Sunday Conversation: Kent Haslam talks contract negotiations, Big Sky Conference health

Posted at 4:00 PM, May 05, 2019

MISSOULA — Kent Haslam was named the University of Montana director of athletics in 2012.

During that time, UM has gone through a number of changes, including the addition of softball, the construction of the Washington-Grizzly Champions Center and high-profile coaching changes.

Haslam recently negotiated a new three-year contract for men’s basketball coach Travis DeCuire, who has guided the Grizzlies to back-to-back Big Sky Conference championships. A new contract for women’s basketball coach Shannon Schweyen is next on the negotiating table for Haslam, who oversees 15 sports at UM while also serving on national committees with the NCAA.

The Grizzlies have won Big Sky Conference championships in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s tennis and women’s soccer since Haslam’s rise to director of athletics. He’s seen plenty of success at Montana, first joining the university in 2006 as the associate director of athletics for development.

Haslam, who earned his bachelor’s degree from BYU in 1993 and a master’s degree from Northern Arizona in 2004, recently sat down with MTN Sports to discuss coaching changes and contract negotiations, the Big Sky Conference’s overall health and more in this week’s Sunday Conversation.

MTN Sports: Six-plus years now on the job. How are you better now than you were when you first started?

Kent Haslam: “Oh man. I’ll tell you, it’s a demanding job. I think I’ve gone through a lot of change here. We’ve gone through, we’re on the third president we’ve had at the university. We’ve had a lot of facilities, changed coaches. I would hope I’m better than I was when I first started, but you learn every single day. A little better at managing the highs and the lows, that’s, I think, real key to navigating these positions, is to make sure you don’t get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. I’m a better listener than I was before. I think just through maturity, you start to feel more comfortable in what you’re doing and feel more comfortable in being bold when you need to be bold and throwing your arm around someone when you need to do that and making sure that we’re heading in the right direction.

MTN Sports: Is there anything in this job that caught you off guard, that surprised you, maybe you weren’t prepared for coming in?

Haslam: “Well, I had been at Montana before, so I knew the passion of our fans and I knew the passion of the people attached to it. Over time, over the last six years, I’ve been a little surprised by how much more parents are getting involved, that’s a change that I’ve noticed. Which is good and bad, but certainly been a little bit more engagement from parents, even at the college level. Kind of think of that more in the high school or club competition, that type of thing. I can’t say I was really surprised, because you can’t be surprised by things you didn’t really understand coming in. Every day’s different, every day has a different dynamic. But certainly a little bit surprised at how public some of the things we do would become, and I think that surprised me as we go, but you adjust and you accommodate.”

MTN Sports: One of the more high-profile things that got public, you guys were trying to keep it not public, was 18 months ago when you were bringing in Bobby Hauck to be the new coach. Just take us through kind of how you navigated those waters of deciding not to bring coach Bob Stitt back and then how you ultimately got to coach Hauck.

Haslam: “Well, I’ll tell you, the toughest job, one of the toughest jobs you do as an athletic director is not retaining coaches. Those are really difficult decisions. I hired coach Stitt and truly think the world of him. It just wasn’t a good match, and it didn’t work well for us and where we wanted to go. Certainly making that change is difficult, having those conversations is difficult. But felt like we needed to do it, it was the right time, and genuinely going into it — it seems like it was decades ago, it’s so funny how quickly those things pass — there’s a lot of emotion, and then what you try and do is make sure you stay grounded and stay focused on what you want to do. And Bobby clearly emerged. He was available, it was certainly a different Bobby than was here before, and then momentum got behind him. But at the time, working with a president in Sheila Stearns that was here, Seth Bodnar was on his way in, you’re navigating two presidents and trying to make sure those pieces all fit together. It was clear when had time to sit down and talk with coach Hauck, his passion for this place is unmatched. Rarely can you hire somebody who has sat in that seat before and had success, because no matter what you say, this is a unique job. The head football coach at the University of Montana is unique in so many ways. It would be a long conversation. It is just a different beast to wrangle and having somebody that had done that before was a real plus. You want to be methodical, you want to be thorough, but you also want to make sure you keep ahead of it and keep moving and keep progressing forward. Coaching searches can absolutely engulf you, and then you forget, man, we’ve got 14 other sports we’re working through here, too, and I got to focus on some other things, too.”

