Sunday Conversation: Montana State athletic director Leon Costello excited by department’s growth

Posted at 4:00 PM, Sep 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-09 16:28:13-04

BOZEMAN — Montana State named Leon Costello its director of athletics in May 2016. It’s been a whirlwind two years since for Costello, who came to MSU from South Dakota State, where he was the deputy director of athletics. Prior to his time at SDSU, Costello spent eight years in various roles in the athletic department at Northern Iowa.

Costello hit the ground running upon arriving in Bozeman and last fall released Phase I of the Athletic Facilities Master Plan. He’s also worked on the contracts of multiple coaches, including extending Jeff Choate’s contract as the head football coach, naming Daniel Jones the head volleyball coach, and elevating Lyle Weese to director of track and field and cross country. Men’s basketball coach Brian Fish has one year remaining on his contract.

Costello discussed Fish’s contract situation in a one-on-one interview with MTN Sports prior to the Bobcats’ season-opening football game against Western Illinois. Costello also discussed his first two years on the job, the state of MSU’s athletic department and expectations for the 2018-19 seasons.

MTN Sports: We’re recording this right before the season opener in football. Biggest change fans are noticing is heightened security. What went into the decisions to tighten security and all of the stuff fans see different now than they did last season?

Costello: “It’s a great question. I think the interesting part of that is they’re seeing it now. My first two years here, we’ve actually been increasing security measures during that time, whether it’s guards or patrols or things like that. Now you’re just seeing the kind of physical element that comes into play. We’ve got a great partnership on campus with our law enforcement agencies that are here on campus, but also throughout the area, local and regional and statewide agencies that are helping us, even nationally, as well. This is a trend you’re seeing all over in college stadiums. Really, it’s just, 1) our fans, 1) our student-athletes, 1) our coaches, 1) our workers and our staff to be safe when they’re at a game. I think the world is changing. The atmosphere in our world is changing, and you’re seeing and hearing these things happening all over. I think if you look at it, in this case, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. Because if we’re reactive in this situation, that means something tragic has happened. If we can take that out of play — hopefully it doesn’t take anymore time to get in the stadium — but we just want to add that little element of security, so when fans come to the games they feel like they’re safe and can have a great time.”

MTN Sports: Speaking of football season, great schedule for Montana State this year with Western Illinois, South Dakota State. How do these schedules come together?

Costello: “It’s interesting, because it’s not easy. We like to have and we aim to have six home games every year, and when you only have 11 games in most years — you have that 12th game in that off year — it’s hard, because you’re trying to find six home games and you have your five road games, and then you have to try to balance that. We have a great stadium, and we try and tout our game-day atmosphere to try and get teams to come here and be a part of that. But teams don’t want to come here and play too easily, because they know the atmosphere and they know it’s going to be a tough place to play. They know our teams are going to be good, they know they’re going to get a heck of a battle, so it takes a little coaxing. It’s like a puzzle, trying to get it all together. Sometimes you’re doing home-and-homes, sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you’re trying to pay a guarantee to bring somebody here. The best way to describe it is, it’s a nice, big puzzle you’re playing with every single year, and sometimes you’re looking four and five years out to make that puzzle work.”

MTN Sports: Looking four and five years out, any games on the docket that fans should be looking forward to especially?

Costello: “I think in the next few years — we have Utah, Texas Tech, which is next year, we signed Wyoming, and then Oregon State. Those are great games, because they’re places you can get to. Texas Tech might be a little more difficult, but the other ones, they’re places you can get to and should be fairly good games. We’re always kind of looking to see, ‘Do we want to do it like we did this year, where we have a full 11-game slate with FCS opponents?’ For us this year, we thought that was very important, because when I got here we had one game left on the schedule. We signed Wagner. It was important for us to get an 11-game schedule, because we wanted to have the playoffs in mind. If you play 11 games, FCS, chances to win all those games, it makes a difference when you’re looking at your record trying to get in the playoffs. I think that’s the ultimate goal here, is we want to prepare ourselves to win conference championships and get into the playoffs and have a chance to win the national championship.”

MTN Sports: Coach Choate going into his third year, 4-7, 5-6 his first two years. What are the expectations? What are the bars that you guys have maybe set, knowing that he got that contract extension earlier this year?

