The Stitt Era Begins

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon

Within half an hour, the conference room at the Hilton Garden Inn looked like the north section of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, filled with maroon and silver and fired up about Griz football.

“This fan base is hardcore and I want to be a part of it,” Bob Stitt told the Flathead Valley contingent of Griz Nation that greeted him at last week’s booster event on national signing day.

Before presenting the latest class of recruits, the new head football coach at the University of Montana introduced himself to the Kalispell crowd, giving fans their first look at the new face of Montana football.

It was a chance at a first impression and a glimpse into the future.

Stitt provided insight into his highly touted offensive style that believes in passing the ball early and often and tries to wear down defenses with hyperactive drives, similar to the University of Oregon and Texas Tech University.

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Incoming head coach Bob Stitt speaks to a large crowd as the Flathead Chapter of the Grizzly Scholarship Association hosts the 2015 Griz Football Signing Day Socia in Kalispell on Feb. 4, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | FlatheadBeacon

As evidence, Stitt referenced an Orediggers game last year when the offense ran 118 plays. The NCCA average is roughly 60.

“We’re going to put an offense out there nobody has ever seen,” he told the crowd of over 220 people, one of the largest gatherings for the Flathead Chapter of the Grizzly Scholarship Association.

By all accounts, the 50-year-old outsider is fitting right in after one month and saying all the right things to get antsy Griz fans excited for a new chapter.

The program’s third head coach in four years, Stitt brings a reputable resume from the Division II ranks, where he spent the past 15 seasons at the Colorado School of Mines.

“I believe we built the best program in Division II,” he said, adding, “I told my wife, if we leave it’s because it’s for the best job in the country. And this is.”

The Orediggers were 108-62 overall, 83-44 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and claimed three conference titles under Stitt.

The Nebraska native is replacing Mick Delaney, who retired after three seasons and a 24-14 record at the Grizzlies’ helm. Montana was 9-5 overall in 2014, received an at-large berth into the NCAA FCS playoffs and advanced to the second round.

Stitt emerged as the top candidate after an eight-week coaching search, receiving high recommendations from several FBS Division I administrators and coaches, including Washington State University head coach Mike Leach, according to UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam.

“The more I visited with him, the more I got excited about his approach and his philosophy,” Haslam told the Beacon last week.

In mid-December, Stitt agreed to a three-year contract with a base salary of $175,000 annually. In comparison, Delaney’s first-year deal was worth $157,000 and his later deal reached $165,000, according to the Montana University System. Before that, former head coach Robin Pflugrad’s salary was roughly $157,000 and Bobby Hauck’s was roughly $150,000, according to university figures.

Similar to the previous coaches, Stitt will have several opportunities to bump up his base salary with additional incentive bonuses, including high marks for players’ grade-point averages, academic progress, fan attendance and performance goals, such as qualifying for the playoffs and winning a national championship. The incentives can tally upwards of $50,000 overall, according to previous contracts.

“There’s no doubt that we have high expectations and I think that’s what drew him to this job,” Haslam said. “Certainly, the need to win. But the expectation is that we win and we win the right way. We do it the right way. We represent the state of Montana. We are in a competitive business, a business where there is a winner and a loser every Saturday. We certainly know how important it is for us to win football games. It’s important to us economically. It’s important to our university. But I certainly want us to be able to feel good about the way we’re doing it.”

At last week’s event, Stitt complimented Delaney, who took over the program in a state of turmoil in 2012 following the ouster of both Pflugrad and former director of athletics Jim O’Day, investigations into potential player misconduct and eventual self-imposed sanctions by the university after the NCAA found players received improper benefits. The school is in the final year of its probation, which cost the football team four scholarships.

“This program is not broken,” Stitt said, adding “(Delaney left) us with great recruits.”

While bringing a crew of his own guys from Colorado, Stitt kept three of Delaney’s assistant coaches: Ty Gregorak, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach; Lawrence Suiaunoa, defensive line coach; and Justin Green, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.

Stitt also added a pair of former Grizzly players to his staff: former Grizzly quarterback Andrew Selle, a Billings product who played from 2006-10 and Mike Ferriter, a Helena native who was a Griz wide receiver from 2005-08 and coached at Idaho State the past two seasons. Both men will coach receivers next season.

“We’ll throw the ball so much we needed two coaches,” Ferriter told the Kalispell crowd.

Stitt and his assistants touted their first class of recruits, saying they signed the top in-state players and a solid group of other athletes. The 2015 class features six in-state products, including Bigfork’s Josh Sandry and Glacier’s Andrew Harris.

Questions still remain about the quarterback position, which Stitt said remains up for grabs. Last year’s starter Jordan Johnson graduated along with backup Shay Smithwick-Hann, a Kalispell product who ended his career at UM with 1,027 career yards and 10 touchdowns.

The roster features three quarterbacks who have seen very limited action in recent seasons: redshirt junior Brady Gustafson; redshirt freshman Will Weyer; and redshirt sophomore Makena Simis. The latest recruiting class features two signal callers: Chad Chalic, a 6-foot-4 junior transfer from the University of Idaho and Willy Pflug, a 6-0 high school athlete from Portland, Oregon. Chalich started four games for the Vandals last season, passing for 491 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 160 yards and another TD.

Stitt said he will be looking for a quarterback who is “football smart” and can process information fast on the field with quick feet.

He also said the team would run the ball consistently, predicting a 1,000 rusher next season.

“Our offense will be dictated by the defense,” he said, adding, “We live to throw it.”

Stitt said he doesn’t plan to make any changes on defense and will allow Gregorak “to keep doing his stuff.”

Instead, his mind will be focused on offense.

“We need to score more points,” he said.

With the first spring practice approaching in March, Stitt said he feels confident in the team he has, although a few recruits could still come in over the coming days.

“I think we have our team,” he said, emphasizing his plans to build the program by developing recruits and not relying on transfers.

“I don’t think you can build anything long term or lasting with transfers,” he said.

Looking out at the crowded room of spirited fans, Stitt said it reminded him of being back in Nebraska, a state that similarly reveres college football. He acknowledged the pressure that comes with carrying on one of the nation’s great FCS programs but said he is excited to embrace the challenge.

“I needed this at this point in my career,” he said.

“Like Joe Glenn said, ‘you can go to a bigger program but not a better one than Montana.’”