BILLINGS — The annual football grudge match between Montana and Montana State is personal for Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauck. It always has been.
He’s won, he’s lost, he’s fanned the flames of the rivalry by refusing to utter the words “Montana State” and won’t so much as spend a dime in the city of Bozeman, but any way you slice it Hauck’s fingerprints are all over this bitter tug-of-war.
Saturday’s matchup in Missoula, the 122nd in the storied history of the game, will be Hauck’s 12th as coach of the Griz. But there’s speculation this one could be his last.
That’s because the contract extension Hauck signed at UM in early 2020 expires on Jan. 31, though nobody truly has the first clue as to whether or not he’ll be back in 2024. Nobody except for Hauck himself.
In an interview this week with MTN Sports, Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said there have been no conversations between the parties. According to the AD, no contract offer has been made; no overtures have been exchanged. Even during the previous offseason.
But, Haslam said, that’s nothing out of the ordinary.
“The typical thing that I’ve always done is at the end of the season we evaluate contracts regardless of where we’re at in the stage of that contract,” Haslam said. “And that will be no different this year.”
“My interactions with Bobby have always been that he’s focused on exactly what’s right in front of him,” he added. “That’s the way he’s always operated as long as I have worked with him. That’s the way he’s built.”
The one thing in front of him right now is Montana State.
The only time Hauck spoke at any sort of length about his contract was in August to Griz play-by-play voice Riley Corcoran during UM’s weekly Inside the Den podcast. But he didn’t provide much insight except to say that people — in the media or otherwise — have been making assumptions about a topic they’re not privy to.
He did, however, make a valid point.
“I was here from 2003 to 2009 and I never had a (multi-year) contract, and things were pretty good back then,” Hauck said, referencing the string of year-to-year deals under which he worked during his initial seven-year tenure with the Griz.
It was only when he returned as head coach after the 2017 season that Hauck signed anything other than a one-year pact.
Now, at the tail end of what has to be considered one of his best coaching seasons to date, it’s safe to say Hauck has earned the opportunity to sign another extension if he so chooses.
After a dismal loss at Northern Arizona in their conference opener — a sky-is-falling moment for the UM faithful — Hauck and the Grizzlies have rallied with six straight wins, including victories over three Top 25 teams and two that were ranked in the top 10.
And they’ve done it with new offensive and defensive coordinators all while figuring out their quarterback situation on the fly as the season’s gone along, finally settling on transfer Clifton McDowell, who has been dependable in every respect.
The Griz, who prognosticators didn’t think too highly of in the preseason, will bring the No. 3 ranking in the FCS into the matchup with No. 4 Montana State. If they win, they could have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That was a familiar refrain during Hauck’s first tenure at UM.
“From where we were coming out of that NAU game to where we are now, it’s been really remarkable,” Haslam said. “Our team has really responded and (is) playing well. It’s been a remarkable job over these last several weeks. Just the level we’ve continued to grow, it’s impressive.”
Despite that evaluation, Haslam wouldn’t say if Montana will still be in the Bobby Hauck business come next season. Or if Hauck might have other opportunities he wants to pursue.
“I’m not going to do contract negotiations through the media,” Haslam said. “I’ve never thought that was appropriate. I think that’s disrespectful to all parties involved. I’ll have those conversations with coach Hauck and we’ll go from there.”
At the end of Bob Stitt’s tenure as Griz coach, which came to an unceremonious close following a 31-23 loss to the Bobcats in Bozeman in 2017, Hauck was the clear choice to return and bring the Griz back to prominence.
It hasn’t gone as smooth as it did during his first go-round, but how could it? Hauck’s 80-17 overall record and seven straight Big Sky titles in those seven years represented a run of generational success.
Still, if the Grizzlies win on Saturday, it will give them their third 10-win campaign in three of the past four (full) seasons, as well as their first Big Sky crown since 2009. That’s exactly what Hauck was brought back to do – win.
There’s speculation that Saturday’s game could be Hauck’s last in the Cat-Griz rivalry. But the simplest answer might be this: If Hauck, who turns 60 in June, wants to return to the Grizzlies next year (and beyond), he will.
The only person who truly knows is Hauck himself.