This Year’s Griz-Cat Game Just Got More Interesting

By JIM O’DAY

For a rivalry that’s been played for the past 114 years, this Saturday’s “Brawl of the Wild” just got more interesting than usual – for a number of reasons.

First, and foremost, University of Montana head coach Mick Delaney announced Sunday night that he would be retiring at the end of the current football season.  Mick, who inherited a very challenging job following the unexpected firing of Robin Pflugrad by UM President Royce Engstrom in March 2012 has done a remarkable job keeping the program together.  Not many people would be willing to fill that void at that particular time in UM Athletics history – let alone to do it two months after he had already retired from the coaching ranks.  To his credit, he kept the Griz faithful engaged, and along the way, his teams compiled a 22-13 record heading into the rivalry game with Montana State this weekend.

Mick and his wife, Cheri, should be commended for going “above and beyond” for Grizzly Athletics.  He has been a great ambassador for the university, as well as the game of college football.  His retirement is well deserved, and will allow him to spend more time with family — and another real love, golf.

Second, Saturday’s game will have major playoff implications for both Montana and Montana State.  A Griz win should put UM into the upcoming Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.  A loss, and Montana’s season most likely is over.  A Bobcat triumph would definitely seal a playoff game for MSU, while a narrow defeat could possibly keep them on the borderline of an at-large selection by the committee…. but they would definitely need help from others.

Having served on the FCS Playoff Selection Committee from 2008-12, and chair from 2010-12, I always enjoyed hearing all the playoff scenarios from fans. By the time you entered the “war room” at the NCAA Headquarters in Indianapolis, IN., however, things changed moment-to-moment, game-to-game as the final weekend of the regular season came to a close.  The same will take place this Saturday. Presently, there appears to be 35-40 teams still in contention for the 24 playoff spots – 11 of which are filled by automatic bids.  Thus, if you aren’t a conference champion, there are only 13 at-large berths remaining.  And, contrary to popular belief, past records and financial bids have no impact on the selection committee decisions (although, I’m sure, the NCAA itself would love to have some major “financial draws” in the field for budget purposes – especially with the losses of high-fan appeal programs such as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the FBS rank – and expansion of the playoff field).

This year, the committee will utilize a new Simple Rating System (SRS) that uses quantitative measures such as win-loss percentage, home vs. away results, strength of schedules, average point differentials, etc., as another measuring tool in the selection process. While seven Division I wins is a target for making the playoffs, and helps provide a potential cut-off line for post-season eligibility consideration, it is not an absolute, set-in-stone criteria for making the 24-team field. Currently, Montana has six Division I wins, while Montana State has seven.  Also not to be forgotten is another intangible, the “hot” teams to end the season.  A prime example is James Madison University in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Dukes started the season with a 2-3 record – including road setbacks at Maryland (52-7) and Villanova (49-31), as well as a home loss versus Delaware (30-23) before going on a six-game winning streak.  JMU (8-3) concludes its season Saturday at home against Elon.

Once the 24-team field has been established, the top eight ranked teams are automatically selected as the “home” squads for their second-round games if they meet minimum financial bid requirements (schools must meet minimum revenue guarantees to the NCAA for each round of the playoffs in order to be awarded a home game. The first round minimum is $30,000, the second round $40,000, the quarterfinals $50,000 and the semifinals $60,000).  The remainder of the bracket is then filled using various criteria – a critical piece being to have as many bus trips (schools who are no more than 400 miles apart) as possible, without playing conference foes. An exception can be made if conference schools did not play each other during the season (but this option is not often considered).  Once the brackets are established, the bids for the first round (Nov. 29th games) are opened, with the highest bidder – assuming they have championship caliber facilities, and their playing fields are in good condition –  most often selected as the “home” team.

In my estimation, heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the Big Sky Conference still has 5-6 teams in contention, although most likely 3-4.  The league’s FCS committee representative is Jeff Tingey of Idaho State (having taken over for Torre Chisholm, who recently resigned at Portland State).  Should Idaho State be in consideration for a playoff bid, Jeff could certainly make an argument for possible inclusion for ISU, but he is not able to vote on his school… nor can any other members of the selection committee if their teams are in contention. Fortunately while on the committee, I was asked to leave the “war room” three of the four years I served as Montana was in consideration for a Top 4 seating – receiving a #4 spot in 2008 and 2011, and a top seed in 2009.

Finally, the Montana-Montana State rivalry is especially important for natives of the state who play in the game. It gives them bragging rights versus their counterparts, especially when they return home for the Christmas holidays. Looking at the two-deep depth chart, UM (5-2 in league play; 7-4 overall) has 15 Treasure State athletes listed – 3 of whom are starters, while the Bobcats (6-1; 8-3) have 20 Montanans on the roster, of which 7 are listed #1 on the depth chart to start the game.  Both teams have a number of Montanans also coming off the bench who will see significant action… so the atmosphere should be electric on Saturday.

