BILLINGS — It seems Kent Haslam has been on a hundred of these spring tours.
The 2023-24 academic year will mark Haslam’s 12th in the athletic director’s chair at UM, but he’s been with the Grizzlies since 2006 when he joined the department as chief development officer.
Every May, Haslam hits the road with his UM cohorts for a glad-handing expedition across the state, greeting fans and donors to thank them for their invaluable support.
But the spring tour is also a chance for those Grizzly die-hards to provide their own critique — solicited or not. This year’s trek consists of 13 stops between Bigfork and Sidney and covers some 4,000 miles.
That’s a lot of handshakes and a lot of suggestions on how to do your job.
“There’s plenty of Griz fans and they appreciate what we do,” Haslam told MTN Sports on Wednesday at the Hilands Golf Club in Billings, a few hours prior to a Grizzly Scholarship Association BBQ at Camelot Ranch. “The questions are usually the same: Are we going to beat Montana State? When are we going to do this? How come this isn’t happening?”
This year, Haslam noted, “There’s certainly a level of urgency and anxiety to, you know … ‘Let’s get back to those dominant days.’”
There’s no reason to sugarcoat it: In 2022-23 the Griz did not meet expectations. Theirs or anyone else’s.
Haslam himself called it “a mediocre-to-good year.”
Bobby Hauck’s football team went 8-5 and made the playoffs but left a lot to be desired. The Griz raced to a 5-0 start then lost consecutive games to Idaho, Sacramento State and Weber State in October, and a 55-21 shellacking at Montana State on Nov. 19 was the Grizzlies’ fifth loss to the rival Bobcats in the past six tries.
Travis DeCuire’s men’s basketball team went 17-14 overall, 10-7 in the league and was knocked out of the Big Sky tourney by the No. 9 seed (Northern Arizona). Brian Holsinger’s young Lady Griz squad, perpetually living in the shadow of the bygone Robin Selvig era, hovered in .500 purgatory.
What stung most on the hardwood, though, was the fact that the men and women lost all four games against Montana State for the first time since 1999.
If it wasn’t obvious that the days of MSU playing second fiddle to the Griz have long since passed, it became crystal clear this year.
“It’s hard not to compare yourself to Montana State,” Haslam said. “Let’s call that what it is. It’s a rivalry for a reason. I completely understand that that’s part of this job. And they have the same pressures that we have. So losing in football was tough, and then dropping both the men’s and women’s basketball games … that hadn’t happened in a really long time.
“So those were certainly some areas that, yeah, you walk away and it makes for a rough day. There’s no doubt about it. No doubt about it.”
Perhaps the yearlong autopsy the Griz have undergone isn’t completely warranted. Most FCS football programs would kill to win eight games and appear in the playoff quarterfinals. Most men’s basketball programs would love to enjoy a stretch of 15 consecutive winning seasons.
Hey, a bounce here or a bounce there …
And Haslam is proud of what’s been accomplished outside of the arena, i.e. academic achievements, graduation rates and community service, not to mention the $40 million in facilities improvement that has occurred in his AD tenure.
But this is sports, where winning is what matters to those on the outside doling out the cash. At Montana, there’s a certain standard.
“I tell our coaches and student-athletes all the time, if you want to compete in obscurity go somewhere else,” Haslam said. “What we do here gets measured. I don’t ever want to shy away from that.”
The UM volleyball team turned a corner last fall under coach Allison Lawrence, and an under-funded track and field program has overachieved this spring by sending seven qualifiers to the NCAA West Prelims.
But football, to a lesser extent men’s basketball and to an even lesser extent women’s basketball are what feed the beast at UM as the “big three” sports.
Part of UM’s goal on the spring tour is to remind fans how much they’re needed, come hell or high water.
“We rely on self-generated revenue more than anybody in our conference,” Haslam said. “We don’t have a university that just cuts us a really large check and has huge student fees with a large enrollment that gets dumped into our bank account every year.
“So we’ve got to nurture our relationships. The message to our fans is we need you in those seats. We need you in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. That’s what drives everything that we do.”
Haslam said the upcoming football season at Montana is “critical.” But all football seasons at Montana are critical.
According to Haslam, UM had about a 95% season ticket renewal rate for 2023. That’s 18,500 tickets. Most FCS programs don’t even have stadiums that big.
With six home football games, the Grizzlies bank on roughly $5-6 million in ticket revenue to help prop up what is a $23 million athletic budget. Thus the pointed conversation with fans and donors on the spring tour, which Haslam hopes is loud and clear.
“I’ll be honest and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got high expectations and we’re not going to walk away from those expectations,” Haslam said. “We know you have high expectations too, and we’ve got to deliver on those. We know that. We’ll get there.
“I have great confidence in the people we have and in what we’re doing.”
Even if the standard wasn’t met in 2022-23.