big Sky, which was expanded from nine teams in 2012. They were last picked to win the league in 2010.
Despite the rosy outlook for Montana, uncertainty hangs over the viability of a Big Sky football season this fall, and league commissioner Tom Wistrcill did nothing to address that topic Thursday. His opening comments prior to the Kickoff, which were billed as a “State of the Big Sky Conference address,” were a glorified tour of the new league office in Farmington, Utah.
Hauck shared his thoughts about playing football during his portion of the event, in which all 13 head coaches answered questions in pre-recorded segments that aired on PlutoTV. He made reference to the fact there needs to be an answer one way or the other if football is going to be played this fall, a decision which will be made by the presidents of the conference schools.
“The coronavirus isn’t going any place,” Hauck said. “Half measures don’t work. My opinion is we either go or we don’t go. We shut the country down, which I don’t think is feasible financially, personally. Then the other side of it is we go or we don’t go. If you’re uncomfortable, don’t play, don’t coach, don’t go to the games. If you’re comfortable, go, let’s roll.”
The two-day Kickoff was moved up a week despite other conferences postponing media days, announcing they won’t be playing sports in the fall or will be playing conference-only football schedules. Wistrcill told The Oregonian last week that the Big Sky has set an “end of the month” deadline to decide the fate of the football season.
Montana’s players have been on campus since June 1, when they returned for voluntary workouts. Hauck said during the week after the players’ return in June and again on Thursday that the decision to get back to sports should be looked at partly as a mental health issue.
“What I have seen is the separation they’ve experienced over the last few months, particularly this spring, has been disastrous for their mental health,” Hauck said. “It’s just been awful for them. They’re suffering mentally from it, and we need to get them back together.”
In June, the NCAA approved a six-week preseason plan that’s allowed teams to get together for required work prior to their first day of fall camp, which was set for Aug. 5 for Montana.
It's more in-person time for players and coaches to prep for the potential season after they were relegated to online football work when spring practices were cut short by the pandemic in mid-March.
"I don’t think our players do very well in online education," Hauck said. "The online classes in general, I don’t think they learn much. So, it’ll be interesting to see what they retain. Maybe I’ll change my opinion on that, but I don’t think so."
As for the physical health of the players, UM has implemented measures to try to keep them safe while working out in the Champions Center. Athletic director Kent Haslam said on June 9 that there hadn’t been any positive cases of coronavirus among the football team, but no further numbers have been shared by the athletic department.
There have been about 3.95 million cases in the US and about 143,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While deaths aren’t as prevalent among college-age kids — there have been 190 for those between 15-24 years old — there are still unknowns about the long-term health effects of contracting the virus.
“The good news is we’re finding out that the coronavirus isn’t lethal for people our players’ age,” Hauck said. “So, they don’t worry about it too much. Them getting back together and playing football certainly is probably not going to put them at great risk.”
The Griz are scheduled to open the season on Sept. 12 at Missouri State. Their regular-season opener against Central Washington on Sept. 5 was canceled when the Great Northwest Athletic Conference called off fall sports Friday.
Last week, the NCAA announced COVID-19 testing guidelines for the 2020 season that require, among other things, testing and results within 72 hours of competition. Players and coaches could be forced to miss a game if they test positive too soon before the game. Some schools across the country have reportedly put together plans to temporarily elevate coaches if another coach is out with the virus.
“The idea that the coronavirus is going away is erroneous,” Hauck said. “It’s with us, so there’s certain things we’re going to have to continue to do and probably be more aware when guys aren’t feeling well and trying to extract them from the mix until we know what’s wrong with them.”
Montana is coming off a 10-4 campaign in which it advanced to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since 2009. The 2011 trip to the semifinals has since been vacated.
The Griz have some big shoes to fill, needing to replace quarterback Dalton Sneed, who’s now in the CFL, linebacker Dante Olson, the school’s all-time tackles leader who’s signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, and wide receiver Jerry Louie McGee, who left as the program’s all-time receptions leader and is tied atop the charts for punt return touchdowns.
UM brings back six All-Big Sky honorees from 2019: wide receivers Samori Toure and Sammy Akem, linebacker Jace Lewis, offensive lineman Conlan Beaver, safety Robby Hauck and running back Marcus Knight, the 2019 Big Sky newcomer of the year. The 2020 all-conference preseason team will be released Friday morning.
Weber State was the favorite in both polls, grabbing 135 votes and seven-first place votes from the coaches and 546 votes and 28 first-place votes from the media. The Wildcats are coming off a trip to the semifinals that included a quarterfinal win over UM, which got 128 votes and three first-place votes from the coaches and 496 votes and eight first-place votes from the media.
The preseason favorite has won the regular-season title or a share of it just three times in the eight seasons since the Big Sky expanded from nine to 13 teams in 2012. The favorite has been the outright champ just once, when Eastern Washington won the league crown in 2014.
In selecting Weber State, the coaches and media each had the same team atop the poll for the eighth time in the nine seasons since the league expanded. The lone exception came in 2015, when the coaches chose Montana State and the media picked Eastern Washington.
The media and coaches agreed on the next four teams, picking returning semifinalist Montana State third, Eastern Washington fourth, Sacramento State fifth and UC Davis sixth. MSU got six first-place votes in the media poll, and EWU and UC Davis each got one. MSU, EWU and Sacramento State each got one first-place vote in the coaches poll.
The coaches had Northern Arizona seventh, Portland State eighth, Idaho ninth. The media shuffled those teams around with PSU seventh, Idaho eighth and NAU ninth.
The media and coaches agreed on the bottom four teams, placing Cal Poly 10th, Idaho State 11th, Southern Utah 12th and Northern Colorado 13th.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!