BOZEMAN — A roar rippled through War Memorial Stadium after Montana State kicker Blake Glessner made a go-ahead 53-yard field goal with 10:23 left in last Saturday’s game in Laramie, Wyoming. The Wyoming Cowboys’ stadium got even louder 10 minutes later, when Matthew McKay completed a touchdown pass to Treyton Pickering to put the Bobcats up 16-12.
MSU director of sports facilities Chris Hayden was in attendance, and those two moments have stuck with him.
“That level of excitement, it’d been long enough, you'd kind of forgotten what that felt like,” Hayden told 406mtsports.com Wednesday.
The Wyoming game, which the Bobcats narrowly lost, provided a small taste of what Hayden and others at MSU expect to see this Saturday.
The Gold Rush game between the No. 11-ranked Bobcats and Drake at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday will be the first MSU home football game in 638 days, and the anticipation is palpable. Tickets were sold at a record pace, and a town already brimming with blue and gold has seemingly added more Bobcat paraphernalia.
The coronavirus pandemic, which was responsible for MSU’s long break between home games, is still raging, but people involved with the football program are in a much more hopeful head space than they were a year ago. They can’t wait to see a parking lot full of tailgaters and a stadium full of Bobcat fans.
“It feels natural,” said longtime MSU season ticket holder Ben Schmitt. “It’s been wrong for two years. Now it’s right again.”
Rick Droski was promoted to MSU director of ticket operations this summer and was an assistant ticket manager for the previous nine years. He’s seen high demand for football tickets throughout his MSU tenure, but this year has reached another level.
More than 9,000 season tickets have been sold, well above the previous high (about 8,200) during Droski’s time at MSU, he said. Student tickets became available at noon Tuesday, and all 4,000 had been claimed by 12:40, the quickest pace Droski has seen. Tickets for Saturday’s game against an unranked nonconference team were sold out by Wednesday.
“They flew off the shelves,” Droski said.
Droski expects Saturday’s attendance to end up above Bobcat Stadium’s capacity of 17,777 people. The record is 21,527, set in 2013.
Hannah Stevens’ first day as MSU’s director of marketing and game operations was July 28. Her previous college, University of Texas-Arlington, does not have a football team. Her school prior, Illinois State, does play football, but the Redbirds’ fan base is not nearly as rabid as MSU’s, she said. That football love made Stevens' new job hectic, especially since she started basically a month before Bobcat football season kicked off.
But some aspects of Stevens’ current position have been easier than her previous two.
“I've never seen a community so involved in a university and with athletics,” she said. “I went downtown for the first week I was here, and I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh, there's Gold Rush and Go Cats signs everywhere. I didn't put those there. How’d they get there?’ People who own those businesses downtown, they want those things. … Especially since we haven't had an event in two years, I haven't had to beg and plead.”
Stevens and Hayden both described their preparation for Saturday’s game in similar ways.
“We are treating this like we are opening a brand new stadium,” Stevens said.
A beer garden will make its debut at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday night. An American flag the size of the entire field will be displayed during the National Anthem, since Saturday is the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
While the grand opening for the Bobcat Athletic Complex is scheduled for Oct. 8, the football team is using it this week, and the facility’s location (on the northwest end of the stadium) has forced some things to move around and might cause some adjustments for fans who only know the pre-BAC Bobcat Stadium.
Hayden is overseeing a staff of about 400 people, many of whom are new and the rest of whom haven’t worked an MSU home football game in nearly two years. Simply getting enough workers wasn’t easy.
“The labor market in Bozeman is a challenge right now. There are ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere,” Hayden said. “But we've really been pushing hard to get those game day workers signed up, and I believe we're going to be in a good spot.”
There will be some mental adjustments on Saturday even for Bobcat Stadium veterans like Hayden, who got to MSU in 2012. Those people haven’t forgotten how to handle a game week, said MSU athletic director Leon Costello, but just because you never forget how to ride a bike doesn’t mean you’ll feel comfortable on one after a two-year hiatus.
