BOISE — Depending on your position, this weekend’s Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament either served as the end of Brian Fish’s tenure at Montana State or a pivotal turning point.
Fish’s contract expires after this season, so it’s entirely possible Montana State athletic director Leon Costello decides to go in a different direction with the men’s basketball program.
But it’s also entirely possible that Costello evaluates the program and deems Fish worthy of a new contract.
UPDATE: Montana State announced Sunday that Fish will not return as head coach.
“It’s something that Leon and I’ll sit down and talk about, I’m sure,” Fish said of his uncertain situation. “I want to be here, I love coaching it, I love where the program’s at. We got a tournament win, and we hadn’t done that in 10 years. We got 12 league wins and stuff like that. I want to be here, but that’s something that Leon and I will keep private between us, and we’ll sit and talk about it. But make no mistake: I want to be here.”
MSU finished 15-17 this year and defeated Idaho in the first round of the conference tournament, giving the Bobcats 12 wins against league opponents and their first tournament win since 2009. Arguably, 2018-19 was MSU’s best season in the past decade.
Inarguably, the program is on better footing now than it was when Fish took over prior to the 2014-15 season. Is that enough, though, for Costello to bring Fish back to continue building what he started five years ago?
Costello played Division III basketball at Loras College in Iowa and has spent time in the athletic departments at Northern Iowa and South Dakota State, both of which have built powerhouse mid-major programs that have flirted with success in the NCAA Tournament.
“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,” Costello said in an interview with MTN Sports last fall.
Whether Fish has checked all the requisite boxes is for Costello to decide, but he’s pushed a lot of the right buttons during his tenure. Winning is important, yes, and Fish hasn’t done enough of that. The Cats haven’t finished with a record better than .500 during Fish’s five years, topping out at 16-16 in 2016-17.
The 2019-20 season seems likely to be a step back with the graduation of Tyler Hall, the Big Sky Conference’s all-time leading scorer who surpassed 2,500 career points in MSU’s quarterfinal loss to Eastern Washington.
But building a respectable program with good people is also important, and Fish and his team have certainly done that.
“I’ve had a tremendously fun time. I’ve always said the locker room is one of the funnest places to be, because all the stuff that’s going on in the world out there, the locker room’s the truth. You can’t be fake when you walk in the locker room. If you don’t work hard or you’re not a good person or something like that, the locker room smokes it out. We had a great locker room,” Fish said after MSU’s season-ending loss on Thursday. “(Hall, Keljin Blevins and Sam Neumann) set a tone. We kind of talked about it all year, we did a lot of team-building stuff to get this team where we needed to get, and the strides that they made on winning basketball games. We picked an incredibly tough schedule to give us some things in league play, it worked out in our favor. We built this thing. We got to 12 league wins there this year.”
“I’m totally indebted to these guys,” Fish continued. “Beyond everything, fellas, a month ago I was faced with the reality of losing a child. Not sure I was going to make it, not sure I wanted to get out of bed, and I leaned on these guys to my right (Hall, Blevins and Neumann). They carried us. They constantly ask how I’m doing, they constantly ask how my wife’s doing and stuff like that. When you look at basketball, they were a fun group. But then they closed the circle. You’re looking at three guys that are going to graduate in May, you’re looking at three guys that cared about the entire program, you’re looking at three guys that Montana State meant the world to. To be a part of that, a small part of that, man, I’ll never forget that. I’m so appreciative and so indebted to these guys, I just love them. I know they love me. That’s not a word I toss around a lot, but you can feel it, and it’s something we truly enjoyed being together.”