Costello: “We sit down all the time, and we talk about it. Building a program is tough. It just takes time. It just takes patience and time and patience. I can tell you that they’ve done an unbelievable job recruiting. They have such a great team of coaches, they know how to operate, they’ve built a great culture. And you can see it in the talent that they’ve brought in, whether it’s talent athletically or talent even in the classroom. These kids are the best of the best, and now they’ve been able to develop that depth. Now they have their kids and their student-athletes. I really think we’re hopefully going to see a big step this year. It’s one of the reasons why we did that, because I just love what’s going on. I love the energy and environment on the team, the energy and environment with the coaching staff, how they relate to each other. And you can just see that things are starting to click, and I expect this year to be a great one.”

MTN Sports: In just two years, you’ve had a lot of coaching decisions with volleyball and track and field just recently, but kind of the one that people are kind of thinking about, Brian Fish with the men’s basketball job has one year left on his deal. It’s kind of rare for college coaches to get to that last year, so what’s been the conversations with him? What are the expectations? What are you asking for out of him going into his last year?

Costello: “Every year we sit down with coaches — well, with every staff member — and we do evaluations. There are a lot of great things that have been happening in that program. If you look at his first three years, there’s been steady progress every single year. We’ve had, our crowds have been getting bigger and bigger. I think last year, if he was sitting right here we would talk about it, it was a disappointment for both of us. But we have some things in place now to hopefully help them get over the hump. I played college basketball (at Loras College in Iowa), I get it, it’s not just about right now, it’s also about looking down in the future and see what do have coming up next. I think with Coach Fish and the coaching staff, I think with Tyler Hall coming back, I think with the returners coming back and the new key pieces that they brought in, I see a lot of great things happening. I saw a lot of great things happening this summer. I just met with three recruits here today. Just seeing what they’re trying to bring in, the quality and style of the student-athlete, the style that they want to play, I think we all learned a little bit. And I’m looking forward to this year, because, again, it’s one of those programs I think we’re going to see make big strides.”

MTN Sports: What are the things specifically you’re hoping to see this year that’s going to allow you to go in to contract negotiations and say, ‘Yeah, we want you here for another three years’?

Costello: “I think winning. We’ve got to win, we have to be competitive. Our ultimate goal here is to develop our teams to give them a chance and support them in a way that we have a chance to win conference championships and qualify for postseason tournaments and have a chance to play for a national championship. I’ve been part of programs at Northern Iowa and South Dakota State where we’ve been able to do that. I want to be able to provide the resources to be able to do that. And we’ve taken a look at the schedule and how do we support it. How do travel? How do we get kids off the road maybe and get them in class a little bit more and save bus time, so they can sleep in their beds? We’ve taken a look at all those ideas, and we’ve actually enacted them here this year. But it does, it comes down to winning. It comes down to culture on the team and how the team responds to the coaching staff, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen over the summer. I’m really excited about the growth of all of our programs, because I think this is a key year for us. A lot of our programs have been really young, and I think this is the year that we can really take a step in all those programs. I’m looking forward to it. It all starts tonight here with Gold Rush. Yeah, I’m excited for this year.”

MTN Sports: As far as the Big Sky Conference goes, and you talked a little bit about it with the scheduling with the men, basketball, men’s basketball specifically, made huge strides in their kind of perception across the country. Obviously the football conference is one of the best in the entire FCS. Now that you’ve been a part of the Big Sky for two years, what are your perceptions of the conference and kind of the overall health of the conference?

Costello: “I love it. It’s fun coming from the Missouri Valley football conference, from the Summit League, and also when I was at Northern Iowa being a part of the Missouri Valley Conference and coming to the Big Sky, because I think we’ve got some things that neither of them have right now. Coming from the Valley when they had a great basketball reputation, and they still have a good one, but bringing some of those ideas into this conference and trying to get us on that level. I think we took, what, 13-, 14-, 15-point jump in RPI as a conference last year, which it’s unheard of. So we’re making some strides as far as who we’re scheduling, who we’re playing, but we’re also going out and getting some wins over those teams, as well. And you have to do that if you want to get recognition for later on for postseason berths, whether it’s the NCAA Tournament, the NIT and some of those other tournaments. I like the direction that we’ve been going. Football is football. It’s such a, you roll the ball out there and anybody can beat anybody, so you’ve really got to bring your ‘A’ game every single time, and I like that. I like the fact that there’s parity and anybody can play with anybody and you’ve got to go out and play your best football. And I think that’s kind of true across the board. You see it in women’s basketball, which it’s been a great conference in women’s basketball. Track and field, we’ve got a great track and field program. It’s been fun to be a part of, but I think I can draw on some of those experiences with the Summit League, with the Missouri Valley, and hopefully add some of that experience here when we sit down in the room and really talk and strategize how we want to grow the conference.”

