Montana State players would’ve had to practice in freezing temperatures. They might’ve had less chances to practice before taking on a fully-ready opponent. Then they might’ve had mere weeks before they would have to begin getting ready for another full season.
This is why the Bobcats, as well as Montana and Portland State, opted out of a full Big Sky spring schedule on Friday. Those teams will potentially play a modified nonconference schedule.
These teams will not be eligible for a spring Big Sky championship or the FCS playoffs. But MSU athletic director Leon Costello and head football coach Jeff Choate said a full spring slate would put players at risk.
Choate remarked he doesn’t agree with Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauck on much, but they agreed on this.
“When you look at the schedule and you look at it timeline-wise with the climate we were going to be in, the safety of our student-athletes came to the forefront and was the ultimate reason we made this decision,” Costello said. “In our opinion, it’s just not right. We want to give them the best opportunity to develop as young men, as students and athletes. And asking them to do that was not in their best interest and obviously not in our best interest.”
“This is not a decision that was made overnight,” Choate added. “It was going to be difficult at best, and even potentially impossible. … This has been a moving target.”
A source told the Chronicle that MSU is trying to be flexible with its potential spring scheduling. A UM news release said the Grizzlies are trying to line up two games this spring, but the Bobcats could play more than two or none depending on the situation.
A ‘Cat-Griz game is unlikely, though nothing is concrete yet as plans will unfold in coming weeks.
The Bobcats are open to arranging to play a Frontier Conference team, pending clearance by the NCAA and NAIA. They also could play a nearby Big Sky program like Eastern Washington or Idaho if a conference team has to cancel a game at the last second.
Choate said even a couple games would provide younger players experience in a live setting so they’re more developed going into the fall. The 2021 fall season has been Choate’s priority.
“I think we’re still going to have some Montana State football this spring,” he said. “It’s just not going to be a six or eight-game schedule.”
Sacramento State opted out of the entire spring season, making it four Big Sky teams which won’t be playing a full slate.
Costello and Choate didn’t want games to be suddenly canceled or postponed this spring. Now, the Bobcats have more control of the competitions they participate in, all with the hope of ramping up to the fall. This also was intended to provide players more stability, which they haven’t had much of since March.
“We need our student-athletes to be healthy, to develop and be ready to play,” Costello said. “We just couldn’t provide that environment provided the timeline we were given.”
Publicly, MSU coaches and officials were open to playing this spring. However, doubt steadily increased around the program as the Bobcats’ season opener on Feb. 27 crept closer.
The NCAA scheduled the FCS playoffs to begin in mid-April. The postseason, which will end in mid-May, was cut down to 16 teams instead of 24.
Choate said “there’s a high level of uncertainty” about the FCS playoffs being held.
“When you start with player safety and their health and well-being,” he said, “and you start stacking the other reasons for why this will be difficult and challenging on top of that, my tipping point was that these kids had been through enough.”
Choate said this decision was made now, rather than months ago, because coaches weren’t provided the timeline for games when the 2020 fall season was postponed to this spring. Choate added coaches weren’t consulted much about the timetable.
“And I think that was a little bit problematic when you look at the reality of this,” he said.
Speaking to other coaches, Choate realized how each Big Sky school is in significantly different scenarios. Arizona has rising COVID-19 cases, for example, and California is facing stronger restrictions.
This didn’t give Choate much confidence. “I just didn’t see it,” he said. This is why he never told his players they were undoubtedly going to compete this spring.
“I don’t know if this is realistic, and I don’t even know if it’s the right thing to do,” Choate remembers thinking. “When you have those doubts and those questions, you can stand up in front of your team and be honest and transparent with them. … I think our players know exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s to protect them and not put them in harm’s way.”
Multiple obstacles kept the Bobcats and Big Sky teams from easily competing. The coronavirus’ presence still remains. However, vaccinations have also begun to be administered, which Choate said gives his program hope.
Other logistical issues came to the forefront when the Big Sky postponed the season last fall.
In the past, Choate questioned the value of spring practices because the climate in Montana normally isn’t conducive to outside activities.The Bobcats play at outdoor Bobcat Stadium and don’t have an indoor venue to easily prepare at.
Choate said the surfaces the Bobcats compete on aren’t normally usable through March. The cold weather would have been problematic if they wanted to begin practice a month before their first game — which would be in less than two weeks — as they normally do.
Choate noted the worst of Montana’s winter conditions are ahead. He said MSU consulted “extensively” with medical professionals. He cited a part of NCAA guidelines that recommends athletes shouldn’t practice or play in temperatures below 15 degrees, which the Bobcats would’ve likely had to do in February.
“I think that’s a piece of this safety, health and well-being that’s not being talked about enough. Clearly there’s issues with COVID that are globally understood by now,” Choate said. “That’s the No. 1 issue right now. The issue that’s specific to Montana and Montana State being we’re the only two schools in cold-weather climates that don’t have an indoor space for us to prepare, that was the second tipping point.”
Choate also reiterated football offseasons last for months specifically because of the physical toll from the collision sport. A full spring season would’ve given players about two weeks before the Bobcats usually begin their training cycle leading up to the fall. This also would’ve provided players little time to recover from injuries.
“They aren’t giving their bodies an appropriate amount of time to heal and go back into that,” Choate said. “And they’re going to be asked to do it, make no mistake. … So that’s what went into our decision was looking at the totality of this concept of players safety, health and well-being.”