BILLINGS — Second-year Rocky Mountain College athletic director Jim Klemann called it a Division I experience.
Fourth-year football coach Chris Stutzriem said it was every bit the travel equivalent of when he was the starting quarterback at D-I Wyoming.
Yes, the Battlin’ Bears rode in style last week to their season-opening game at Southern Oregon, chartering a flight for a party of 99 players, coaches, administrators and boosters that cut not just hours but days from what has typically been an arduous if not brutal bus trip to Ashland, Oregon.
And oh yeah, touch-down led to touchdowns. Rocky came away with a 27-10 victory, its first-ever win at SOU. The Bears were previously 0-5 there.
“It was the best-case scenario,” said quarterback Nate Dick, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. “It obviously made the trip a lot more bearable. Leaving right after the game, getting home at nine o'clock, that was something that was just really cool and something that we were very fortunate for.”
To Klemann’s knowledge, it was the first time Rocky had chartered a flight for a regular-season game. The team flew commercially to Southern Oregon in 2019 but it was a logistical mess, with the offense making a connecting flight in Denver and the defense traveling through Portland on a different airline altogether.
Granted, even that was easier than riding on a bus for a 22-hour, one-way trip on a Wednesday to play a Saturday afternoon game, but this year’s sojourn was about as painless as it gets.
“We took a 44-hour travel time down to about four hours, which was pretty unique,” said Klemann, a Butte native who came to Rocky after a successful fundraising stint at the University of Jamestown in North Dakota. “Everything that we've done in the last year has been based around the vein of how we can improve the student-athlete experience. And this was one that not only improved that but enhanced it.”
Rocky contracted the trip through STM Charters. Klemann and the school’s administration began digging into the idea of the flight last spring and began a fundraising campaign that included travel packages for fans and boosters. Klemann said the trip added about $10,000 in travel costs but that it was offset by donations.
Time is money, and both Klemann and Stutzriem said it was well worth it to save the team from making a five- or six-day trek, which would also mean players missing three or four days of classes.
“All those things considered, as we looked at it from a budgetary standpoint, we had to make a decision,” Klemann said. “Putting our kids in that kind of a situation, hoping you get off the bus and compete, and then also the class-time portion of it, it really begged the question: Is there a better way?
“The credit goes to our kids and our coaching staff — they did a tremendous job of going down there and treating it like a business trip and knowing that we had a mission and a goal to accomplish, and they played great football. And, you know, we'd like to think a little part of that was the fact that we weren't in the situation where we were rolling on a bus for 44 hours.”
Said Stutzriem, who rode the bus with the team to SOU when he was a Rocky assistant in 2017:
“I think there was a reason Rocky hadn't won there. I think a lot of it had to do with the travel. And our guys came ready to play. I thought they did a hell of a job. The coaches had a great game plan. But I mean, when you can travel like that, it definitely helps.”
Klemann can’t speak for other athletic departments, but he did say that he doesn’t know of a lot of NAIA football programs that charter flights to games. In the Frontier Conference at least, it’s rare.
Klemann came to Rocky with the reputation as an administrative mover-and-shaker at Jamestown, which is also a private NAIA institution. During his last five years there, the Jimmies invested nearly $30 million in athletic facilities.
This charter flight, though modest compared to that, is another feather in Klemann’s cap — and that of all the higher-ups at Rocky.
“I think it just speaks to the importance of our administration, and that starts with our athletic director,” Dick said. “I think he's laid out a really good vision for all athletics, not just football. It just really shows that they support us.”
This week, Rocky, which was ranked No. 19 in the national preseason coaches poll, will play its home opener against Frontier combatant the College of Idaho at Herb Klindt Field. The game will present another (somewhat) unique situation, with kickoff being moved up to 11:30 a.m. instead of its original time slot of 1 p.m.
Rocky issued that announcement earlier this week, and the time change has been made to combat what is expected to be near-100-degree heat on Saturday.
Last week’s game at Southern Oregon kicked off at 11:30 local time.
C of I is coming off a 31-3 home rout of MSU-Northern.
“We’re going to copy the same thing we did last week,” Stutzriem said. “But you’ve got to remember: On the turf it’s going to be 20 to 30 degrees hotter. So I think our kids are excited about it. I don’t think it’s as big a deal to the players as it is to other people. They’re still going to follow the same routine whether it’s two o'clock, three o'clock, four o'clock, whatever it may be.”