BOZEMAN — Though small in stature, Montana State special teams coordinator B.J. Robertson is a big presence in Big Sky Country.
Robertson, a Sheridan native, is entering his fourth season with the Bobcats after working his way through the coaching ranks. He started at Rapelje High School in the late 1990s and got his first college job in 2001, serving as an assistant at NCAA Division III Rockford (Ill.) University.
Robertson then spent time on the staffs at Southern Oregon and Rocky Mountain College before landing the head job at Montana Western, his alma mater.
A Montanan through and through, Robertson has a wide network of friends and connections across the Treasure State. He joined MTN Sports to discuss his time at Montana State, his recruiting road trips and his offseason hobbies in this week’s Sunday Conversation.
MTN Sports: Last time you and I spoke, it was December. You were talking about looking forward to some time off, some vacation. What did you do for some time off between the end of last season and spring ball?
B.J. Robertson: “That’s a good question. Did Spring Training, we snuck down to some baseball in Arizona with some buddies. Went over to White Sulphur Springs, did a little skiing and soaking in the hot springs over there, but other than that, that’s pretty much my off days, I guess.”
MTN Sports: You’re known as Mr. Energy, a really popular guy. How important is it for you guys to maybe be able to recharge your batteries a little bit and get ready to go, because Spring Ball, it seems like it’s getting earlier and earlier every year?
Robertson: “The exciting thing was we had some new coaches, so that was kind of the big transition, getting to know those guys. Obviously Kane (Ioane), reconnecting with Kane. Actually, I was renting his house, so we’ve stayed in touch maybe more than some people. And then getting to know Bobby (Daly) has been awesome and then Erik (Frazier) coming in has also been awesome. Just kind of that addition to the staff has been energizing. Of course, Kane is a Bobcat legend and Bobby had a heck of a career and is going down as a legend. It’s been great. And then Erik’s been a nice addition, as well, getting to know him. Just kind of those things naturally and the excitement of kids fighting for roster spots and new positions and that sort of thing has been great. Coach (Alex) Willcox has done awesome in the weight room. Excited to see those guys get out and going. Kind of just the natural progression of the calendar helps recharge more than anything honestly.”
MTN Sports: Let’s talk about that coaching staff. You and coach Brian Armstrong are former head coaches. You bring in guys like Matt Miller and Bobby Daly, who are climbing the ranks. Just, what’s the dynamics like in those coaching meetings, where you kind of have a lot of Montana connections but kind of at different stages, different points of your careers?
Robertson: “Army and I laugh about it, when we were at Rocky (Mountain College), (Montana) Western, there’s really only three full-time coaches, and so you kind of bounce ideas off each other, but you only have two other guys and then a lot of student assistants or part-time guys that bring ideas. … Now you’re surrounded by 10 full-time coaches. For me, it’s just constantly growth, which is awesome. Bobby brings in ideas from, not only his playing days, but obviously being at another institution. Then same thing with Kane and Erik, they’ve been at different places and different levels. For me, just trying to absorb as much as I can from those guys and learn. Yeah, you hope maybe you can add something to the conversation, but for me it’s just a great resource to get new ideas and learn.”
MTN Sports: Since coach Jeff Choate and you guys all got here, there’s been the steady improvement year after year. What’s been the excitement like around the program, what are you guys kind of envisioning for this next fall and the next step for the Bobcats?
Robertson: “Yeah, I think coach has done an awesome job of setting the culture but also giving the kids a vision that trickles from coaches down to players. He’s really set an awesome tone and given us a road map of, ‘Hey, do this and this will happen,’ and sure enough. And really got to give that first group of seniors — we were just talking about that the other day — Gunnar Brekke, Chad Newell, you flash back to those guys. They really bought into coach when he came in right away. They didn’t necessarily see the success pay dividends early, and then we won the last two games. Obviously Cat-Griz is always a big one. Kind of getting that started, and those guys just even toward the very end were always saying, ‘Hey, stay with these guys, trust them, they got a good plan,’ so that helped springboard into the next year. Then kind of a similar deal. It’s just been awesome to see. Now it’s exciting, we’re shifting more — I can’t remember who was quoted the other day, but, ‘Bad teams don’t have leaders, good teams have coaches as leaders, and great teams have players as leaders.’ That’s kind of coach’s motto that he’s been following, and it’s exciting to see guys who have been around for three years going on their fourth year, it’s hard to believe. In my year, Jered Padmos is going to be a guy that is going into his senior year. Derek Marks is a guy that came in the same time I did and now he’s going to be a senior. Time flies. But it’s exciting. Those guys have invested so much and have seen the program. That’s the thing, you want the kids to see success from their hard work. You can’t always guarantee that, but it’s exciting to see those guys be rewarded. It only adds fuel to the fire. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve seen, the kids are starting to take the message and really take ownership in the program. Like I say, that’s the coaches’ plan, but also, you see it and it’s exciting to see those guys mature and do that.”
