Montana State is scaling back on more games this spring.
The Bobcats, Montana and Portland State will not participate in the Big Sky’s spring season, announced Friday morning. 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.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes is paramount,” MSU athletic director Leon Costello said in a news release. “The timeline for our football student-athletes to be physically prepared for the current conference schedule can’t be guaranteed given our climate and related circumstances. By altering our spring season, we will be able to focus on their physical training during the appropriate conditions and proper recovery for the fall season.”
A source told the Chronicle that MSU is trying to be flexible with this scheduling and that “everything is on the table.” A UM news release said the Grizzlies are trying to schedule two games this spring, but the Bobcats could play more than two or none depending on the situation.
A 'Cat-Griz game is not being scheduled for now, though nothing is concrete yet as plans will unfold in coming weeks.
The Bobcats are open to scheduling 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.
Sacramento State opted out of the entire spring season, making it four Big Sky teams which won’t be playing a full slate.
“This has been a trying year for everyone,” Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate said. “We respect the fact that each institution is in a different place in its ability to practice, compete and meet (COVID-19) testing protocols. Here in Montana, we’re uniquely challenged in keeping our student-athletes safe and healthy, which is our top priority, while preparing and playing in deep winter conditions. This is nearly impossible to accomplish given the Big Sky Conference schedule timeline. Finding a way to compete in some fashion when circumstances allow remains important to me and our administration.”
Publicly, MSU coaches and officials remained committed 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.
Multiple obstacles kept the Bobcats and Big Sky teams from easily competing. The coronavirus’ presence still remains. Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said previously that “a lot has to change” regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in order for the Big Sky to hold competition again. He said in August the Big Sky wouldn’t hold football games until the country had a better handle of the spread of the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the United States reportedly set a single-day record for the most deaths tied to COVID-19 with 4,327. However, vaccinations have also begun to be administered.
“The safety of our students is always our No. 1 priority at Montana State,” MSU President Waded Cruzado said in Friday’s news release. “This decision was difficult, but it will help ensure our student-athletes are as safe and healthy as possible when they do take to the field again. We are proud of their hard work and look forward to cheering them on.”
When the Big Sky was considering moving its fall seasons to the spring, Costello had said one of his priorities was allowing the Bobcats chances to compete for national and conference championships. Moving competitions to the spring appeared to do that.
Choate believed that decision provided normalcy and closure, which was the “most powerful thing.” He added, “We’ll make sure we prepare (players) for competition moving forward. Whatever it looks like, we’ll be ready.” Bobcats players and coaches were hopeful moving games to the spring provided them the best chance to play at all this school year.
As soon as the push to the spring was announced, other logistical issues came to the forefront.
The time between the end of a potential spring season and the beginning of fall camp would’ve left little time for athletes to recover from the physical toll of a season.
Before the FCS playoffs plans were announced, Choate expressed his desire to wrap up a season by mid-April. This way athletes had enough time to prepare for another season just a few months later.
Coaches suggested the fall 2021 season should be slightly delayed to create more rest time. However, Choate didn’t want a spring season to negatively affect this upcoming fall.
“I think we can all survive a year without this, but two falls is going to be devastating to our game and possibly to a lot of athletic departments and programs nationwide,” Choate said previously. “So I think whatever we choose to do in the spring cannot be at the expense of a full legitimate season in fall of 2021.”
“That’s the one thing we cannot do,” Choate added. “We cannot screw up the fall.”
Choate had also said MSU’s playing surfaces were maybe his most crucial concern about a spring season, not COVID-19. In the past, Choate questioned the value of spring practices because the climate in Montana normally isn’t conducive to outside activities. He reiterated that practicing in January or February isn’t easily possible in Montana “unless you’re skiing.”
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.
“One of the reasons that I am such a big downer on spring at all is we can’t practice half the time,” Choate said previously.