MTN Sports: Especially with coach Hauck’s hiring, because there was so much external conversation about it, how much of that got to you and how much of it do you even listen to?

Haslam: “I listen to it, I really do. My email’s public, and they come directly to me. I heard it, and I thought that those were important conversations to have. It, once again, gave us an opportunity to talk about topics — we may not all agree, we may not think the blame needs to be placed here for certain things, and that’s OK. But having those conversations are healthy, they’re great. Participating in community forums, addressing subjects straight up front, in this case dealing with sexual assault — that’s a raw, emotional topic across the country — and so allowing yourself to have those conversations, not shying away from. But I’ve said all along, sexual assault is a larger issue than just in athletics or, even more particular, just in football, and if we try and isolate it down into that little box and say, ‘That’s where it resides, let’s get rid of it, then we’ve fixed the problem,’ then we’re totally missing the subject. I heard all that, and it was a good reminder for us to say, ‘This subject is still a topic that we need to address here in this community, in this sport and even nationwide,’ and it gave us a chance to do that.”

MTN Sports: Moving on to a coach that there was no debate on whether or not you were going to bring him back, Travis DeCuire gets a three-year new deal. What went into the conversations, the decision to continue his stay?

Haslam: “It was really not much of a debate, it was more of a matter of let’s do all we can and try to keep coach DeCuire. I so enjoy working with all of our coaches, I really do. We have a great group of coaches that really understand culture and want to do things the right way. That carousel starts to spin and what happens at Washington State trickles down, what happens at St. John’s trickles down as this carousel starts to spin. You want to be ahead of time. We understand that what we can offer here at Montana is not going to match what a Mountain West Conference school is going to pay, that’s just how it is. There are other things that we have to do to try and incentivize folks, and part of that is Travis is at his alma mater, that’s a key part for him. I think Travis is selective on where he wants to go. I think his family really, really enjoys it here now, and he’s embraced so well by this Missoula community. I wanted to get ahead of it, but I knew at some point you say, ‘Hey, there’s only so much we can offer, there’s only so much we can do, but we want to keep you. You’re valuable to this program, you’re valuable to this university.’ Those are exciting times, Slim. I’ll tell you, it is crazy how it works. It is crazy who gets my cell phone even when there’s a hint that we might be changing coaches. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s an amazing, almost at times exhausting, experience where you just go, ‘Goodness, folks. Everyone needs to relax.’ But it’s also fun, it’s also fun.”

MTN Sports: No-brainer to bring him back with the success he’s had, but going forward what were some of the conversations you had about, ‘This is where this men’s basketball program needs to go next’?

Haslam: “Well, we want to continue to succeed on and off the court, those things are important. It’s not just lip service that we say, ‘Hey, we need to be successful in this community, we need to be successful in the classroom, we need to be successful competitively.’ We want to continue to build. We’ve got some new facility plans that are going to be moving forward here on to Phase 2 of our facility master plan that help improve that men’s basketball locker room area, equipment room, eventually we can do some work in the women’s locker room, as well. Those were conversations, say, ‘Hey, we’re going to invest in these things. This should help us.’ But we want to stay competitive, we want to be winning the Big Sky Conference, we want to get to a spot where we’re winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. And winning a game in the NCAA Tournament just doesn’t happen on that matchup on Selection Sunday, it happens on that time, the whole season as you build that resume. You want to get to a 13 line, you want to potentially get to that 12 line. So those are things that we’ve got to continue invest in and do it responsibly. We don’t want to overspend and do things that we can’t financially do, but we want to invest in those things that are going to bring the greatest reward.”