MTN Sports: How about campus-, maybe community-wide? Because obviously coach Danny Sprinkle coming back for the men’s basketball program, there’s just a lot of buzz around MSU, obviously on the academic side of it, too. What have you seen in these three, four years, just as far as the excitement and buzz around the entire community here?
Robertson: “Yeah, Bozeman itself. I don’t know which feeds off of which, honestly. That would be kind of a good case study: Is it the college driving the community, or is it the community driving the college? But, yeah, it’s an exciting time to be in Bozeman. Really, the one, I guess, thing you could say is, President Cruzado, she’s been the steady force, I guess, to really kind of drive it and the things she’s helped bring to campus. And just the vibrancy of campus with, not only growth, but on campus, seeing buildings go up, that gets you motivated and, ‘Hey, if we do the right things,’ and, ‘Hey, if we do this, we can achieve that.’ Then the academics, that’s one of the first things I was really impressed with. Admissions came and spoke to us one of the first times we were here, trying to help us understand what’s the recruiting model. They’ve grown, but they haven’t dropped their standards of academics. Actually, when we first got here the average ACT of the incoming freshmen was a 24, and you’re like, ‘That’s impressive that not only is it just growth to get growth, but it’s growing with quality,’ so that’s really exciting. Yeah, it’s hard not to get that buzz and that feel just with all the things you see. And then the community, obviously, as a coach it’s not great, because you can’t find a rental or afford to buy, but other than that, Bozeman has so many things to offer outdoors. It’s an awesome time to be in Bozeman, that’s for sure.”
MTN Sports: What are your favorite things to do in and around Bozeman?
Robertson: “I hate to admit it, but I’m a small-town guy — and we laugh — I think, if you visit with a lot of people, you kind of find that the things that are nearest to you, you don’t really take advantage of, because you always want to go see things. I like to sneak away to the small towns, honestly, a little obscurity. Kind of our down time equals baseball season. I’m a baseball fan, so if I can get out to watch baseball and go see somewhere else, I probably don’t take advantage of Montana as much as I should, because I take it for granted.”
MTN Sports: Bobby Daly said that you’re the guy they all go to when they’re asking about small towns. What are the hidden gems out there? What are some of the places — they’re not home, Sheridan’s home for you — but what are some of the other places out there?
Robertson: “I’m nervous to say, then they won’t be hidden gems anymore. You got to love, one that’s easy for us to get to is Pony. We always sneak over there. … It’s kind of a nice getaway to go hang out over there. I don’t know, that’s the fun thing, too, is just to go explore some of the small towns that you haven’t necessarily been to. Take your pick, honestly. That’s the fun part, is going to those towns, then finding out what their little secrets are if the locals will share it with you. You’ve got to maybe go back twice to get to know it, but, yeah, I don’t know. There’s lots of them.”
MTN Sports: Any favorite restaurant or bar off the beaten path?
Robertson: “I’m a big fan of Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. They give me a hard time about always going down there. I don’t know, there’s something to eastern Montana people. They’re always so welcoming. It’s definitely, as coach says, ‘Blue collar, gold standard,’ and that definitely fits down there. But, yeah, I don’t know. That’s what’s fun, is there’s so many. You take your pick, and each one’s got its own qualities.”
MTN Sports: Do all you coaches before or after your recruiting trips kind of get together and talk about some of those hidden gems and the secret places and some of the fun you guys have out on the road?
Robertson: “It’s always fun to find a little place to eat. You like to try and give guys ideas. We’re getting ready to do the Bobcat Blitz, so we’ll be spreading out across the state. You try and give guys some ideas of, ‘Hey, here’s a great place to stop in if you get a chance.’ But for me, it’s fun when they come back and give me what they found and what’s new. Sometimes you get in that rut and you hit the same places all the time, so sending a new guy out there to find something new is always fun, too.”
MTN Sports: For somebody like you who has so many Montana connections and friends across the state, does it get much better than what you have going on right now?
Robertson: “No. We laugh. I’m like, ‘Really? It’s kind of, not family reunion, but sort of. Let me see: Coach is going to give me a tank of gas and a car to go visit my buddies? That’s pretty good.’ Then, yeah, people pay a lot of money to come recreate and drive around the state, and we get paid to go do it. Yeah, I can’t think of much better.”