When Montana State director of athletics Leon Costello spent 1.5 days with Brent Vigen nearly two years ago during the head football coach interview process, Costello remembers a moment when he took a deep breath of relief and thought, “OK, this can work.”
Costello was tasked with replacing head coach Jeff Choate, who took the job as Texas’ co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach in January 2021. It was a high-pressure hire, considering how beloved Choate was by MSU supporters and the momentum the football team was building, as we illustrated in our 2019 trip to Bozeman.
The job opening, while it felt like a gut punch to MSU to lose a figure like Choate, was sure to draw great candidates. MSU has the needed external and internal support for football success, a passionate fan base, facilities, and a talented roster to inherit.
But finding the replacement for Choate, who galvanized so many around the department, the university, the town of Bozeman, and the state, was a hire Costello needed to nail.
It didn’t take long for Vigen to top Costello’s shortlist.
Vigen was a former player and coach at North Dakota State. He won three FCS national titles as the Bison’s offensive coordinator from 2011-13 before following Craig Bohl to Wyoming to continue his OC duties. Vigen had a lineage of recruiting and developing pro quarterbacks during his time at NDSU and Wyoming, a position of volatility in recent years at MSU.
Vigen checked all the boxes: He knew what it took to win an FCS title, knew the region, and could identify and develop QB talent.
“When he and his wife Molly got here and from the day and a half we were together, it just made me go, ‘OK, I can see this, and we can work well together. We have the same visions,’” Costello told HERO Sports last week. “I knew he was someone I could lean on and work with and we could get a lot done together.”
The hiring process was an interesting time for MSU supporters. Not only dealing with the sting of Choate leaving, but the reports and tweets having multiple names “emerge” as MSU’s frontrunner. And Vigen’s name wasn’t the first mentioned as the “frontrunner.” In fact, it was the third if you were following along on Twitter.
Costello chuckled in his office when thinking back to that.
“During the interview process, if you talk to one person, even if it’s just a phone call, all of a sudden it turns into he’s a finalist. And that’s not always the case,” he said. “I talked to a lot of candidates, but then I also talked to a lot of people in the business about multiple people. So I could call one person and say tell me about these four people that you know, and then all of sudden those four are the leading candidates. That’s not really the case. I actually got a kick out of it. I sat back and watched what’s being said and I just kind of laughed and I’m like, ‘well that may be on to something, and that really isn’t.’ It was really interesting. But it was always about what we needed most, and [Vigen] definitely was that person.”
Under Choate’s guidance, the Bobcats went from 4-7 in 2016 to 5-6 to 8-5 to 11-4 in 2019. He transformed MSU back into a team playing a physical brand of football and got the program back to the postseason in his final two years, advancing to the second round and then the semifinals. The 2020 fall season was postponed to the spring of 2021 due to COVID, which MSU elected not to participate in, a decision made while Choate was still the head coach.
Off the field, Choate was one of the biggest and most unique personalities in the Big Sky and the FCS. He was a fast-talking, intense, charismatic figure that the football fans, university, and region rallied behind. He was as energetic and passionate of a coach as you’ll find. And that persona helped the program get back some swagger and back onto the national radar. It also breathed life and fierceness back into the Montana rivalry. Choate was not afraid to talk the talk, especially when it came to the Grizzlies. And he backed it up on the field.
Choate’s popularity in Bozeman can be summed up like this. When walking into the Rocking R Bar downtown, one of the first of many jerseys you see framed on the wall is one with Choate’s name above the No. 4. Below the 4 says “Griz Slayer.”
Choate has legendary status in Bozeman for many reasons despite only being there for four seasons. But his biggest legacy will be going 4-0 against the Griz.
Vigen was named MSU’s new head coach in February 2021. He took what was built before him and elevated it to the next level in his debut season.
No doubt, it was an adjustment for the players and fans going from Choate to Vigen. The phrase “voice at the front of the room” gets used when there’s a new head coach. And this certainly was a new voice.
Vigen has a different demeanor. He’s more easygoing, mellow, and laid back. He may not bring the same energy in media or public appearances, but he’s very insightful in what he says if you really listen and dissect the quote, even if they are delivered in a different way. His steadiness has resulted in consistent play on the field. There are always highs and lows in a football season, but they haven’t been as drastic under Vigen.
Vigen erased doubts about how a talented group of 2021 seniors would respond to a new coach with an opposite style.
