In Montana, it’s a fall without football

Sports

(Stats Perform) – With its wide-open spaces, Montana will never be confused as one of the louder states, but it’s exceptionally quiet this fall, and few people like it.

Football is sewn into the fabric of the campuses and surrounding areas of the state’s two Division I schools, the University of Montana in Missoula and Montana State University in Bozeman, and the action has gone silent since athletics were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raucous crowds and deafening sounds on game day at Montana’s Washington Grizzly Stadium and Montana State’s Bobcat Stadium belie the serenity that is so often accustomed with the state. It’s what most people like.

“I think whether it’s our team, the students at the university, the faculty and staff, our coaches or the people of Montana, I think are somewhat depressed that we don’t have football games,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said.

“In terms of football, people that are used to being engaged in it this time of the year are not sure what to do with themselves. I think people are kind of bored, frankly.”

Montana State coach Jeff Choate concurs: “That rhythm of ‘this is what you do on Saturdays in the fall’ is a little off.”

Only 17 of 127 programs in FCS college football have scheduled games this fall, so the vibe in Montana, or lack of it, is shared in many places across the country. Still, it stands out with the most-bitter rivals in the Big Sky Conference.

Montana and Montana State, both former national championship-winning programs, boast passionate fans bases which live and breathe tailgating, touchdowns and trash-talking. Last season, Montana State went 11-4 and advanced to the FCS semifinals, while Montana finished 10-4, bowing out in the quarterfinals. Each was going to enter the 2020 season with a lofty national ranking.

They won’t meet this fall for the first time since World War II.

“It’s been unchartered territory, certainly,” Hauck said.

Not playing is “super frustrating,” according to Choate, whose program has won the last four meetings with Montana.

“Our kids work 365 days a year for 11 guaranteed opportunities – that’s it. When those are taken away, that’s pretty significant. It’s such a different sport – it’s more of an event than it is a game in a lot of ways. And I think that’s what we’re missing in our community right now and on our campus.”

Both schools are among the highest in average home attendance in the FCS. Since 2012, Montana has ranked first or second nationally and Montana State hasn’t been outside the top 10. Last year, UM was second with an average of 22,545 fans for seven home games and Montana State was sixth in drawing an average of 17,281 fans to eight home games.

Their small cities, separated by about 200 miles, revolve around campus life. Montana State’s enrollment is just under 17,000 and Bozeman’s population is nearing 50,000, while the UM enrolls over 10,000 and Missoula has nearly 75,000 citizens.

Without athletics, especially football, there is significant economic loss, especially for bars, restaurants and hotels that do well with home game weekends. A report by UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research in 2016 found over half of the fans at the Grizzlies’ home games are from out of town.

The Big Sky and all other FCS conferences are planning a shortened season in the spring semester if health conditions are deemed safe. It will be more difficult in northern states such as Montana because two months of their practices and games will occur during winter months.

With everything changing, the NCAA is allowing schools that aren’t playing this fall to continue the offseason with a format that resembles spring practices. It’s not what Montana and Montana State are used to having in the fall, but their coaches and players relish the day when they hear the noise again.

“It is especially tough because there are schools out there who have the opportunity to play and it is unfortunate that we aren’t in that position,” said Montana State’s Lewis Kidd, an All-Big Sky offensive tackle. “The cool thing about it is the energy is still continuously building. Once the season was postponed, it would have been easy for everyone to be disappointed and upset and lose hope a little bit. But this just builds up the anticipation and makes people want football back even more. I think it will create a tremendous atmosphere once we do get the all-clear to play.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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