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John Blanchette: Bobby Hauck tasked with making Grizzlies relevant in football again

Montana Grizzlies head football coach Bobby Hauck speaks to a reporter during the Big Sky Conference Media Days at the DoubleTree Hotel in Spokane on Monday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Montana Grizzlies head football coach Bobby Hauck speaks to a reporter during the Big Sky Conference Media Days at the DoubleTree Hotel in Spokane on Monday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

News is as unlikely as rain at college football’s mid-July conference gabfests, unless Nick Saban announces he’s changed his brand of coffee filters.

As the coaches of the Big Sky Conference gathered in Spokane for probing and prodding on Monday, the drought was especially dire. The one woulda-been cloudburst – Montana State coach Jeff Choate benching the Bobcats’ starting quarterback for the year with the order to introduce himself to his textbooks – was released last week. This, sadly, pre-empted any hyperventilating here.

There was this, however:

“The coaches picked us to finish seventh,” said new Montana coach Bobby Hauck, “so that’s a little different.”

Because it never happened to old Montana coach Bobby Hauck.

Which, of course, is why he’s new Montana coach Bobby Hauck now.

For the moment, his rehiring at UM last December simply prolongs the Big Sky’s longest-running subtext. While other programs have found their championship footing – Eastern Washington across a decade, Weber State and Southern Utah of late – the once regal Grizzlies have slogged through the criminal courts, NCAA probation, the New York Times best-seller list and the middle of the standings. Sometimes it’s not clear which the fan base finds more distasteful.

Now comes the soap-opera twist: the return of a character once written out of the script.

Has to feel a little weird, right?

“Not at all,” insisted Hauck. “The only time it was kind of surreal was walking out for the first spring practice on that field. I told (his coaches), ‘This is wild. I can’t believe we’re here.’”

Others in Missoula know the feeling.

Between 2003 and 2009, Hauck’s Grizzlies won 82 percent of their games, finished atop the Big Sky every year and reached three FCS title games – a run of staggering dominance. That didn’t carry over into his next head coaching gig at UNLV, but after some reputation rehab on Rocky Long’s staff at San Diego State, there was considerable sentiment to bring him back to UM last fall when Bob Stitt happened to be the wrong guy at the wrong time. A petition calling for Hauck’s return collected a few thousand signatures and some big donors reportedly flexed their muscles.

But there was also substantial pushback in Missoula from those who believed the violent off-field behavior issues – rape, assault, theft – that put the Grizzlies in the headlines beyond game day were rooted in attitudes fostered in the Hauck era, even as much of it happened after his departure.

It’s hardly a surprise that he resists the notion.

“I always held guys accountable,” he insisted. “We have no problem standing on our record of what we produced in that program.”

Maybe, then, it wasn’t his disciplinary record so much as his character judgments. In any case, he’s not worrying much about his detractors.

“Like any other profession, you’re never going to get 100 percent,” Hauck said. “We’ll embrace and welcome anyone who wants to jump on board and not worry about the others too much because they’re always going to exist.”

Nonetheless, there is some language in his UM contract addressing player conduct that wasn’t in Stitt’s (or in Choate’s, for that matter), though it looks to have been lawyered down into expectations with few specifics.

But that’s Montana’s concern. More relevant to the Big Sky is whether he can even approach his earlier success – and he credits his stint at San Diego State with “reinforcing all the things I held to be true as to how to build a program and win games.”

“We have a powerful place,” Hauck said. “Grizzly football is important to people there. I don’t see any reason why we can’t work our tails off and get back to a place where we’re winning championships.”

Even if the landscape has changed?

“See, I don’t think the league has changed,” he contended.

He’s wrong. Eastern is a different animal now. Programs like Weber and Southern Utah are better resourced and prepared to compete than they were a decade ago – and it’s true of the Big Sky’s middle class, too. Now Idaho has rejoined the Big Sky, a year removed from an FBS bowl victory.

And the Griz have misplaced their mystique.

“The league has changed,” agreed EWU coach Aaron Best. “But Bobby will put his stamp on things. It’ll be interesting to see how the roster he inherited becomes the roster he wants and how long that will take. I think he’ll find new challenges now that he didn’t have eight or nine years ago.

“I think the balance the Big Sky’s had is healthy. I don’t think it’s bad that someone says they have a chance.”

But that includes the Grizzlies, too. It’s a better league when they’re legit.

“I know this,” Hauck said. “For us not to have a championship since 2009 is probably not good enough.”

And the news drought continues.

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