MISSOULA — We kick off 2018 hoping to have plenty to cheer for in western Montana. The recent story that dominated last year came because fans didn’t cheer enough, and many hoped for a return to past glory.

We end our countdown of the top stories of 2017 with a new head coach for Montana Grizzly football.

2017 ended up very similar to 2016 for Montana. The Griz entered their end-of-season showdown as favorites against the rival Montana State Bobcats, needing a win to help their playoff chances. For the second year in a row, Montana State played spoiler with a close victory.

Story continues below

After the loss, third-year head coach Bob Stitt felt hopeful he would be coaching another game the next week in the FCS playoffs.

“Every week it’s difficult to win ball games,” said Stitt. “To win seven games in a season playing in the Big Sky (Conference), it’s tough every week. 7-4 can get you in. It should get us in.”

But the playoff committee didn’t agree, and the Grizzlies missed the postseason back-to-back years for the first time since 1991 and 1992.

The grumbling from the previous season turned into a roar, with many in the UM fan base demanding the Griz fire the coach with a 21-14 overall record. After taking two days to think about it, athletic director Kent Haslam agreed.

“You start to take the temperature, gauge whether or not you’re able to stem the tide that’s coming. It became clear that I just didn’t think that was going to be possible,” Haslam said during the press conference announcing the decision to not renew Stitt’s contract.

Haslam then added what he wanted out of the football program.

“We need to be winning conference championships,” he said. “We need to be going to the playoffs. Those are things that are critical to us as an athletic department.”

The attention immediately turned to a former Griz coach who knew all about winning championships. Bobby Hauck made it clear he wanted to return to Missoula, and the former head coach dominated all discussion in the following two weeks.

Many wanted him back because of the success during his first stint with the Griz. He won seven Big Sky titles in seven years and advanced to the national championship three times, but others didn’t want a return to the past since UM has been trying to change its image. Several off-the-field incidents by Griz players during Hauck’s tenure brought up bad memories.

In the end, Hauck was clearly the most qualified choice, and for a large portion of the fan-base the most popular option. Eleven days after letting Stitt go, Haslam made the rare move to bring back a former head coach.

Hauck left UM for five mostly unsuccessful years as head coach at UNLV, followed by a very successful three-year stint as an assistant at San Diego State, and the Montana native made it clear he was ecstatic to return to his alma mater.

“One of the best things about this place is that there is no apathy here,” Hauck said at his introductory press conference. “Apathy is the enemy. The only good places to be a college football coach are places where people care. I’m not so much worried about style. I’m more worried about temperament, intensity, physical play, toughness.”

Hauck ended with a rallying cry that many Griz fans wanted to hear.

“Together we’re going to return to dominance here,” he said. “Go Griz. Let’s get after this thing.”