MISSOULA — One of Bobby Hauck’s favorite sayings during spring camp since returning as Montana’s head coach goes along the lines of, "You don’t get better at playing football without playing it."
However, there is no longer any football to be played during the spring as the Griz are stranded in a land of uncertainty — not just in sports, but in life — amid the coronavirus pandemic. Opportunities to learn and grow were curtailed when the Big Sky Conference canceled spring football practices on Monday amid an adjustment period to a temporary new normal across the country.
“We did get 40% of our spring ball in, which was great,” Hauck said on a conference call Wednesday morning, which had been scheduled to be Montana’s eighth of 15 practices as they would’ve hit the midpoint of camp.
“Our guys have great work ethic on our football team. We had great work when we were out there. I was enthused. Really, I was really, really enthused about it. Obviously, our young players not getting the benefit of the training and the practice are suffering for it.”
Montana was able to get in six of the allotted 15 practices prior to the announced cancellation, beginning its camp March 2 and last practicing March 13. The Griz had the chance to test out some of the changes to the offense, defense and special teams that the coaching staff had tinkered with following the end of the 2019 season on Dec. 13 in the FCS quarterfinals.
Yet the Griz missed out on nine more spring practices as they work towards the hopeful-yet-uncertain return to player-run practices in the summer, fall camp in August and their season opener on Sept. 5.
“Can you imagine any scenario where we wouldn’t get the fall started on time?” Hauck asked rhetorically. “Any time you’re not working, you’re falling behind in terms of your preparation. So, every day we lose, we lose.”
For Hauck, training for football also means hitting the weight room. Most Griz football players, if not all, don’t have access to such an area to work out at that level because gyms were ordered closed by the state governor.
“You don’t get strong without lifting heavy weights,” Hauck said. “Every day we can’t train, we’ve got erosion of all the work we’ve done. We have to take care of school, which is important. We communicate via text and email. But doing pushups doesn’t replace weightlifting, training.”
Hauck said there’s “not really” a team-provided training regimen for the players to follow because of that lack of access to a gym.
Some of the players have taken some workouts into their own hands. Billings’ Braydon and Bryson Deming pushed a pickup truck and Great Falls’ Noah Ambuehl pulled a car in videos shared on social media.
“You can’t replace training with pushups and whatever,” he said. “We have great work ethic and great want to on our team. Our guys will do anything they can to make Montana football great. So, they’ll do anything they can. That’s not the issue. The issue is what they’re able to do.”
The earliest any players could return to campus to have team activities like working out in the Champions Center would be May 15. That was decided on a vote by the Big Sky Conference President’s Council, one of the places Montana athletic director Kent Haslam looks to for guidance along with the federal and state governments, the NCAA and local health officials.
“If the things in our country and in our world change, that can certainly be shortened, or it could be lengthened,” Haslam said. “I am anxious to get them back and engaged and doing the things they love to do. But I have no idea.”
Haslam sees a positive in overcoming adversity off the field, much like players and coaches do on the field.
“I think this will teach us how much we enjoy human connection and how much we appreciate team,” he said. “I think those will be positives moving forward. I think that team and team camaraderie and togetherness will not just be a cliché after this experience. I think it will be something that will be valued.”
The focus at the moment in Hauck’s eyes is more so on the classroom than the X’s and O’s or even the weight room. Academics are tied into athletic eligibility, and players are somewhat scattered off campus as classes are being held online in a shakeup from the norm to achieve social distancing.
“The thing that I’m most concerned about right now is this has got disaster potential academically for us,” Hauck said. “We’re doing our best to mitigate that.”
The current pandemic has also affected recruiting, not just for Montana but for teams across the country.
Montana’s Junior Day, essentially an unofficial visit for high school juniors, was scheduled for April 4 but has been canceled, according to Hauck.
“We haven’t had unofficial visits on our campus,” he said. “Usually we have a lot of kids show up and come through and are on campus. Numerous, not just a handful.”
Hauck offered that he could see the recruiting opportunities in May diminish, too.
“This mandate has not come down yet, but I’m thinking that our May recruiting period may not happen as well,” he said.
For the time being, the coaching staff will have ample opportunity to watch recruits’ game tape in the absence of in-person opportunities.
“We still have the ability to evaluate film, which is great,” Hauck said. “We’ve got a lot of time as coaches to evaluate film.”
The annual spring game was supposed to be played April 10 at Hamilton’s new athletic complex, but it was canceled by Montana on March 16.
So, could Hamilton be awarded the 2021 game because of the extenuating circumstances this year?
“We haven’t even talked about that yet,” Haslam said, “but that’s a good suggestion.”