MTN Sports: One of the things that’s always fun to watch from the outside in the conference is kind of the arms race. Somebody puts in a video board, somebody else installs turf. You guys unveiled a long-term facilities plan last fall. What are kind of some of the incremental steps you guys have made toward accomplishing that?

Costello: “It’s interesting because you probably don’t want to do that as early as I did, you know, being at a place. But when you come in, you can do an evaluation and see what you really need for each of the programs to be able to develop, I think it’s really important. For me, it’s really about still getting out and meeting people, because only being here really two full summers, I’m still going out and meeting all the potential donors, all the donors that we have, and it’s been great. The passion that we have in our fan base is unbelievable. But it’s large. There’s not a whole lot of time in the day to be able to meet them all. But that’s the first step, is trying to match up our vision of what we want to do with a vision of a potential donor. And the great thing is, our fans are on board with what we’re trying to do with Phase I of the Master Plan and really to get football over to this facility, so it becomes their own with locker rooms and team rooms and offices and things like that. But what that does for all the other programs, is it opens up the Fieldhouse with more space. What we’re trying to do with all of our programs is develop them in a way where they can be successful in the classroom, be successful on the fields of play, but also be successful people. And the way we do that is trying to give them time back in their day. If we can create more space for them, that means they train at better hours, they eat at better hours, they study at better hours, and they get better sleep. That’s what this is really all about. We’re making great progress. We make progress every single day. Hopefully we’re going to be able to come out here real quickly with a couple different announcements, but we’re still working trying to dot Is and cross some Ts on some of those things. But I’m excited about the energy and the passion that people have shown for it. Everybody knows that we need it. Now it’s just trying to go out and physically getting it done, get the pledges signed, so we can tear some of that stuff down and start building.”

MTN Sports: Now that you have been here two years, what’s been that excitement that you’ve seen, whether it’s been when you’re on the road talking to donors or on campus here with fellow administrators or athletes or coaches, what has been the excitement that you’ve noticed at Montana State?

Costello: “I think it’s just general support. Everywhere you go people are supportive, they love our student-athletes. I think when you take a look at our student-athletes and what they do in the classroom — we have a 3.2 cumulative GPA right now with 350 of our student-athletes, and our coaches let our student-athletes be whoever they want to be, so they let them pick the major that they want to go into. When you can combine that with great coaches and great student-athletes on the fields of play, it creates for a great story. I think our campus administration, our campus community and our community at large here in Bozeman see that. The greater Bobcat fans throughout the state see that and they can rally behind it. But it’s been amazing to me to go around to the different parts of the state, no matter how far apart they are, but that support is there. I feel like athletics is that connecting point with a lot of our fans that are not here in Bozeman. We take that to heart. We don’t take it for granted. We want to do everything we can do to make them proud. So we’re continuing evaluating some of things we’re doing, putting more programming in for our student-athletes, adding amenities, looking at things to make it better for our fans when they come here. And we’re going to continue to do that.”

MTN Sports: How about for you personally? Now that you’ve been here two years, how have you made Bozeman, Montana your home?

Costello: “It’s kind of easy to do with three kids. They kind of make it their home very, very quickly. Really, it’s, we love being able to go out in the community and go to events and go out to eat and see people and sometimes even kind of get away, go to different places and kind of get away. I love the fact that no matter what time of year it is, you can go out and you can do something. With kids the ages of 8, 6 and 4, they need to get out of the house. Coming here, even with all the snowfall that we get, the weather, the temperature’s still nice, so our kids go outside all the time. They’re riding their bikes, they’re going skiing — we’ve learned how to ski. Coming from the Midwest, there’s not a whole lot of mountains. We’ve learned how to ski, we hike, we do all those things. To be honest, we like to be together. One of the nice things about Montana and this community in Bozeman, is that it is very family friendly, it’s very people-oriented. It’s a college town, it’s a college community that we’ve really enjoyed getting acquainted with.”

MTN Sports: All right. Thanks, Leon. Appreciate you sitting down with us. Anything else about the program, the state of the program, state of the department that you want to mention?

Costello: “I’m excited about this year. I’m excited, not just for football because we’re here tonight, but for all of our programs. When we had our all-staff meeting last week to kick off the school year, everybody’s on the same page. That was kind of the driving force behind the strategic plan was, kind of behind the operation. Let’s get everybody working toward the same vision, toward the same ideas, and trying to accomplish those goals. After two years, I can say that we’re there. The oars are being rowed in the same direction — some are maybe a little bit faster than others — but I think we all know what everybody wants to accomplish. Now it’s time to hopefully go to work and try to accomplish those goals.”