The Brawl of the Wild. Cat-Griz. Griz-Cat. The most intense game of the year. The best rivalry in the FCS. After experiencing it firsthand last weekend, it's hard to disagree with the hype surrounding this game.
In today's social media age of hyperbole, everyone exaggerates some when discussing (or more like arguing) about what's better or what's the best, who's the GOAT, etc. Covering the FCS for the last seven or so years and doing it full-time for the last couple of seasons, I was constantly being told I need to experience a Brawl of the Wild weekend.
"There's nothing quite like it when Montana and Montana State take the field against each other."
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It quickly made my bucket list. And I was fortunate enough to cross it off last weekend thanks to our awesome management at HERO Sports giving me the green light.
And what an experience it was. Yes, the rivalry was great. It was intense, emotional, petty, ugly and beautiful all in one. The game was all of those things as well.
But first, let's talk about my biggest takeaway of the weekend: There's no reason Montana State shouldn't consistently be a top team in the FCS.
On the Friday before the game, MSU superstar sports information director Bill Lamberty hooked me up with 1-on-1 chats with athletic director Leon Costello and head coach Jeff Choate. I want you guys to realize how rare this is at a Division 1 program to have access to the AD and the HC right before the biggest day in the state. Not to mention Bethany Cordell, the associate AD for marketing, giving me a tour of Bobcat Stadium was awesome considering she was juggling several different things to ensure the GameDay operations went smoothly the next day.
The hospitality was amazing.
Both Costello and Choate were great in our talks. I went into both of them looking to have a conversation, not an interview. No recording. No Q&A. And they told me some enlightening things on and off the record. Costello shared his vision of MSU Athletics. Choate shared some stories of him hearing the "FTC" chants (ask a Griz fan on Twitter if you don't know what this stands for) as he fills up with gas on the outskirts of Missoula when going to his summer hangout spot in Idaho.
But the question that I really wanted to ask was this:
"What does the football program need to do to consistently be a top team in the FCS, and how far are you away from that?"
Not only did their answers tell me they are getting there pretty quick, but my experience in Bozeman showed me everything is either already in place, or it's coming very soon for this to be a monster program.
Look, I love the FCS. But there are some bad stadiums and some bad college towns in this subdivision. Montana State doesn't have to worry about that. It's a growing college in a booming destination city. Last fall, MSU set a new enrollment record with 16,902 students on campus. The Bozeman area is the fastest-growing of its size in the United States.
And for good reason. Great scenery. Plenty of things to do. A thriving downtown. And new buildings and housing going up all over town.
Montana State football doesn't get lost in the shuffle like teams on the coasts and down south. Bozeman has much more to offer than towns in the Midwest (sorry, MVFC). It's one of two "shows in town" along with rival Montana, who also has zero reason not to be a top team in the FCS as well. But it's the Bobcats who own a four-game winning streak in this rivalry game, including an emphatic 48-14 win last weekend.
With the luxury of not being lost in the shuffle, the Bobcats have a diehard fan base that wants to support its team. And the reality is when it comes to D1 football, you need financial support. Facilities, equipment, recruiting budget, coaching salaries, etc. are all necessary to stay competitive.
This fall, the athletic department announced it has reached its fundraising goal of $18 million for the Bobcat Athletic Complex. This is an addition to Bobcat stadium that will house football locker rooms, athletic training spaces, team meeting rooms, rehabilitation spaces, equipment storage and coaching offices. This also frees up a ton of space in a crowded Brick Breeden Fieldhouse for the other sports. The hope is to have it completed within the next two football seasons.
Costello and Choate know very well how much of a game-changer this is. The perfect example of how this elevates a football program is a story I did on how South Dakota State's improved facilities helped the Jacks go from a Top 8-12 team to a Top 5 team in the FCS. You can read that here.
And guess who helped spearhead that renovation project in Brookings? That would be Costello, who served as SDSU's Deputy Athletic Director (2014-16) and Senior Associate AD/External Relations (2010-14) before being named MSU's AD in the summer of 2016.
