MISSOULA — Two days after the Montana Grizzlies' second straight loss to Montana State in the Brawl of the Wild, Montana head football coach Bob Stitt was shown the door Monday.
Montana's athletic director Kent Haslam sat down with Stitt on Monday morning for roughly 45 minutes to discuss the 2017 season. Haslam delivered the news of his non-renewal during that conversation.
"At that point, I notified him that we would not be renewing his contract as the head football coach at the University of Montana after it expired," Haslam said in a news conference Monday.
"These are tough decisions, ones that do not come without consequence for many people involved — coaches, families, student athletes — but as expected, Bob handled it with absolute class. He was certainly disappointed, but nothing but class from head coach Bob Stitt."
Haslam added: "I have nothing but respect for him and for the way he has operated with integrity. He's worked tirelessly to advance this football program and this university. And I know it can sound a bit of a cliche for a(n) athletic director to thank a football coach as they're on their way out but I do thank him for his dedicated service, what he has done to help advance this football program."
A decision had to be made — Stitt's contract was set to expire on Jan. 31, 2018. The University of Montana confirmed news reports of Stitt's dismissal Monday afternoon with a press release.
Haslam said no coach will fill the interim role, but offensive line coach Chad Germer is in charge of taking "the lead in keeping things moving in the right direction." Running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Justin Green also is still in charge of recruiting and "assuring those student athletes who have committed to Montana that all will be fine."
Stitt had complied a record of 21 wins and 14 losses in his three years at Montana. Under his leadership, Montana failed the make the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, marking the first time the Grizzlies went without postseason appearances in back-to-back seasons since 1991-92.
"I'm never gonna apologize for having high expectations," Haslam said. "I'm not gonna do that. ... High expectations are good things and they motivate you and they push you and we've got high expectations here. There's no doubt about that.
"We owe that to a very loyal and supportive fan base and we owe that to this university. Expectations are a good thing. That raises everybody up. I think that's happened over the last several years in the Big Sky Conference."
Haslam said the decision regarding retaining Stitt was a yearlong process, rather than contingent on the last game of the season against Montana State. Haslam said he was "disappointed with how last season ended," and that started the evaluation process.
Haslam consulted with many people over the past few days, including current university President Sheila Stearns.
"Any good athletic director makes sure they're communicating with their president," Haslam said, chuckling.
He added: "I've learned to make sure you rely on people that are a lot smarter than me, which they're not hard to find."
Stearns took to Twitter after the press release was sent out to share her thoughts.
"Difficult decisions in #GrizNation today," Stearns wrote. "I support Grizzly Athletics and the AD vision for our program. Thank you fans for your support. (Coach Bob Stitt) is a man of character who loves the game.
"I thank him for his time at UM and wish him the best. (Montana Griz football) players, coaches and staff will continue the pursuit of excellence, both on and off the field. Proud to be a GRIZ!"
Montana football players trickled out of the Adams Center shortly after the press release was sent out.
Their raw emotions varied. Some were holding back tears, others looked downtrodden and few others appeared to be angry.
Haslam said he addressed the team shortly before the press conference.
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"Coach Stitt and his staff were in there before me. ... I was close by and I know that was very emotional," Haslam said. "The team, they're resilient. ... Certainly there's shock and there's a feeling of, 'Where did we let our coaching staff down?' That type of thing. This has nothing to do with them. They need to make sure that they know that."
Several players took to Twitter in the hours following to share their thoughts.
Montana redshirt freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen's message took up two tweets saying, "Coach Stitt will always have a big place in my heart. Taught me so much about football and life. People don't see all he did to help make this program so great. Wish we had more time together, we were on the way to something special. All the best for him and his family.
"Such a great person and mentor. Thank you for believing in me and our team. Helped pave the way for us to be great. We are going to miss you and appreciate everything you did for us. You'll always be in our thoughts. Love ya coach!"
(1/2) Coach Stitt will always have a big place in my heart. Taught me so much about football and life. People don't see all he did to help make this program so great. Wish we had more time together, we were on the way to something special. All the best for him and his family.— Gresch Jensen (@GreschJensen) November 21, 2017
(2/2) Such a great person and mentor. Thank you for believing in me and our team. Helped pave the way for us to be great. We are going to miss you and appreciate everything you did for us. You'll always be in our thoughts. Love ya coach! @CoachBobStitt— Gresch Jensen (@GreschJensen) November 21, 2017
Junior wide receiver Keenan Curran shared, "Forever grateful for the opportunity (Coach Bob Stitt) gave me here at Montana. Thank you for the confidence coach. Adversity doesn't knock us out, it only makes us stronger."
Senior quarterback Reese Phillips tweeted, "Cheers to a man who took a chance on me and treated me like family every single day. Coach Bob Stitt, I love you coach!"
Other players like Caleb Lyons, Brandon Scott, Gage Smith, Cody McCombs, Eric Williams, Lewis Cowans and Thayne Jackson all tweeted similar thank-yous and shared their appreciation.
Haslam said he hasn't had any conversations with potential candidates as of yet and he will be keeping the process as confidential as possible.
He also paid special attention to rumors that will be circulating.
"You will hear many rumors over the next few weeks, but I would ask you to please take those as rumors," Haslam said. "I won't comment on rumors. No one's gonna comment on rumors. I will stand here with you, stand here with our new head football coach as soon as possible."
He did not give a timeline as for when the next coach of Montana football will be hired. However, the early signing period begins Dec. 20 and runs through Dec. 22.
Haslam isn't necessarily looking for a coach with ties to the state or the University of Montana.
"It's not critical that they have University of Montana ties," Haslam said. "They've gotta understand the culture and they've gotta be willing to go to Glasgow and Sidney and Butte and Havre, and be able to say Havre correctly ... but those things are all you can learn."
One thing Haslam wants changed is the "toughness" of the program.
"I do think we need to get that toughness back, that swagger," Haslam said. "The Big Sky Conference, it's a tough conference. It's a really tough conference. Those schools have really elevated their game.
"But, we need to be winning conference championships. We need to be going to the playoffs. Those are things that are critical to us as an athletic department, they're valuable to our university and valuable to this community and valuable for those things for those people who are so passionate about us."
Haslam was appreciative of part of the team unity culture Stitt brought to Montana and said he "really (wants) to make sure that continues."
As far as the assistant coaches go, all of them are on contracts that expire at the end of January.
"I would encourage the next head coach to look strongly at every single assistant coach we have," Haslam said. "I think they're quality coaches. Many of them with deep, deep roots to the state of Montana. I would encourage the next head coach to take a strong, hard look the folks that are here."