“With the layoff, it's almost like you’ve got to kickstart it. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it feels like to go into a normal fall getting ready to welcome 20,000 people to campus,’” Costello said. “It's not starting over, but I think it definitely is a jumpstart or a restart for us.”
Droski and others were a little anxious to see how MSU’s new digital ticketing system would go. Some people used to paper tickets have struggled with the new setup, and there might be some issues on Saturday, especially for those who don’t download the tickets into their phone wallets. But Droski hasn’t seen any major issues.
The new ticketing system largely came about because of the pandemic, Droski said.
“When we were looking at still playing in 2020, the big question was due to COVID just with the uncertainty of what the schedule could be,” Droski said. “We still live in a fairly uncertain time as it is, but the benefits of the digital tickets (made it so) we didn't want to go back.”
In many places, the pandemic is worse than it’s ever been because of the Delta variant, yet places like MSU are operating like they did pre-COVID. There will be no mask mandate at Saturday's full capacity Gold Rush game, Costello said (there’s a partial mandate on campus).
There’s a key difference between now and 2020, of course: the COVID vaccine. MSU will not require proof of vaccination to attend Saturday’s game, Costello said, but almost all of the football team is immunized, and many people in attendance will be as well. Bobcat Stadium will have several hand sanitizer stations, as well as signs recommending fans wash their hands and wear masks in certain spaces.
Add the fact that the game is outdoors, where COVID transmission is much less common than inside, and the game might not be much of a health risk. The COVID cloud remains, but it won’t be visible to many Gold Rush spectators.
“We want people to continue to practice their hygiene and stay in their little bubbles,” Costello said. “But once you're in the stadium, we just want fans to come in and have a good time.”
Ready to roar
Ben and Sue Schmitt were raised Bobcat fans and graduated from MSU in the 1970s. They tried to attend as many games as they could after that, but life sometimes forced them to miss one or two.
That was painfully true in 2011, when a bout with sepsis forced Sue to miss the Gold Rush game.
“I cried for three hours” that day, Sue said. “I told Ben, ‘We're never missing another game,’ and we haven't.”
Last season’s cancellation robbed the Schmitts of so many things they love about game day, such as the pre-game rodeo runout, the band, the sound of the Bobcat Stadium crowd and, of course, “the winning,” Sue said. Seeing the joy on MSU players’ faces after a victory is particularly rewarding, she added.
Before home games, the Schmitts host a tailgate that often gets 100 people deep, they said.
“Game days for us are kind of like a family reunion,” Ben said. “Even last weekend in Laramie, it was interesting just wandering around the pregame festivities and seeing all the people that we've not seen for two years.
“In a game like this Saturday, we expect to see a lot of family that we haven't seen for quite some time and a whole bunch of friends that we haven't seen for a long time. It's as much about seeing the people you associate with as it is the game sometimes.”
MSU fans have experienced some sporting events in Bozeman since 2019, such as the Sonny Holland Classic football game in April and a handful of volleyball matches so far this fall. Those experiences have provided a nice tuneup for Saturday.
“You're going to have a — I'm trying to think of the right word — ravenous fan base,” said MSU volleyball coach Daniel Jones. “I get chills just thinking about it. … There's so much passion for what we do as a school and what we do as an athletic department, as a whole. To be able to share that with people, it's special.”
While they had to wait an extra year, this week hasn’t felt all that much different to the Schmitts than previous Gold Rush weeks. That normalcy is comforting. Life is still stressful, but Saturday’s game makes that pre-pandemic time seem close.
The Schmitts expect things to feel quite a bit different, in the best way possible, when they get to Bobcat Stadium on Saturday and the 6 p.m. kickoff finally arrives.
“We're not going to be late, we'll promise you that,” Sue said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included an incorrect figure for Bobcat Stadium's capacity. That has been fixed.