The Bobcats went 12-3 in Vigen’s first season, advancing to their first national championship game since 1984. They lost 38-10 to NDSU, but it was a massive step toward where the program wants to be on a national level.
“To the casual observer, the transition just seemed to go seamlessly,” Costello said. “And I say that knowing it’s not that easy. There were things that either the players were dealing with or he was dealing with. Having to take the current coaching staff and decide which ones were going to be a part of his coaching staff, obviously, there are a lot of things that go into that. But how he went about that, and how he goes about everything during the day since, he’s always the same.
“He’s always approachable. You can always have a conversation. He’s always even-keeled. That’s the mentality I tell my staff to have. We’re going to go through highs and lows. But if we can ride it out here in the middle, it’s going to be better for us down the road. And he does that probably to perfection. I don’t think the transition could have gone any better.”
Vigen made a gutsy but calculated decision at the start of the 2021 playoffs. During the opening-round bye, Vigen decided to replace starting QB Matthew McKay due to late-season offensive struggles. Despite McKay’s 9-2 record, Vigen inserted freshman and Montana native Tommy Mellott as the new starter. This resulted in McKay entering the transfer portal before MSU’s first playoff game, causing a Twitter firestorm before it became known that Mellott was named the new starter.
Bobcat fans were used to quarterback changes during the previous regime. But this wasn’t a rash decision made by Vigen, who fans began to understand was deliberate and organized. Mellott breathed life into the offense, going on a memorable run to the championship game while living up to his “Touchdown Tommy” moniker.
“The key to success in modern life, no matter what industry or business you work in, is the ability to be flexible, make changes on the fly, maintain positivity and communicate the why to your organization, particularly the young people in it,” Colter Nuanez, a co-founder of Skyline Sports who has covered Montana State and Montana football for more than a decade, told HERO Sports. “I think Vigen has used his steady demeanor and disciplined way of operating to implement that exact way of leading the organization.”
But for how successful Vigen was in his first season as head coach and in the first 11 weeks of this season with a 9-1 overall record and undefeated mark vs. the FCS, there was still something missing outside of the ultimate goal of a national championship. It’s something a part of the fan base considers just as important, if not more important than winning an FCS title, and that’s beating Montana.
Vigen did not do that in 2021.
Fair or not, coaching success at the two FCS universities in Montana is measured by how you do in the Brawl of the Wild.
Former MSU head coach Rob Ash was the winningest coach in program history with a 70-38 record and three Big Sky titles. He was fired in 2015 despite it being his first losing season at MSU. But Ash was 2-7 against Montana, including a 54-35 loss two days before he was let go.
Choate took over in 2016, flipping the script in the rivalry and winning the next four matchups against the Griz. The losing coach in those first two games in 2016 and 2017 was Montana’s Bob Stitt. Stitt was fired after the 2017 season despite going 8-5, 6-5, and 7-4 in his short stint. The two losses to the Bobcats cost Montana a trip to the playoffs and ultimately cost Stitt his job.
The pressure to win at these two schools is huge. The pressure to win this rivalry game is monstrous.
Some thought Vigen overlooked the importance of winning the Brawl of the Wild last season. After MSU lost 29-10 in Missoula with an uninspired performance, some fans and media said the “treat every game the same” mentality won’t get it done. This rivalry game requires something more than that, even if it’s not quite at the level of Choate’s profanity-laced, impassioned team speeches about beating the team “over the hill.”
And even though Vigen led MSU to the national title game in his debut season, and even though he had his team playing at an even higher level this year despite losing a historic senior class while also dealing with injuries to his current roster, and even though he held a 21-2 record against FCS opponents as MSU’s head coach, and even though the Bobcats were undefeated against the FCS this year, he still had his doubters entering last week’s game against Montana. Doubts that would always linger until the Bobcats beat the Griz, regardless of how MSU finished the season in the playoffs.
That’s how much this game means to both fan bases.
With the pressure of winning this contest, with playoff stakes on the line, and with the monumental morning of ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcasting within a few snowball throws of the stadium, the Bobcats delivered a crescendoed statement by not only dominating Montana 55-21, but they proved the mentality of not getting too high for one game can still produce a win in this rivalry matchup that sets the table for year-long narratives about the state of the losing program.
“Entering the Brawl, the last box Vigen had to check was to beat Montana,” Nuanez said. “And, for better or worse, so many Bobcat fans still have that inferiority complex where beating the Griz is more important than anything. The age-old question has always been would you rather beat your rival or win the national championship? Vigen almost did it last year. But this year, if he would’ve lost to the Griz at home and forfeited another Big Sky championship in the process, much of the fan base and the boosters would’ve been up in arms. But that was not the case. And now he has a chance to make Choate a distant memory much faster than I or most people thought he could.”
