BOZEMAN — Montana State head football coach Jeff Choate has made a name for himself in his past three years in Bozeman. In the first head coaching gig of his lengthy coaching career, 2018 might have been his best of all: the Bobcats’ third consecutive win against state rival Montana, a winning season, and an FCS playoff victory.
But there is much more to Choate than what fans see and hear in his weekly press conferences or on the sidelines every Saturday. Choate likes to consider himself a teacher first, after his tenure as a high school coach and administrator in Idaho.
After his time as a high school coach, he moved through the college coaching ranks, making stops at storied programs like Boise State, Florida, and Washington State. Twenty-three years as an assistant coach prepared Choate for one moment on Dec. 4, 2015: the announcement from Montana State naming him its newest head coach.
During the bye week in October, Choate sat down with MTN Sports to discuss life outside of depth charts and opponents’ game film. Instead, he gave an inside look at the making of Montana State’s head coach.
Jeff Choate: “Actually, one of the reasons I went to (Montana) Western was because I knew I wanted to get into coaching, and I knew that was one of the places where that path could be undertaken. I had two really good high school football coaches that influenced my life greatly and do to this day. And I was fortunate enough to have three men at Western during the time I was there as a player that had a similar influence on me and really had that interest sparked to go into education and coaching. But, you know, those mentors that I had really helped that happen for me.”
MTN Sports: And then what kind of player were you there?
Choate: “I would say I was pretty intense. I was the guy that knew what I wanted and I was going to do whatever I had to to get what I wanted, whether that was extra work in the weight room or finding out who the coaches thought were the best players and making sure that when you kind of go through the line that, ‘No, I’m back up, I’m going against that guy.’ There’s always going to be a pecking order, so I wanted to make sure that whoever the coaches thought was the guy, I was going to get a chance to go up against him and show I was the guy. I loved the game, played with passion. I think that was one of the things that maybe sometimes it was a little too much of an edge, but I just love the game of football and it was an outlet for me. I didn’t have a lot of positive things going on in my life when I came out of high school, and so the opportunity that was afforded to me there was important for me to take advantage of.”
MTN Sports: Are those the guys you think you recruit that kind of reflect you as a player in college?
Choate: “I hope I recruit guys that have a bit more discipline than I had in college. But you’re looking for that passion, you’re looking for that edge, toughness, and grit. I think that it takes a certain person to do this. This is not easy what we ask these young men to do and if you don’t love it, you’re probably not going to continue to do it. At some point in time you’re going to say, ‘You know what? I’m good. I don’t want to get up in the morning and do this.’ So you really have to love the game. It’s certainly one of the qualities I look for through recruiting, is to find young men that love the game of football.”
MTN Sports: So moving onto your professional career, you did a little stint of high school. What’s the difference between coaching in high school and coaching in college?
Choate: “I don’t think there’s that much difference. I think some of the best coaches out there are high school coaches. I think one of the things that helped me rise quickly through the ranks in college coaching was that I had spent eight years as a high school coach, two years as an administrator, but I was a teacher first. And what separated me when I would get into a meeting room with a group of young men was that I knew how to teach and command a room, discipline my players, I knew how to connect to them. And I think my experience as a high school coach and teacher really benefited me greatly at the college level, and that’s one of the things I hang my hat on, is I’m a teacher first. I love the classroom, I really do, and I get an opportunity occasionally to teach these young men and a lot of times on a Friday night or in a leadership class in the spring, and those are some of the things I really enjoy. So I think it was a huge asset for me having the background as a high school coach and teacher.”
MTN Sports: During your time coaching college, moving up in the ranks, was there a program that you felt was more impactful than another and kind helped you here?
Choate: “I spent the longest time working for (University of Washington coach) Chris Petersen. I worked for him for eight years, and so I think a lot of the things I model after what we did at Boise State and University of Washington. But I’ve taken something from every single program. Bob Spoo, who I worked for at Eastern Illinois, was kind of the dean of the (Ohio Valley Conference) and was just a very calm, almost grandfatherly-type man, but he was so honest and direct and I really respected that. Mike Dennehey that I played for in college and worked for later at Utah State kind of had a tough persona, but he was the guy that really cared about his players and had an ability to connect. Mike Leach, very, very different guy but has his own genius. There’s a lot of practice structure things that I borrowed from Mike and the things he did. Will Muschamp, kind of from the Nick Saban tree, some practice things that we do, a lot of our defensive fundamental stuff is what I learned from Will. So you take something from everybody.”
MTN Sports: And what was it like to finally get that call after all this hard work that you were going to finally land a head coaching job?