MTN Sports: The team had a pretty successful stay in Boise. First year for the conference tournaments there. What was your takeaway from Year 1 of the Boise experiment?

Haslam: “Well, Boise did a great job. I love Boise. Boise is a great community, the arena was great. Full disclosure: I am one that does feel like the hot team or the team that won the regular season should host, for a variety of reasons. But we’ve been fortunate to win it twice now back-to-back at a neutral site on the men. The women have been a different story. Boise did a great job, and I see that that’s where we’re going to go, and I’m fully supportive. We want to make Boise a success. But I still like that idea of when we’re a one-bid (league), I think we need to do all that we can to protect the very best team in our conference, because we all win — when I say we, the conference as a whole wins if we can get a team to win a team to win a game in that NCAA Tournament. Boise did a great job, and Reno did a great job, and I understand the reasons why we want to be at that neutral site, and I’m supportive of it. But from a financial standpoint, from some atmosphere standpoints I do like going back to that hot team hosts and being on an arena on a campus.”

MTN Sports: You mentioned the atmosphere and the Lady Griz, they didn’t have near the atmosphere the men had for that championship game. But what is it that you’re looking for now out of coach Shannon Schweyen and the Lady Griz going forward as you’re maybe looking at renewing her contract, as well?

Haslam: “It’s no doubt the history that we have in women’s basketball here on this campus. It’s an important part of what we do, it’s an important part of our identity when you think about that. And no one understands that better than Shannon Schweyen. She was an all-American here, she competed here, she was an assistant coach here, and no one wants that program to be successful more than her. We just need to get back to those days where we’re winning conference championships, and, really, when you evaluate a program, you really do look at it in its totality: off the court and the culture and all those types of things. I look forward to Shannon coming back next year. She’s certainly had struggles from the injury standpoint, there’s no doubt about that. You want to see a whole team, so you can get a really good evaluation of where it’s going. I’m excited for who she’s recruited and brought into this program. Women’s basketball is certainly one of our flagship programs, and so we want to make sure that we’re competing and we’re setting the bar. I don’t think anyone would dismiss that or disagree with that.”

MTN Sports: We’ve hit on the big three flagship programs, but things never slow down for you guys. What’s on the docket this spring for you?

Haslam: “I shouldn’t say flagships, because then that makes others feel like they’re not important. All 15 of our sports are important, they really are. We want to make sure that we pay attention to them. We host the outdoor Big Sky Conference track championships right here in Missoula the second week in May. It’s exciting for us to be able to do that. Brian (Schweyen) has done such a great job of building this program towards those championships. I’m excited for that. Softball, again, just continues to be such a great success for us. That field is tremendous. Melanie Meuchel is doing a wonderful job of recruiting great young ladies, been such a great addition to this community and really this state and this region. There’s not a lot of women’s softball being played at the Division I level in this region, so we’re carrying that banner, as well. Tennis will head to their championships. Golf has their championships. Spring, it doesn’t slow down even when it cools off and we’re waiting so desperately for those real spring days. It keeps us busy.”

MTN Sports: You mentioned the rarity of Division I softball. You guys got to get a wrestling program up here.

Haslam: “Oh, if I had a dollar for every time someone said wrestling, baseball. I would love to be able to add sports if we had unlimited funding or we had ways to do it. Adding sports, everyone always wants to have that conversation with me. I’m a baseball guy at heart, so I love baseball. But, gosh, adding a sport is far more than just adding a sport, because when you add that, you’ve got to have locker room space, you’ve got to have trainers, you’ve got to have strength and conditioning coaches, you’re adding academic advisors, so it’s a lot more. Plus, you’ve got to have a conference you can go into, I tell people that. We’ve got to have a conference that you can participate in. That was the great thing about softball, it was already a Big Sky championship sport. I hear a lot about adding wrestling, believe me I do.”