As thousands of MSU fans partied on the field just outside of the new indoor facility connected to the stadium, Vigen was inside the building answering questions from the media in a calm, vanilla, yet silent-assassin-like manner.
“It just felt we had the right mindset this week,” Vigen said. “It’s the way we’ve approached every week, no matter who we’ve played. And that carries over into a game of this magnitude. You don’t have to all of the sudden become something different. You don’t have to have this out-of-body experience. You can just go out and execute. I think our guys really have bought into that philosophy, and it showed today … It wasn’t a deal like we were out for revenge or anything like that. We just needed to come out and perform on this stage.”
With the win, MSU finished the regular season 10-1 overall and 10-0 vs. the FCS, receiving the No. 4 seed in the FCS playoffs.
Many factors went against the Bobcats this season. Yet they kept on winning. Vigen has instilled a steadiness to the team along with a “Won’t be beat” mantra.
The Bobcats lost eight of their 13 All-Conference players from last year, three All-Americans on defense (two of which were NFL Draft picks), their go-to WR who made an NFL roster, two offensive linemen to the FBS, another offensive lineman to the NFL, and a fourth offensive lineman graduated after an All-Big Sky career.
First-Team All-American running back Isaiah Ifanse has missed all of this season after offseason surgery. San Diego State transfer RB Kaegun Williams was a key addition but hasn’t played due to injury. And the next top option at RB, Lane Sumner, has missed a lot of time with injuries. Yet the Bobcats are No. 2 in the FCS in rushing offense (325.7 yards per game).
“Vigen’s resume since taking over at Montana State has been virtually flawless,” Nuanez said. “His ability to take over a player-run culture and empower the seniors last year was impressive. His ability to have the awareness to not try to alter the formula for winning and ride his stallions as far as possible was important. And then to have so many questions coming into this year — how do you replace [NFL Draft selections] Troy Andersen and Daniel Hardy? What will you do if Isaiah Ifanse can’t go? Can Tommy Mellott figure out a way to have sustained success? How are you going to be able to operate with a makeshift offensive line filled with sophomores? How will you replace your shooting star defensive coordinator? Will you ever beat the Griz? — and to not only answer those questions but make them almost a joke considering how good they’ve been, I would honestly vote him coach of the year in the Big Sky.”
Vigen was indeed named the Big Sky’s co-Coach of the Year along with Sac State’s Troy Taylor.
MSU had many opportunities to falter this season but didn’t. Perhaps it’s the “same person every day” persona Vigen has positively been described as by those within the athletic department that has parlayed into a “don’t panic” feel to the team on the field.
The Bobcats recovered from an embarrassing 68-28 loss to FBS Oregon State in mid-September and didn’t let it negatively impact their psyche. They beat ranked EWU on the road and ranked UC Davis by 17 points despite Mellott being sidelined with a concussion. They beat Northern Colorado 37-14 on the road despite being down 14-3. They beat Weber State 43-38 despite being down 24-9. They beat Northern Arizona 41-38 on the road with a last-second field goal for MSU’s first win in Flagstaff since 2008.
Some of those wins were thanks to the play of backup QB Sean Chambers. Chambers transferred to MSU this offseason from Wyoming, where Vigen coached him and where Chambers started games. That’s not an easy dynamic, a head coach bringing in an FBS transfer QB he previously coached.
But Vigen made it work. Mellott is still the starter. Chambers gets plenty of reps as a running QB and has had a couple of starts when Mellott was sidelined. MSU even implemented a formation against Montana that saw Chambers in the shotgun behind center and Mellott coming in jet motion for a read-option look between the two QBs. The two combined for more than 220 rushing yards while MSU ran for 439 yards total against a top rushing defense in the FCS.
In his first two seasons, especially this fall, it’s been a masterful coaching job by Vigen.
It was a high-pressure hire for Costello at the time. Now it’s turned into a home-run hire.
“As I look back now when we hired him, you can tell a lot about a person by the family,” Costello said. “From his kids to Molly, they were able to step into this community and really fit in with what’s going on here at MSU, but really in Bozeman and throughout the state. Great family. Great kids. And I think that can’t be overstated when you’re looking to bring somebody in from the outside into our situation. They’ve done that flawlessly.”