MISSOULA — Former Montana coach Jerome Souers was feeling lost in August.

The longtime coach didn’t have a team to be a part of for the first time in over 40 years after retiring as Northern Arizona’s skipper in November 2018. He had stayed close to sports by moving into a role at NAU focusing on athletic fundraising and Native American initiatives.

Souers, though, missed being around football, so he was thrilled when Montana coach Bobby Hauck, who got his coaching start under Souers at Montana in the 1980s, reached out to invite him to visit the Griz and hang out at his house during fall camp this August.

“Bobby invited me up. I think he knew I was struggling,” Souers said. “I’ve been 42 years in a row of being in a fall camp somewhere and building a team and getting ready for competition. That part’s been hard, I’m not going to lie.”

Souers was impressed with what he saw from Hauck’s team and staff, which included his former quarterback from the 1980s, Brent Pease. He saw the meticulous attention to detail, a coaching staff blending youth and experience, and players who appeared dedicated.

“It just felt like the Montana football of old,” Souers said.

Still, Souers didn’t foresee this quick of a turnaround to a nine-win season, 6-2 Big Sky record and No. 6 seed in the playoffs in Hauck’s second season of his second tenure.

“To get it back, to do it in a couple years is nothing short of remarkable,” Souers said. “The areas that are the weakest, the ones that take the time to redevelop, you’re talking about the line of scrimmage. All the other parts that you can fix quickly have been fixed and redirected. There’s a lot of promise and hope in their program.”

Souers is high on Montana — even while the mood of some soured following a blowout loss to Montana State on Saturday, the Grizzlies’ fourth consecutive in the series, as they squandered their chance for their first Big Sky title since 2009 — and he felt the need to voice it.

“Bobby Hauck is the right head coach for that job,” Souers said. “I don’t think it’s been said, but it needs to be said: He is the right man for the job. He’s got them going in the right direction. It’s only his second year back, but he’s going to have them going the way that he had.”

'Recreating the DNA'

Souers knows Hauck well. He followed Don Read to UM from Portland State and was the defensive backs coach and later the defensive coordinator from 1986-97, a stretch during which Hauck joined the Montana staff as a graduate assistant because of Souers and Read.

Northern Arizona called in 1998, so Souers left and spent 21 seasons coaching the Lumberjacks. He coached against Hauck when the Big Timber native was UM’s head coach the first time.

After learning under Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, Colorado and Washington, Hauck led Montana to seven consecutive Big Sky titles from 2003-09 and to three national runner-up finishes. Despite that success, Souers now sees him as a more humble, complete football coach — like willing to adapt to changing offensive times by throwing the ball more — after his experiences at UNLV and San Diego State.

“He is what Montana needed,” said Souers, who recruited Bobby's son, Robby Hauck, to NAU. “I totally believe in what he’s doing and the changes that he’s made and recreating the DNA of the Montana football program, which was much needed.

“Montana is close to my heart in every way you can imagine. I cut my teeth there, and I watch it closely, and I tried to emulate it in many ways. It’s impossible outside of Missoula to emulate. But he’s the right man for the job, and he’s doing a great job.”

Hauck’s Griz team in 2018 finished 6-5 and missed the playoffs in his first year back. They improved their record to 9-3 in 2019, were ranked as high as No. 3 in the FCS and are hosting a second-round playoff game in their first postseason appearance since 2015.

Souers knows what it takes to succeed at Montana. He was on staffs that made the playoffs seven times in 12 years, won the FCS title in 1995 and was the national runner-up in 1996.

The 1993 team started Montana’s streak of 17 consecutive playoff appearances, which ended in 2010, the first year after Hauck left, a season that was the start of a decade defined by coaching changes, a playoff drought and an off-the-field scandal.

“Montana has always been the benchmark,” Souers said. “Having fallen off of that was a difficulty for everybody with some of the negative press. We got into a little bit of a slump with the coaching changes. But he’s the right man for the job.

"It has a whole different feel to it. It feels very familiar to somebody that’s been there for a long time and has seen it when it was at its height, its glory days."

Souers has been even more impressed with the quick turnaround because of the increase in talented programs compared to the league in Hauck’s first stint. Money continues to be poured into athletics in the arms race for better stadiums and facilities, even at the FCS level.

The depth of the Big Sky was showcased in full force when four teams landed in the top six national seeds in the FCS playoffs this year.

“There used to be a time where the conference would cycle around based on who had the most seniors or the best quarterback,” Souers said. “The conference is stronger. There’s no question it’s stronger. So to come in, in a couple years and get the conference record turned around the way they have, it’s been an amazing deal.

“It’s not a gimmick. It’s not a short-term solution. The things that he’s laying down are long term and really affect the whole DNA of the program. That’s where I see the fabric of how they do things — the team’s tight, they play hard together, there’s a great cohesiveness among players and coaches. It’s hard to do that in a short period of time.”

Souers also felt it necessary to commend Montana athletic director Kent Haslam for hiring Hauck in December 2017 despite some public outcry.

“Kent Haslam’s decision to hire him back was a decision of strength and maybe controversial,” Souers said. “Kent did a great job bringing him back.”

'Accelerate and rise up'

This season, Souers has been able to follow along with Hauck and others coaches he worked with over the years because he hasn’t been coaching. Those include Andy Thompson and Kraig Paulson at Sacramento State, Tim Plough at UC Davis, Corey Batoon at Hawaii and Brian Lindgren at Oregon State.

In the year away, Souers missed the day-to-day relationships with players and coaches but also enjoyed the time at home with his family. He hopes he isn’t done coaching football and would love to get back in it in some fashion.

“I don’t have the ache or the urge to be the head football coach,” Souers said. “I’d love to be working with the student-athletes again. I think that’s the area when you get into an position like a head coach at the FCS level where you end up doing a lot more administrative things like fundraising and you tend to lose contact with the things that got you into the business in the first place, which were working to help develop young men and using football as the platform and those experiences to teach lifelong lessons. Seeing those things take place has always been the most rewarding experience of being a college football coach.

“I’d like to do something that could help scratch that itch and not necessarily have to be a head coach or something that demands so much more of your soul compared to being a position coach where you’re able to work at the level you used to. I’m looking at a couple different things. I’m looking at high schools. Kind of keep my options open to see what’s next for me.”

As for what’s next for Hauck and Montana, Souers expects big things.

“I think Bobby has his sights in the right area,” he said. “He’s recruiting the right kind of guys. He’s got a staff to manage them. The program’s going to do nothing but accelerate and rise up.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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