Sixteen UM seniors will also see their final regular-season action in Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturday, of which four are from the Treasure State: Zach Wagenmann (defensive end, Missoula), Trevor Rehm (defensive line, Dillon), Shay Smithwick-Hann (quarterback, Kalispell) and Kevin Berland (wide receiver, Missoula). The Griz are also without the services of injured senior Trevor Poole of Spokane, who has missed the entire 2014 season with a back injury.

Montana currently leads the rivalry, 71-37-5, including last year’s 28-14 victory in Bozeman.  UM has been victorious 23 of the past 28 seasons.

… Speaking of the UM head football coach opening, it’s certainly going to generate a lot of interest – and could be one of the most critical program hires since Don Read took the job following the 1985 football season. In weeding out candidates, UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam will set the parameters and philosophies that he believes will be the most important and beneficial to the program and the university.

With a financial base salary of approximately $175,000 for the position (I would certainly support $200,000 as the average “base” at the FCS level is now $232,000.  This, however, does not include extra compensation for radio/television, camps, incentives, etc.  Any salary adjustments must be approved first by the president of the university, then the Montana Board of Regents), it may preclude many top FBS assistant coaches/coordinators from applying as it would be a pay cut. Some, though, will take it as an opportunity to get head coaching experience, and at a top FCS program.  The balancing act comes in the form of deciding whether to hire an up-and-comer who most likely will only stay a few years if successful versus someone who is looking at this as a place to settle. Or maybe UM will be looking for past head coaching experience vs. being a coordinator or assistant for an FBS program. Then again, is the jump from being a head coach at the Division II, Division III or NAIA level too much? On the other hand, how does someone who’s never been a head coach handle the pressures associated with the top job?  Who really knows during the search process?

It’s also a time to determine if a current Griz assistant is ready for the leap to the head job, or go outside the program for what some believe would be a “fresh face.” Either way, the UM Athletic Director has already said it will be an open national search, meaning internal coaches may apply and will be under consideration, but won’t be elevated to the head job without a national search process.

Regardless, the successful candidates will have to demonstrate a desire to fund-raise, to know and understand NCAA rules and compliance regulations, have a strong commitment toward academics and stress the importance of graduating, be a team player for the entire university system, be a spokesman for the school, have an outstanding recruiting background with many connections, and be able to hire a complete and dedicated staff that will support and compliment the mission of the university.  He must also have a clean background, know the uniqueness of Montana and Montana football, and be able to recruit the Treasure State for its best student-athletes – winning the battles with the in-state rivals from Montana State. Many coaches may “believe” they know the pressures associated with Griz Football, but in time, they come to realize it’s as tough as any other major program in the country. Hopefully, they’re ready for it. Fans here don’t accept mediocrity; they demand championships – and not just conference championships.  At the same time, they also want no problems or embarrassments to the university.

Hiring a new head coach is no easy task, and needs to be done as expeditiously as possible, but without hurrying the final decision too fast. The process can consume the athletic director and staffers, and even committee members if that’s the direction the president requires.  It also comes with the major recruiting season upon us, and national signing date less than two months away.  It is an exciting time, but it can also be very challenging in many, many ways.  Knowing Kent, I know he’ll make the right choice and with all the due diligence possible. I wish him and all of Grizzly Athletics the best of luck!

… Washington-Grizzly Stadium will be the site of next year’s second annual FCS/ESPN Kick-off Classic, featuring the Montana Grizzlies vs. the North Dakota State Bison.  The game will be played on Saturday, Aug. 29 at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN.  It should be an outstanding opportunity to showcase Missoula, and its new football coach.  It will also be the first Division I game of the 2015 football season.

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Jim O’Day was Director of Athletics at the University of Montana from 2005-2012. He also served as the Assistant Director of the Grizzly Athletic Association (1998-2000) and later as the Director of Development for UM Intercollegiate Athletics (2000-2005).

Prior to returning to his alma mater in 1998, O’Day was the owner/publisher of the family-owned Western Breeze newspaper in Cut Bank, MT. He was also sports editor of the Kalispell Daily Interlake from 1980-82.

In late 2013, Jim started his own consulting business, O’Day Enterprises, LLC.  His main clients include Farran Realty Partners, a private equity real estate development/investment firm based in Missoula; Epio Solutions of Seattle/Missoula, an agency primarily focused on branding/marketing/public relations utilizing various social media platforms for businesses, universities, non-profits and individuals; and BancVue, a company based in Austin, Texas, that aligns itself with small community banks and credit unions across the country to compete against the large mega banks. In addition, Jim is consulting for various oil and gas firms, as well as providing valuable professional resource services for intercollegiate athletics, fund-raising, capital raises, employment opportunities, etc. 

Jim and his wife Kathy have three sons: Chris, Kevin and Brian – all three graduates of The University of Montana.

 

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