Costello showed me pictures of what the complex will look like on the inside and outside. It's a recruiter's heaven. And perhaps the coolest part of this project that made Costello grin: The $18 million was all raised through gifts and donations. No gift was more than $2 million and around 500 donors contributed to raising the money. That's an amazing amount of support. And when you have that backing as a football program, it leads to big-time success on the field.
National success is something this team and its fans have been hungry for.
The MSU football program is considered a blue-blood in the FCS. It took some rebuilding under Choate to field a team that can make noise nationally. After a couple of losing records in 2016 and 2017, the Bobcats made the playoffs last year and advanced to the second round. This year, the Bobcats finished the regular season 9-3 and are the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
With the facilities upgrade happening to Bobcat Stadium, which was already one of the better stadiums in the FCS, don't be surprised to see the elevation of this program continue and for it to stay. Everything else, from the city to the support from fans and administration to the coaching to the talent being brought into the program, it's already in place.
There's no reason Montana State shouldn't be among the FCS elite. And everything is pointing to that happening pretty soon.
So, what else did I experience in Bozeman?
Well, I knew I was in Montana when my Uber driver picked me up at the airport in a two-door pickup Thursday night. Before you think I'm making fun of the state, I typed that with a smile. I live in the Minneapolis area, grew up in a small farming community in Minnesota and appreciate the Midwest style of life. If some empty shotgun shells and a Mountain Dew bottle of chew spit rolled out from underneath the seat while the driver was hitting the brakes, I'd have loved it.
So that was truly a great start.
I got the full Montana experience from there. Colton Pool, MSU's beat writer for the Bozeman Chronicle and a friend of mine dating back to college, was kind enough to put a roof over my head and be my unofficial tour guide. I saw the Montana scenery Friday morning, going up to Bridger Canyon and Hyalite Canyon.
I also got the full Bozeman experience. AKA, I went to some breweries.
- Bozeman Taproom
I also visited the bars Pour House and Bar IX, where I got my first taste of the rivalry in person by hearing some chants from a lively Friday night crowd along with a remix to Mony Mony.
Places I ate:
- Spectators Bar & Grill
- MacKenzie River Pizza
- Taco Bell (it was 2 a.m. OK)
If I would've eaten at every place that was suggested to me on Twitter, I would have gone into cardiac arrest.
But that summarizes the warm welcome I got from both Bobcat and Griz fans. Along with suggestions on places to visit, the number of invites when it came to tailgating was super cool. I was able to visit three different setups and have never had to turn down as many free drinks in those 1.5 hours. (OK I had one, a KettleHouse Shady.)
Tailgating was great. It seemed everyone that went to the game also tailgated. That's not always the case at FCS schools. It maybe wasn't as intense as I was expecting. I didn't hear any chants or trash-talking. But maybe that was just because of my location where I saw Griz and Cat fans mingling in the same tent. That was a bit different than my Twitter mentions where I can't tweet one thing about either team without two fans getting into an argument. S/O the mute button.
But once I got in the stadium, there was an energy and a buzz that was so easily noticeable.
What ensued was a great GameDay experience. From the team entrance (one of my favorite parts of a football game, and this one was the second-best I've seen at the FCS level behind NDSU's) to the energy of the crowd all game to the intensity on the field, it was fantastic.
Montana State’s team entrance from earlier today ???????? pic.twitter.com/aNQbOLTGs2
— Sam Herder (@SamHerderFCS) November 23, 2019
I've been to three FCS games in person this year. No. 4 UC Davis at No. 1 NDSU. No. 1 NDSU at No. 3 SDSU. And the Brawl of the Wild, where Montana was ranked No. 3 and Montana State was No. 8. All pretty big games. As far as the game atmosphere, Bobcat Stadium was the best one this year I've experienced.
Now, the Fargodome is hard to rival when it comes to noise. And the atmosphere goes up a notch in the playoffs. I've also heard Montana's home atmosphere can't be rivaled. Maybe I can judge that for myself next year.
But I was impressed with my GameDay experience at Montana State and how into it the crowd was. I was equally impressed with what Bozeman had to offer. In the world of FCS football, you won't find many places that can match it.
As my flight departed town at 6 a.m. Sunday, I had two thoughts:
"Did Bozeman and its breweries ruin Busch Light for me?"
"I'd be a little surprised if this program isn't playing for a national title within the next three years."
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