MTN Sports: As far as the Big Sky goes, Montana is one of if not the flagship program of the league. What’s kind of, from where you’re sitting, the overall health of the league and where things are headed?

Haslam: “I think it’s great. I’m thrilled, our new commissioner Tom Wistrcill, really have enjoyed working with him and was fortunate to be on that selection committee and really like him and his vision. We’re a geographically challenged conference, and I say that in a good way. But look at a map, and it doesn’t take a geography major to know it’s a long ways from Portland to Flagstaff or for Sacramento to Greeley. We have very few bus trips. Right now, we’re challenged. It’s an identity for us of being out west, it’s also a challenge for us when bus trips are a rarity and trying to navigate all those things that go in. But I think we’ve got some really good things going. Eleven teams is difficult to navigate when you’re on that basketball side and volleyball, and it’s hard. Again, it doesn’t take a math major to understand that 11 doesn’t divide in half very well. I really like the athletic directors in the conference, we really have a great group that are good and candid and honest with each other, and I’m excited to see kind of Tom’s external focus. I like Tom’s experience as an athletic director. He’s been an athletic director, he knows what issues are landing right on campuses. I’m excited for the future. We fight like anybody else. We’re competitors. We need each other, but we also want to beat each other, so that makes for unique relationships.”

MTN Sports: Kind of changing gears here, the sports-betting conversation. Montana, it looks like is probably going to legalize some form of that. We know what it does for the public and maybe even at the state level. How does it affect universities?

Haslam: “My opinion is, I’d really rather it not be legal in the state of Montana, but I understand that it’s going to happen. So now, how are we going to manage that? It changes a student-athlete’s life when gambling is legal, and I understand you make it legal and it’s more above board, I understand it. I really hope that there will be some form of resources offered to us, and I don’t want to speak for Montana State but Leon and I talk about these things, but some form to educate our student-athletes about what you need to stay away form. It worries me from a standpoint of, we don’t have any pro sports in this state, so let’s face it, what are people going to be betting on that they can actually attend right here in this state, are going to be Montana, Montana State athletic contests. Worried about the prop betting, the betting where you can you bet on individual things that don’t really affect the outcome. What happens if you bet for some young man in basketball that he won’t score double digits in the second half, and if you can get to that kid and you can say, ‘Hey, you know, I don’t want you to lose, but let’s not do so well.’ Or how are we going to report injuries? Injuries are a big deal. Suddenly that student-athlete walking into a math class on crutches everyone knows now he’s hurt. How’s that going to impact the line? There’s a lot to be thought through. I would prefer that we didn’t have it. It certainly will make our lives more interesting, but I certainly hope we can find a way to get some resources where we can educate these young people about, this is the impact and this is the impact when you go down that path.”

MTN Sports: It sounds like there’s going to be a lot of showings of ‘Blue Chips’ in team meetings.

Haslam: “It’s scary, though. The integrity is the most prized thing we have. If there’s no integrity in that game, then why show up, why support it? Again, we’re dealing with 18- to 22-, 23-year-old young people that come from a variety of walks of life. Just one more that entices them, or one thing we’ve got to pay attention to, it certainly will keep me up at night, along with all the other things.”

MTN Sports: Last question for me: Let’s get away from Kent Haslam, athletic director. Who is Kent Haslam the guy? What do you do in Missoula in your spare time?

Haslam: “My family and I, we’ve raised our five children here pretty much now. Three of them have left, we’ve got two of them at home. Our lives still revolve a lot around the University of Montana and what happens at the University of Montana. We love Missoula, I love being outside. There’s nothing better than the summers in Missoula, Montana, as short as it might be at times. I really enjoy spending time with my family. I have a wonderful wife and great kids that bleed maroon and love this place. But it’s a full-time job, it’s 24/7. You got to make sure that you take some time to refocus yourself and remind yourself that, ‘Hey, this is just competition. It’s important what we do, but it’s not life or death.’ I love being outside. If I could spend my summers on a lake, I would spend every day that I could.”