Kent Haslam knew it would be messy.
There's a massive hole where some of Washington-Grizzly Stadium's prime parking used to be, construction fences are cordoning off hundreds more spots and the whole project will impede the flow of fans to one of the stadium's most heavily trafficked entrances.
"But nothing good comes without a little bit of pain and this Champions Center is going to be an amazing addition," Montana's athletic director said.
Construction on the privately funded, $14 million Washington-Grizzly Champions Center is a few months into an estimated year-and-a-half long slog. Between now and then are six home-game headache Saturdays – perhaps more with a UM playoff run – for Griz fans filing into the stadium.
That starts this weekend when Montana opens its football season against Saint Francis. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. Saturday and Haslam's advice to the estimated 26,000 venturing to campus is simple: Get there early.
Those who've strolled along Campus Drive on the back side of the university know why. Those who haven't will be welcomed on game day by mountains of dirt excavated from just outside the stadium's southwest corner, the future home of the 46,000-square-foot building that will house new football locker rooms and meeting areas as well as weight-training facilities for all of Montana's athletic programs.
Parking lot W, the 220-space expanse directly south of the stadium, will be closed throughout the center's construction. Those spaces were reserved for season-pass parkers, who have now been flushed out to the surrounding lots, said Sue DeMers, Haslam's "parking liaison" and an athletic department assistant in internal operations.
Lot W parkers should direct their attention instead to single-game, pay-to-park lots surrounding the University Center. There also are handicapped spots in those lots, as well as lot Y near the Grizzly Pool.
Extra staff will be on site Saturday to help fans navigate any parking predicaments. The staff also can radio for one of the many golf carts that will ferry those with disabilities directly to the stadium.
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There are thousands of other parking spots across campus so parking woes will pale in comparison to the congestion issues created by the construction. Access to the south entrance, located directly behind the new towering video scoreboard, will be limited.
In fact Haslam recommends fans head for the other three entrances, located on the west, north and east sides. If entering from the west, approach from the river's side and steer clear of the bottleneck and construction zone all together. Or try the east entrance.
"The south will be a bit chaotic," Haslam said. "The east side is probably one of our best-kept secrets because there's not a lot of traffic on that side with all the tailgating and RVs (on Campus Drive)."
As usual, tailgaters may begin their festivities at 5 p.m., two hours prior to the 7 p.m. kickoff. The parking lots will open at 2:30 p.m. Because of the shortage of total spots, tailgating regulations will be even more firmly enforced, DeMers said.
"Parking lots will be filled to capacity this year. Some folks have before had the luxury of having some open parking spots to spread out in with their tents and barbecues," she said. "We're going to have to be stricter; you've got a parking space and you've got to live within it."
For those hoping to avoid the hassle of traffic and parking entirely, DeMers suggested the many shuttle options provided by UM Transportation. Shuttles will cover two routes starting two hours prior to kickoff – south campus and downtown – and run throughout the game at no cost to riders. The south campus shuttle stops at Lewis & Clark Village and Dornblaser Field and drops off at the Music Building. The downtown shuttle stops at the Central Park and Park Place parking garages as well as the Caras Park stop before unloading its cargo across the footbridge from the stadium.
Patience and preparedness will be key this fall, Haslam said. Construction will be an inconvenience, but shouldn't cause any guests to get lost on their way to the game.
"The one great thing about our fans is we have a lot of repeat customers here because we have such a large season ticket base," he said of the 19,000 with season tickets. "We still have first timers, but our fans are smart and they know where their seats are and how to get to them."
Montana's next home game isn't until Oct. 1. The Griz will host Southern Utah that day for homecoming.