BILLINGS — The upcoming football season at Montana State is, in Jeff Choate’s mind, a realistic chance for the Bobcats to achieve loftier goals for the first time since his hiring as coach.
Choate, entering his third year at MSU, will constantly face high expectations from fans and boosters to deliver on his always-confident rhetoric. But what’s in store?
Will the Cats beat Montana for a third straight year? Will they compete for a conference title? Will they make the FCS playoffs?
Remember, MSU hasn’t had a winning record since 2014. But if Choate’s first two years on the job in Bozeman were to lay the foundation, the future has seemingly arrived. Choate commented in December about his hope for the Bobcats to finally get over the proverbial hump.
MSU athletic director Leon Costello, too, has increased optimism, for more than one reason. Football-wise, Costello was happy to sign Choate to a three-year contract extension in February, a deal which keeps Choate in Bozeman through the 2021 season.
“For me, it solidifies our future,” Costello said during an interview with 406mtsports.com. “Not only is a foundation built but I think it’s really time for us to take that next step. Coach Choate is the right guy to do it.
“He’s been an amazing leader; he’s been an amazing teammate. When you can combine those two, special things can happen. The excitement around Bobcat football is there, and we’re excited about the future with him in charge.”
On the fundraising side, Costello continues to champion the Bobcats' aggressive fundraising task.
Generally, there seem to be positive vibes surrounding MSU athletics right now — back-to-back football wins over Montana will do that — and members of the department are trying to cultivate those feelings during an annual statewide road trip that is under way.
Costello, Choate, and head basketball coaches Brian Fish and Tricia Binford are the headliners on what is a sojourn to greet supporters, to generate scholarship dollars for the Bobcat Club and, surely, to shop MSU’s high-reaching facilities plan that is still in the fundraising stage.
The tour hit Lewistown and Cut Bank on Monday, Glasgow and Plentywood on Tuesday, and will cruise through Glendive, Miles City and Billings in the next two days.
(The trip will stop Thursday at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center beginning at noon with a $15 buffet lunch. Costello, Choate and Fish are expected to be on hand.)
Costello is using his time on the road to continue to inform supporters about MSU’s facilities master plan, specifically Phase 1, which calls for the construction of a 37,000 square foot football operations center at the north end of Bobcat Stadium. Cost is estimated at $16 million.
The two-level building, when completed, should include coaches offices and meeting and film rooms, as well as locker rooms, weight training space, an equipment facility and areas for rehab and therapy. That, in turn, will free up existing real estate inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, some of which will be converted into an expanded academic center for all athletes — if everything goes accordingly.
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With the facilities plan as a backdrop, does it put a bigger onus on making a convincing appeal to donors on the road?
“I think it does,” Costello conceded.
Costello said he still hopes to have the necessary signed pledges from donors in place by the end of the football season. Once those are secured, shovels can be dug into the ground.
If there are lofty expectations for the football program, the goal of the facilities plan is nothing short of bold and challenging. Donations don’t grow on trees, and Costello and his subordinates are petitioning those with the means to make a difference.
“We’re continuing the effort. We talk to people every day about the project. It’s a continual process,” Costello said. “It just takes time, but we’re putting in that time.
“I think people see what this will mean to our department once it is completed and the benefits it will have for all of our programs. We’ve got a long ways to go, but we’re not going to stop until we get there.”
Before he became the AD at MSU in 2016, Costello was an integral part of the fundraising effort at South Dakota State that brought in nearly $60 million for a new football stadium, an athletic complex and an indoor practice facility.
That would seem to bode well for what the Bobcats want to accomplish now, though Costello has been reluctant to discuss specific numbers when it comes to what has already been raised.
There have already been incremental improvements to infrastructure within the athletic department. Bobcat Stadium received a FieldTurf upgrade last August, and the outdoor track and field facility to the south of the football stadium is undergoing a facelift.
Additionally, Costello has set a Sept. 1 target date to have a new LED video scoreboard in place inside Worthington Arena. MSU is still working with a consultant and entertaining bids for this project, which is made possible by money generated through Learfield and Bobcat Sports Properties.
While those augmentations are not necessarily part of MSU’s facilities master plan, Costello said they are indispensable for further growth.
“We’ve been able to enhance some things here in the very short term, but in the grand scheme of things are you really thinking about those as big capital projects? No,” Costello said.
“But they make a difference for our student-athletes and they make a difference for our fans, so they are definitely a part of our capital campaign, for sure.”
After Thursday’s stop in Billings, the athletic department’s road swing will visit Butte on May 1.