Choate: “I interviewed for three head coaching positions, was a finalist for one. And it was an interesting deal because, you know, I knew my clock was ticking, so to speak, and at some point in time you either get your opportunity or you don’t. And I probably would have been fine with it either way, because I was going to be doing something I loved, but I wanted to have an opportunity to put my stamp on something and develop a program with the vision that I had for it, that was going to impact young people and take care of the staff that I have. There’s a lot of guys on the staff that I have deep connections to, two of them I recruited and coached in college, so it’s an awesome opportunity for me, but it was humbling. You’re excited at first, then you realize there’s a lot of work to be done. And there’s been 32 head coaches here at Montana State — there’s going to be a bunch after me and there were a bunch before me — and I get to occupy that chair for a while, and my job is to leave it better than I found it.”
MTN Sports: What kind of coach are you? You kind of touched on it with all the experiences you’ve had previously pulling from other coaches, but what is your specific style that you think sets you apart?
Choate: “I think that I’m a teacher. I think I’m a good teacher, actually. I think I have the ability to relay information in a way that makes sense to young men. I think I’m a disciplinarian, and I mean that in the positive. Everything about being a disciplinarian is a positive thing, because I think young men need discipline. And we have high standards, and I think our guys know if the standards aren’t met there’s going to be a consequence and they appreciate that. I’m very honest with our guys, very honest, and sometimes to a point it might not be something they want to hear, but they know I’m telling them the truth and it comes from a place of love. And I do think I’m a hands-on guy. I can jump in and show them, ‘Not like this. Like this,’ and I think they respect the fact I have a deep knowledge of the game of football, really in all three phases because I’ve coached in all three phases at the Division I level. And I bring something to the conversation with them: It’s not just about patting them on the back and asking how they’re doing in school. I can help them as an athlete, but the whole vision for this is to help these young men develop a vision for their life, and that process takes a lot of work, so most of my job is mentoring young men.”
MTN Sports: And how do you prepare those guys to start living a life after football? That’s usually more common than actually continuing to play football.
Choate: “Again, you come back and it’s about honesty: ‘Hey, you’ve got an opportunity here to, No. 1, get an education that will impact your life, and for a lot of young men in our program that piece of paper is going to be something that will change, not only their lives, but the trajectory of their family. So that’s something that’s really powerful. We use that in the recruiting process. We explain that to them, but once they get here we have to start talking about, ‘Hey, what’s your moral code?’ It’s not very easy for an 18-, 22-year-old young man to explain that. So you have to challenge them on thinking about what that is, and that’s what the first process is in developing that vision for their life. ‘What’s your vision? Now what’s your plan? And how do we put that into action?’ And we spend a ton of time talking about it. We talk about a lot of the pitfalls that come around, whether it’s alcohol, relationships, there’s a lot of challenges these kids are facing, not just school or football here. And there’s a lot of stressors out there now and especially in this society where whatever they do on Saturday afternoon is going to be reflected, not just print media but social media, and everyone has an opinion. So there’s a lot of things you have to do. You have to be comfortable with yourself and know who you are. A lot of times kids get here and they’re just formulating that idea and vision about who they are and what they want in life, and our job is to help them along that path.”
MTN Sports: Now moving onto a little more personal life: Have you ever coached son Jory in your life?
Choate: “No. No, I mean, I coached a lot of other people’s kids. I’ve had the opportunity to see him play little league baseball and watched him play high school football and junior high football and basketball all throughout his athletic career, but I’ve always stayed away from the coaching thing. I wanted it to be his thing and I still want it to be his thing, and that’s a balancing act we have to undertake. But, you know, he’s a quiet kid who has been around the game a long time, and he gets it. He’s very respectful of his coaches and his teammates. I think he’s very proud of having the opportunity to represent Montana State University, and it’s been fun. There’s sometimes we will walk a quarter-mile walk every morning to practice, some days I’m with someone else’s kid, and every once in a while I get to walk to practice with my own. I don’t take that for granted.”
MTN Sports: I know you said it’s a balancing act. What is that dynamic like? I know oftentimes coaches will have coached their sons or daughters for a long time before the collegiate level. What has it been like to go 18 years and then now he’s a young man and you’re his head coach? What is that dynamic like?
Choate: “We kind of have some eye-contact things every once in a while that are kind of funny. He might know what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking, maybe that’s not the time to have that conversation. But by and large I treat him like everybody else. In some cases I’m harder on him than anybody else, because he wants to earn it. He doesn’t want to be the head coach’s kid, he wants to be his own man, and he is. So I respect that and respect the fact I have a job to do, and that’s being a surrogate dad, counselor, head coach, all those things to 105 other guys, too.”