WHITEFISH — Dave Gantt has served as the University of Providence’s vice president for athletics since 2016, helping orchestrate robust growth for the private university in Great Falls.
Under Gantt’s watch, the Argos have seen increases in athletic enrollment, growth in facilities and expansions in sports offered. UP now offers 17 sports, including women’s wrestling, men’s and women’s ice hockey and eSports.
Gantt, who graduated from what was then the College of Great Falls in 1978, has more than 30 years of experience in athletics administration and coaching. He has a lengthy volleyball coaching career that includes stops at Oregon State, Gonzaga and Montana State, where he also worked in administration.
Gantt recently sat down with MTN Sports during the Frontier Conference athletic directors meeting in Whitefish to discuss the Argos’ athletic growth and potential football future as well as the overall health of the Frontier Conference in this week’s Sunday Conversation.
MTN Sports: I guess with Providence, kind of the question we’re all wondering, when’s football coming? I know you guys were tentatively talking about 2022 in there. Just can you kind of update on us where the status is with your guys’ exploration into adding football?
Dave Gantt: “I think what you look at is the fact that we’re trying the best we can to make sure everything else we do whole before that even gets on the table in a serious sort of way. We want to place hold so that we can anticipate the advent of its arrival, but right now there is no absolute, firm date. In fact, it’s still an if, not a when. … We’ll be pretty close to 350 student-athletes next year, and certainly it would be a disservice to them to move forward with anything before we take care of all them. That’s really been my challenge the last three cycles, is to make sure that we’re whole elsewhere before we go down that path. Because when we do, we want it to work well. It’s only fair to everyone that is currently there that we take care of their opportunities, as well.”
MTN Sports: When you’re looking — we’re getting the press releases from your guys up there, whether it’s Steve Keller or Bill Himmelberg or whatever program, they’re bring in a lot of Montana recruits — what have you seen as far as the growth of Providence? It seems like it’s booming over the past few years here.
Gantt: “I think the goal we had when I took the job, and my charge was, to drive enrollment to the liberal arts schools through athletics, and a lot of that has to do with getting closer to Montana, because we were doing things that were marginal in terms of engaging the kids in our community, basically, and I don’t mean just Great Falls. I mean the whole community of high school athletics in the state. It’s encouraging that we’ve been able to attract some coaches, and actually attract some that haven’t even been announced yet that are just right on the horizon that will help in that regard, as well, so we’re pretty excited about that direction.”
MTN Sports: One of the coaching hires that created a lot of buzz, Steve Keller when he came to Providence, right around this time last year. Year 1 of the Steve Keller Era, what surprises, disappointments, how did that go for you guys?
Gantt: “I think the biggest surprise for us wasn’t the ability to coach. What the biggest surprise was, was how well-connected he actually is in the world of basketball, especially in the state of Montana. I think our roster now is as large as it’s ever been, I think it’s as a high of quality across the board as it’s ever been. Of course after Year 1 of transition for him, because there were some nerves involved with it for him, because it’s in the same conference — that’s an added little element that you can’t underestimate in terms of the emotion. That’s beyond us. He’s more comfortable in our system. It’s a financial system that’s private as opposed to the state. He’s no longer a rookie in our system. He’s leading the charge in a lot of ways that, I think, were the intangibles we were hoping would surface, and certainly we got a few extra ones.”
MTN Sports: I was talking to him, and he said he has 26 kids already and maybe is going to be adding some more. There’s only five guys that can play. He was talking about a developmental program and maybe a JV schedule. What goes into those types of things to be able to add different sub-varsity teams and programs?
Gantt: “I think that when your roster gets 22-plus, you need to do some things for retention. Of course, it’s competitive on the upper end. I want to say that the juniors and seniors that he has now, because we redshirted a couple kids, are going to get the bulk of the time, so how do you keep those younger kids engaged? Well, I would rather term it a developmental league and create some opportunities, 10 to 12 different games or competitions for them, so we keep them engaged. We don’t have to increase our staff, we can just increase the travel expense and do some things with Under Armour to help out the uniforms and equipment piece. It think it’s a good tactic to find out if those kids really want to be collegiate student-athletes and if they can handle that kind of pressure before you have to put them in the fray against the big dogs, so to speak.”
MTN Sports: Who are the 12 games or so that they’re going to play? Are those Salish Kootenai and those types of teams, or who are they going to play?
Gantt: “I think we have an assortment. Rocky (Mountain College) has a JV program, so that certainly will be a part of it. I know we’re very tightly connected with Miles Community College, I know that we’re going to go down into Wyoming and catch some of those folks, and certainly Salish is part of that, as well, at least in conversation right now.”
MTN Sports: Let’s pivot a little bit to these Frontier Conference meetings. No knock-down, drag-out fights or anything in there. What’s it like to get together with all the different athletic directors across the conference?
Gantt: “Perception is one thing, reality is another. In this case, the reality of working with these folks is even a lot more enjoyable than the perception would be when I first came in. It’s a pretty close-knit group, and it’s a time when we all try to collaborate and create so that each of programs can survive within the NAIA and then can grow within our conference, so it’s a pretty darn collaborative model. And you’ve got us and (Montana State-Northern) and Carroll (College) playing some games in different sports and competitions in the Cascade Conference, you have three or four of the Cascade Conference ADs in here because of their football programs, so it’s actually a north-west sort of collaboration, not just in Montana. So, it’s really a very collegial atmosphere.”
MTN Sports: There’s a lot of change, whether you guys do get football or not, but you’re losing Lewis-Clark State in the other sports. When you guys are here, how much of it is, ‘How do we make sure that we’re as healthy as we can be going forward into the future three, four, five years down the road?’
Gantt: “Basically the conversation spans from what’s happening next fall, do we have that all nailed down, and then let’s look at 2020, 2021, 2022 and project this out. Because with Lewis-Clark’s absence, we obviously would like to have at least one, if not two or three, additions to the conference. We have to work way ahead of time to pull that off. It’s encouraging, because we have the foresight to see it, and the implementation and the follow-up, it’s incumbent upon all of us to kind of get some direction and make it happen.”
MTN Sports: How much of the future — you talk about maybe looking to add other basketball programs — but how much of it is internal? How important would it be for the conference for you guys to get football or, say, Montana Tech to add wrestling or soccer? How much of the internal growth is discussed at these types of things?
Gantt: “I think it’s all important. I think each campus has different challenges to make those things happen, so as we vet all these things out we are always keeping in mind the basic minimum number of programs necessary to have the automatic qualifier in whatever sport it is. The consolidation of wrestling within the Cascade Conference, and we’re right on the horizon of having women’s wrestling become an NAIA sport within the Cascade Conference, so those are two pieces that have happened within the last two cycles with the men going and now the women projected to go. Soccer for both men and women on our campus, on Carroll’s campus, on Rocky’s campus, I think that’s as important as anything we do. It’s here and now, next year, the year after, the year after, so we’re always operating current to four years out in these conversations, and it’s kind of interesting to hear the thoughts.”
MTN Sports: Last question: These things aren’t all work, there’s a little bit of play for you guys up here. What are some of the fun activities, and what do you learn about your colleagues?
Gantt: “I guess I’m in the golf tournament (June 19), the little round of golf we’re playing. It’ll be interesting to see how former coaches will respond to bad things on the golf course. That’s always insightful, right, putting people in situations that elicit those responses that they have toward frustration, because I’m sure we’re all going to lose a ball or two.”