HAVRE — The year 2020 will forever be remembered as a roller coaster for Montana State University-Northern staff, students and sports fans. The school nestled on the Hi-Line had seen incredible fundraising efforts lead to construction of its first on-campus football stadium.
MSUN broke ground in March, right when the coronavirus pandemic made its presence known in Montana. COVID-19 eventually halted the Lights’ chances of playing on their new field this fall, but excitement is still aplenty in Hill County.
“This structure isn’t going away if there aren’t games this fall,” said Shantel Cronk, the CEO of the MSU-Northern Foundation. “This structure is going to be around for years and years, decades, where people can come here, experience and see the Bears Paw Mountains, enjoy Havre, come out on a warm day and see some football.”
Warmth may not be present when Northern breaks in its stadium, Tilleman Field, on March 13, 2021, but the countdown is certainly on.
For two decades the Lights have essentially rented Havre High’s Blue Pony Stadium. Northern officials, like chancellor Greg Kegel, saw the need for an on-campus facility.
“It’s a matter of being a marketable university. One thing we found at Northern is, over the years we’ve had kids come here from local schools, local towns, but to be competitive, we really have to have a robust university,” explained Cronk. “That experience is more than just the classroom experience, it’s the total university experience — being able to go to a game, have an events center, new classroom spaces.”
So, Cronk and the MSU-Northern Foundation went to work with a hefty goal of $3 million for Phase 1 alone. By late July, some $2.69 million, much of it from local businesses, families and private donors, was already raised.
But the roller coaster would dip again two weeks later, as the Frontier Conference announced it would postpone its fall football season to the spring of 2021. But Northern’s dream of a facility trudged on, athletically and beyond.
“First and foremost, it’s prioritizing what matters for this project. Obviously, a football field on campus had never been done before, and having that was a priority, but so was the opportunity of having it so close to campus, making it useful for the students, but also having long-term, in Phase 2, classroom settings that can be used for all sorts of different things," Cronk said. "There are also events we can have here, and an opportunity for us to have graduation, concerts or other community events.”
“Our whole goal is to get people to campus, and this is a great driving factor that will let us do that," she continued. "I would love to have huge concerts here, big-name concerts. I would love to host our graduation outside. We’ve been cramming into our gym, so this would be a great venue to have graduations, fund-raising events. I’ve even thrown around the Montana East-West Shrine Game, my oldest brother played in that years ago and we always had to travel to that. How cool would it be, on our new turf field, to bring people to Havre, let them experience all of our outdoors, but also the great breweries, restaurants and just the people of Havre?”
Cronk said the facility has served as a positive beacon for folks on the Hi-Line during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many Havreites mentioning their anticipation for the spring season. MSU-Northern christened its new toy in late August, hosting a ribbon-cutting ceremony and scoring the first touchdown, albeit unofficial, on the crisp turf.
Barely three weeks later, the field’s namesake, longtime MSUN supporter Mike Tilleman, passed away at the age of 76.
Though Tilleman, the former Montana Grizzlies' and NFL defensive lineman, won’t see the inaugural kickoff on the west end of campus, Cronk believes the excitement, smiles and pride from the rest of the community would make him proud.
“I think there is going to be such a sense of accomplishment, because this has been a labor of love,” she said. This has been a vision that the chancellor has had for four or five years now — contemplating it, thinking it over, prioritizing the list of what makes a stadium happen and how to achieve the fundraising. I think you’re going to see all of us doing hand springs, I’ve already said that once the turf is laid down I’ll cartwheel across it, so we’re really excited up here, for sure.”
Consider that the adrenaline rush portion of the roller-coaster ride that has been 2020. Let’s just hope someone captured the moment on camera.
For the latest updates from the MSU-Northern Foundation, both involving the new football stadium and other projects, visit www.msunfoundation.org.