Focus is on football opener, but Montana Grizzlies on steady course toward next high-impact facilities project

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Posted at 2:31 PM, Sep 01, 2022

BILLINGS — In the here and now, the Montana football team has Big Sky Conference championship and national title aspirations. All eyes are on game week, finally, with Northwestern State of Natchitoches, Louisiana, visiting Missoula on Saturday as the season-opening sacrificial lamb.

That’s all well and good. But on the horizon are deep-rooted department goals, namely construction of the Grizzlies’ next big facilities project — a long pined-for indoor practice structure that will enhance the overall student-athlete experience and give UM an added boost in the proverbial arms race raging across college athletics.

Funds for the roughly $7.2 million undertaking are in place and construction of the bubble-top facility is expected to begin in March. It will be built across the street from the main Adams Center parking lot, a very short walk down Campus Drive west from Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“We've secured the pledges and all the cash,” 11th-year UM athletic director Kent Haslam told MTN Sports. “I’m proud that we’ve invested in things that impact the day-to-day life of student-athletes. It never ends, which sometimes gets a little discouraging. But with the support of a lot of people, we’ve worked really hard to invest in these kinds of facilities.”

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A rendering of the planned indoor practice facility at the University of Montana.

Too much is never enough in college sports, and you may be thinking: “Bubble top?” The powers that be in the FCS, certainly in the region, have gone for broke to build permanent steel-and-concrete structures.

North Dakota State — nine times the national champion of FCS football — is breaking in a $50 million football performance complex this fall as the rich get richer.

South Dakota State, another elite FCS program, not long ago opened a multi-purpose indoor facility that had an initial cost set at roughly $28 million.

In Bozeman, Montana State has made a permanent indoor facility a big part of its strategic plan under athletic director Leon Costello.

(Costello, by the way, was closely involved in the fundraising for SDSU’s complex when he was an assistant AD there.)

For the Grizzlies, the immediate need outweighed the desire to launch another campaign for a huge capital project with a price tag that could have run so much higher. And don’t forget, it’s incumbent on UM’s athletic department to raise money and fund its projects on its own.

Thus, a more modest option — complete with a synthetic-turf field for football, soccer and softball, and sprint lanes and field areas for the track team — was the choice.

The bubble top will function as an inflatable cover and can be removed during warm-weather months. Supply chain issues have pushed things back, but the turf, Haslam said, should be ready for use by next September. The entire 110,000 square-foot structure, bubble top and all, should be finished by next November.

A larger permanent facility, Haslam said, “was definitely something we would have loved to do. But do we hold out and do the Taj Mahal or do we feel good about what we're doing right now and get it done? We opted this time to get something done.

“Another thing for us, our land usage is a little different here, too. Up here by the stadium you've got a river to your north, you've got a mountain to your east and a campus neighborhood right here. And so really, to build a full-on indoor (facility) in the space that we have up here, I mean, it would be gargantuan. It would take a ton of that room.

“It would be great to have it be a big, permanent facility, but those are large price-tag items and we've just got so many other projects that we're doing — we're working on a Lady Griz locker room, we're working on an equipment room remodel — so we felt confident that we could raise a little more than $7 million quite quickly, and so let's get something done now.”

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A rendering of the planned indoor practice facility at the University of Montana.

It will be the latest in a litany of facilities enhancements the Grizzlies have stacked up since 2008, when Haslam was UM’s associate AD for development.

There was the east side expansion of the football stadium. There were improvements to the soccer stadium at south campus. There was the building of a new softball field, as well as an academic center. There was the opening of the impressive Washington-Grizzly Champions Center, the addition of a new men’s basketball locker room, and a recovery room funded by former linebacker Brock Coyle and family.

And as Haslam stated, a new women’s basketball locker room is in the offing, in addition to relocating the equipment space.

Trying to match the NDSUs and SDSUs of the world blow for blow isn’t necessarily the tack the Grizzlies want to take. At least not right now.

“I'm not naive to think that we aren't all trying to keep up with each other,” Haslam said of each school’s facilities push. “But I sincerely mean this when I say our focus has been on building infrastructure facilities. We've done a good job of building those competition facilities, but in the 10 years I've been here (as AD) the focus has really been on the infrastructure facilities that support the day-to-day life of a student-athlete.

“An academic center. A locker room. A weight room. A recovery room. Practice facilities. Now an indoor practice facility. You do spend some time looking at your competition, there's no doubt. I certainly looked at North Dakota State and thought, 'Wow, that is amazing.' And I've been inside the South Dakota State facility and those types of things. But we all function in a little different way and we all fund ourselves in a little different way.

“For these projects we rely 100% on the generosity of people, and so you've got to keep that in mind, too, when you build it. Decisions aren't always made just with, hey, we've got to keep up with X or we've got to keep up with Y. That's certainly in your mind, but if you're doing that, that's when you make some decisions and you do some things that just get you into financial trouble, and we just we can't do that here. We rely too much on our ability to generate our own money and enough people have to donate. So you’ve got to pace yourself.”

Of course, all attention is on Saturday when Montana welcomes Northwestern State to begin what it hopes is the start of a championship-type season.

But on the horizon, deep-rooted department goals are being met. Goals that will further solidify UM as a major player in the athletic facilities race that exists at this level.