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Former Montana director of athletics Jim O'Day provides insight on how coaching searches unfold

Sunday Conversation: Former Montana Grizzlies athletic director Jim O’Day considers himself lucky
Posted at 4:36 PM, Jan 28, 2021

By this time next week, Montana State will likely have its new head football coach.

The Bobcats, led by director of athletics Leon Costello, have been searching for Jeff Choate’s successor since Jan. 22 when Choate revealed he was leaving Bozeman for a position on the staff at the University of Texas.

While Choate was reflecting on his time at MSU with local media members, Costello virtually met with parents of players on the football team. He indicated then that a national search would start immediately with the goal to find the Bobcats’ next coach within 10 days. Costello also emphasized he would like to retain as much of the staff as possible.

But what exactly goes into a coaching search? And what is a reasonable timeline to fill the position?

“Timing is the critical piece. When these jobs come open is such a big thing, especially in football and men’s and women’s basketball. If you spend a lot of time, it will totally consume you,” Jim O’Day said in a phone interview with MTN Sports. O’Day previously worked in the athletic department at the University of Montana for 15 years, including seven years as the Grizzlies’ director of athletics from 2005-12. During his tenure, O’Day led coaching searches that resulted in hiring Wayne Tinkle to lead the men’s basketball program in 2006 and Robin Pflugrad to head the football program in 2010.

O’Day now works in the private sector as a consultant, and some of his work keeps him engaged with collegiate athletics. He’s not directly involved with UM or MSU these days and doesn’t know Costello personally, but O’Day can candidly articulate how a coaching search might unfold.

“You want to try to move as quick as you possibly can, but also knowing this is an important decision,” O’Day said. “The timeframe that Leon is in, I think is probably very fair. He wants to make sure he’s comfortable. There’s not a spring season, but the kids will be coming back and they’re getting ready for how they’re going to run their spring ball or whatever we’re going to call it, so that’s something that needs to be there. I know that Jeff when he left, he’s hoping that they would keep the remaining coaches on staff. They’re in their contracts, so that’s probably going to be a big thing, so there’s going to be some continuity there that will help. But (Costello) wants to make sure that he gets the right person that he really feels the most comfortable with. At this point, if it’s a two-week process, make sure that you’re getting the right person that you want and that you’ve checked out anything. You want to make sure there aren’t any red flags, you want to make sure that this is somebody that can understand what he or she is getting into in a coaching search.”

When he was at UM, O’Day said he always kept a list of about 10 names of potential coaching candidates if an opening occurs. That’s just smart practice at a successful FCS program, where coaches are likely to eventually move on to more competitive — and lucrative — opportunities. His list, O’Day said, included candidates he thought unlikely to take the job but guys he certainly wanted to check with just in case.

Costello surely had a similar list when his coaching search started a week ago, and that list is almost certainly pared down to a handful of candidates with mutual interest. Kane Ioane was at one point on that list, but the former MSU defensive coordinator agreed to become the co-defensive coordinator at Boise State before Choate’s departure to Texas. Both Ioane and Choate recommended candidates to Costello, according to a source.

“I look at, for example, Montana State’s opening right now, they’ve had a good football program, things have been going good, and they really have a good staff, so you’re probably going to go out there and maybe try and find somebody who can fit in with that staff, somebody who you believe in, somebody who maybe had some connections with Montana State in the past or whatever that particular university might be, probably somebody that knows this part of the country, understands the recruiting,” O’Day said, again with no intimate knowledge of Costello’s thinking. “And it comes down to also, can you afford them?”

Choate’s annual base salary was $206,311, per the contract he and Costello signed in March of 2020. The contract included an additional $80,000 if Choate participated in coach’s shows and another $30,000 if he participated in fundraising activities, as well as incentives for the team’s performances on the field and in the classroom and an annual retention incentive.

All that’s to say Montana State can’t compete with $1 million salaries, but MSU can structure a contract to easily total more than $300,000 annually and likely approach, if not surpass, $400,000 per year.

“You’ve always got to listen and hear what some others have been able to do. One that Montana was able to do here with Travis DeCuire in men’s basketball was he gets a percentage of the guarantee games that they play,” O’Day said. “… You want to look at everything. Is the attendance continuing to grow? Academically, are you continuing to grow? Having your teams all above the 3.0 grade-point average, which is really a great standard that I see the Montana schools thinking with. There’s a lot of unique ways to do it. Agents over the years have come up with a lot of different ideas, good and bad. But it does give you a chance to kind of look at those and see if that is something. As long as a coach goes into that contract knowing what those incentives are and what the boundaries are to be able to get those incentives, it’s fair, it’s fair.”