GREAT FALLS — Mike Moroski can’t help but feel like a bit of an outsider.
Moroski, who was hired to lead the College of Idaho football program when it was reinstated in 2012, is one of three Frontier Conference head coaches who reside outside the Montana borders. Southern Oregon’s Charlie Hall and Tim Camp of Eastern Oregon are the others.
“It’s a great conference. I do identify it as kind of a Montana conference, but that’s a good thing, I think,” said Moroski. “It’s tough. It’s really good football.”
The newest members of the league, Moroski and the Yotes are finding their footing in a conference that has typically been dominated by the Montana teams – most recently six-time national champion Carroll College and former national runner-up Montana Tech. After three consecutive 4-7 seasons, COI pieced together its first winning record in 2017, a 6-5 campaign, with statement wins over Carroll, Tech and Eastern Oregon.
“I think Southern and Eastern have proved their merits, you know, going deep in the playoffs and winning the conference or contending for the conference. We’re hoping to get there, as everybody is,” Moroski said.
Since Southern Oregon joined the Frontier Conference in 2012, a Montana team has been the league’s final program standing only once in the postseason – Carroll College’s semifinal trip to the Cumberlands (Kentucky) in 2013. Southern Oregon was a quarterfinalist in 2012. SOU won the national title in 2014 and then finished runner-up a season later in 2015, while Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon added semifinal appearances the past two years, respectively.
Treasure State teams certainly have the past, but it appears the outsiders own the present.
“It was such a great league. It was pretty exciting to be able to see Eastern Oregon in 2016 make it the furthest in the Frontier Conference, then backed up by Coach Hall’s team at Southern Oregon making it to the semifinals in a conference that people in Montana might think is driven by all the Montana schools,” said Camp. “At the same time, these guys are great coaches, they do an awesome job. I’ve rated this conference (No. 1) for the nation for 10 years. It’s tough to get two teams in (to the national playoffs) because I promise you, our third- and fourth-place teams would go and do a really, really good job in the first round of the playoffs, without a doubt.”
“It is rare. There’s been a culture change in Ashland (Oregon) in the last, maybe, eight years. It’s easy to get to the top, it’s hard to stay up there,” said Hall. “We’re kind of looking at that right now, looking at sustainability and how to become a great program. Your culture changes every day, so we try to work hard about that and try to find the right guys and put them in the right places.”
The recruiting process has been vital in the successes in Ashland, La Grande and especially Caldwell. For years, Montana teams would land stellar athletes from the northwest, particularly Idaho and Washington, but the re-emergence of the Yotes, plus the success of the Oregon schools has given high school juniors and seniors greater options.
“It’s gotten way more competitive. Idaho is 10 times better recruited this year than it was my first year here. That’s a credit to the coaches,” Moroski said. “I think Carroll has always done well in Idaho, but Rocky Mountain has done fantastic. That’s all part of the deal. Recruiting is kind of nationwide, though we wish there was some reciprocity. We haven’t gotten any Montana kids yet, but we hope to someday. There are a lot of great opportunities out there for kids, that’s what I believe.”
While Carroll, Montana Tech, Montana Western, MSU-Northern and Rocky battle for the majority of in-state recruits, and College of Idaho and Eastern Oregon keep their roots in the northwest, Southern Oregon has pipelines popping up elsewhere.
“We don’t really interact a lot with the rest of our conference. We see Eastern once in a while because we’re in the state, but really, we go south,” said Hall. “Being right there on the California border, a lot of talent down there and a lot of good, quality football in northern California, five hours away in Sacramento. We go in to Reno (Nevada) a little bit. We have a great connection with the Hawaiian Islands right now.
“One of the strengths of our program right now is our diversity. Having kids from Hawaii, California, local kids from Oregon, I think that’s what makes up the athleticism on our team.”
Finding and connecting with recruits is only half of the battle, though, for coaches in the league. Offering a convincing pitch goes beyond wins, losses and tradition.
Facilities and upgrades are seemingly high on a high school recruit’s wish list. In the past few years alone, College of Idaho, Eastern Oregon, Rocky, Southern Oregon and Montana Tech added artificial surfaces to their fields, while many programs have upgraded weight rooms, locker rooms and athletic centers.
Every build and renovation is an added bonus for student-athletes, while serving as another chess move in recruiting to build a program to success.
“Great things are happening and we’re having to address some of those things. Our facilities are new in one sense, but you always want to be improving. It’s not so much an arms race like it is in the Pac-12, say, but the cost of education is high and you want to be able to serve the students the best you can,” said Moroski. “I think those things are important to families you recruit, so I think it just is natural. Southern Oregon has new stuff, Eastern is new, I think it’s exciting. Like I said, there are a lot of great opportunities out there.”
Even if it means becoming an outsider.