McFeely: Big win for Griz and hopefully a sign of things to come
Montana tosses 'beatdown' on South Dakota, a step forward for traditionally strong (but recently struggling) FCS program
The Football Championship Subdivision is stronger, more interesting and more fun when Montana is good.
This statement was offered to Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauck this week for reaction and, unsurprisingly, there wasn't any resistance.
"I couldn't agree with that more," Hauck chuckled.
But the coach stopped well short of indicating the Griz are back to their former glory, which would make him different than predecessor Bob Stitt, and instead offered yellow caution signs despite an impressive 31-17 season-opening victory over the Missouri Valley Football Conference's South Dakota.
"It was a win and all wins are good. But I'm not ready to strike up the band and throw a parade yet," Hauck said. "We still have some work to do."
The coach sounded more subdued than he did immediately after quarterback Dalton Sneed threw for a career-high 430 yards, completing 37 of 52 passes with three touchdowns as the Griz dominated in Vermillion. Montana's defense also held the Coyotes scoreless in the fourth quarter. Hauck twice referred to the game as a "beatdown" in a postgame interview.
Those words conjured memories of Stitt circa 2015, when the first-year coach beat North Dakota State in Missoula in his first game and acted afterward like the Griz had rocketed back to their former perch atop the division. Granted, it was a massive win. Granted, Stitt had every right to be excited. But one game is one game and that does not a championship team make, a point Bison head coach Chris Klieman emphatically made later that year after his team walloped Montana in a playoff game.
Stitt was gone after three seasons, the win over the Bison by far his biggest highlight in Montana.
That's why Hauck retreated some in a phone interview. While he likes the signs he saw in beating the Coyotes and knows it was an important victory, his pedigree tells him the Griz have a long road ahead. Hauck was hired in 2018 for a second stint in Montana. He was the Griz's head coach from 2003-2009, winning or sharing the Big Sky Conference title every year and advancing to the national championship game three times.
While Hauck never won a national title before taking a job at FBS Nevada-Las Vegas, the Griz won the championship in 1995 and 2001. This is a program with a deep tradition that lost its way, in part because of a rape scandal and NCAA penalties imposed in 2013 after major infractions under former coach Robin Pflugrad. Best-selling author Jon Krakauer wrote a book about Montana's problems titled "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town." It was released in 2015.
(LISTEN to The Forum's Mike McFeely and Eric Peterson preview the NDSU-UND game:)
The Griz haven't made the 24-team FCS playoff field since 2015 and have lost to in-state rival Montana State three straight years. Last season, Montana opened with an impressive victory over No. 13-ranked Northern Iowa of the MVFC and began 4-1 before losing three straight in the middle of the season. A year-end loss to Montana State ended the Griz's playoff hopes.
That's why Hauck is pumping the brakes.
"We have to recruit. We have to get bigger and stronger up front, both sides of the ball," Hauck said. "I agree that it's about time we get back to business and get Montana football where it needs to be. But it takes time."
FCS would be better if Montana could become a power again. With the defection of schools like Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and others to higher-level FBS, the division is lacking top-level teams that can regularly challenge NDSU, Eastern Washington, South Dakota State and James Madison.
Factor in the tremendous setting of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, tops in FCS, and a passionate fan base, and you have a program that would add pounds of pizzazz.
The big victory over USD offered some hope, although Hauck has spent the week trying to tell anybody in Missoula who will listen that this week's opponent, FCS newcomer North Alabama, is not going to be a pushover. The Lions played better than expected last year in the Fargodome before running out of starch in the second half of a 38-7 loss to NDSU.
"We watched the film of that first half and I'll tell you that they gave NDSU all it could handle. This is a good football team that's coming here," Hauck said. "We have a lot to work on. We had too many penalties, we had some turnovers. It was a good start, but we're not there yet. We have a ways to go to get back to what my recollection is of what this program used to be."