BOZEMAN — Not long after Montana State edged Montana 72-68 last Saturday in front of nearly 7,000 screaming fans, Bobcats athletic director Leon Costello and men’s basketball coach Danny Sprinkle shared a big bro hug in the tunnel beneath Worthington Arena, each with a huge grin on his face.
It marked the first time since 2010 that the Cats had swept the Griz in men’s hoops, which explained Sprinkle’s emotion. But for Costello, now in his seventh season as AD, it was a double shot:
Earlier in the day, MSU’s women hung on to beat the Lady Griz 75-73 to set the stage for the Bobcats’ first four-game, single-season hardwood sweep of Montana since 1999.
Add in MSU's 55-21 drubbing of the Grizzlies in football last November, which clinched a share of the Big Sky crown for the first time in 11 seasons, and it’s no secret that Montana State is riding a singular, giant wave. The smiles are very real.
After his team’s triumph, Sprinkle talked about what’s driving the Cats to their best sustained run of athletic success in a generation.
“It starts at the top,” Sprinkle said. “It starts with president (Waded) Cruzado and it trickles down to Leon, who’s the best AD in country in my opinion. It trickles down. The culture trickles down. The atmosphere, the energy … that’s what Bobcat Nation is.”
Costello’s six-plus years in Bozeman have produced the kind of growth that was merely a pipe dream when it was business as usual at MSU some 10, 15, 20 years ago. Cruzado was the brains and brawn behind the $10 million needed for the south end-zone addition at Bobcat Stadium that came about prior to the 2011 football season, but Costello arrived in May 2016 and jumped on that momentum.
The Bobcat Athletic Complex — a 40,000 square foot, $18 million structure at the north end of the football field — opened in the Fall of 2021 and was the first phase of the department’s facilities masterplan that was released a year after Costello’s hiring. It finally puts the Bobcats on par with the kinds of facilities projects they’ve been putting together in Missoula for years.
That, in turn, is allowing the department to better utilize its space inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse with a renovated weight room and training room, refurbished basketball locker rooms, and an academic center that’s been operational for some time.
Next on the agenda is an indoor practice facility, which Costello hopes can be in a similar class as the $30-plus million building they have at South Dakota State — ironically for which he helped raise funds as an assistant AD with the Jackrabbits prior to coming to MSU.
These improvements are not happening overnight, but as Costello told MTN Sports during an interview inside his spotlessly organized office last week, “We’re ahead of the game maybe from where I thought we would be. I think it’s gone very well. But I think the one thing that I really see is — what’s the word? — justification.”
When one athletic facility pops up other projects tend to quickly follow, especially at a place with the type of community support MSU enjoys, and even in a place as demographically “unique” as Bozeman. If an on-campus indoor facility — a sizeable steel-and-concrete structure — can be built in (relatively) short order, it will only provide more of the justification he craves.
Costello's youthful vibe and willingness to engage fans have clearly benefited the Bobcats. But that’s to say nothing of his coaching hires, which have largely been home runs.
Brent Vigen is 24-5 with a trip to the FCS title game in two seasons as head football coach and has only lost one Big Sky Conference game. Last year Sprinkle coached a previously dormant men’s basketball program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since his own playing career was getting started in 1996, and the Cats could make a return trip this season.
Longtime women’s basketball coach Tricia Binford has her program positioned as a perennial contender, and MSU’s track and field exploits on the regional and national stage have also been impressive. The Bobcats are more competitive than they used to be, in case you haven't noticed.
Retaining coaches is a difficult prospect today in college athletics. Vigen and Sprinkle could be tough to hang on to. Costello isn’t naïve to that notion. But it also makes you wonder — how long can the Bobcats keep their AD?
Longer, perhaps, than you might think.
“I think across the board in this business you can get caught up in what’s out there,” Costello said. “I think over the last seven years I’ve been able to see how good we have it here. No matter where it is, it’s going to be really hard to match what we have. I’ve been in places where we have grown and we’ve built things, and I never got the chance to really live in the work we had done.
“I want a chance to do that. Obviously getting the BAC done and trying to get an indoor (facility) done, there are a lot of things here that we have left to do. I’m goal driven and I want to get those things done. But I also want to live in it for a while. I want to continue to grow and make Montana State the best place that it can possibly be.
“Who knows where that will put us, but I can tell you this: I’m not looking. We still have a lot to do.”
Which means there could be many more hugs and smiles yet to come.