BILLINGS — Montana State Billings is on the verge of hiring a new athletic director, and the yet-to-be-named successor to outgoing AD Krista Montague will inherit a department that is facing budget constraints but intent on increasing fundraising and tackling ambitious facilities projects.
MSUB’s new chancellor, Dr. Stefani Hicswa, said during a recent interview with The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com that improvement of facilities is among her top priorities for the department. The new athletic director will face big challenges in that regard.
But he will also inherit a persistent “football question.”
MSUB, when it was known as Eastern Montana College, dropped football in 1978 and the school has faced calls to reinstate the program, especially over the course of the past decade.
“It’s a good question and it’s a legitimate question,” Hicswa stated.
The finalists for the athletic director job, as announced by MSUB earlier this month, are Michael Bazemore, currently the assistant director of academic and membership affairs for the NCAA and a former director of compliance with the Yellowjackets; Michael Feuling, a development officer for the annual fund and community relations at Linn Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon; and Peyton Deterding, who most recently was the athletic director at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Hicswa previously said she hoped the school would announce a hire by this week.
A local group known as Big Huddle, made up of EMC gridiron alumni, has been the loudest voice for football’s return to the school. Among the group’s objectives is to raise private funds to help NCAA Division II MSUB bring back the program and construct an on-campus stadium — though the university, without the proper funding, seems miles away from any kind of action on the issue.
MSUB’s administration has focused its efforts on the student-athletes and programs it currently has. There are facilities needs for existing structures that at some point have to be met.
“As I look at the financial implications of adding any new athletic programs right now, we’ve got to seriously consider that with our other needs on campus,” Hicswa said.
Still, Hicswa said she and Montague recently met with members of Big Huddle and that the football question isn’t an open and shut case, even though an independent feasibility study conducted in 2014-15 by Strategic Edge Consulting declared it a non-starter due to both the cost association and Title IX requirements.
According to the study, annual expenditures for football (and at least two new and equitable women’s sports) would amount to $2.2 million. That doesn’t include $1.275 million in startup costs or the most rudimentary and most expensive need of all — a place to play. That, the study said, could run as high as $20 million.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people as you might imagine in the community,” Hicswa said. “The feasibility study from 2015 is absolutely relevant and has some good information, and the new athletic director and I need to look at it.”
“There are some valid arguments for football at MSUB,” Hicswa added. “I didn’t understand the big picture until I met with the representatives of the Big Huddle. They gave Krista and I some good things to think about, and she and I have had some good conversations. I will continue those conversations with the new athletic director.”
MSUB unveiled a facilities master plan in 2016 that plotted the construction of a 60,000-square-foot athletic fieldhouse on campus that includes an indoor track, as well as the addition of a baseball practice facility, improvements to the softball complex, the relocation of the soccer fields to the main campus and renovations to locker rooms and coaches offices at Alterowitz Gymnasium.
Hicswa noted many positives that would be associated with resurrecting football, including the potential to grow enrollment with students that MSUB otherwise might not get both in state and out. Also, there’s untapped revenue that could come to the university and the athletic department and fundraising opportunities that might help MSUB spread the wealth both athletically and academically.
But MSUB, which operates with a nearly $5 million athletic budget, knows it has to be shown the money sooner or later.
In the meantime, the new athletic director, and Hicswa, will hear the same calls.
Hicswa, who was raised in Dillon and received degrees from three football-crazed schools — Montana, Montana State and Texas — hasn’t put the issue to bed.
“The dialogue is open for discussion. We need to look at that feasibility study and look at any updates,” she said. “I certainly have not made up my mind one way or another.
“I think there’s some validity in looking at why (football) hasn’t come back even though it’s been a conversation. And I think it’s important to look at our other budgetary priorities with our athletic programs and our facilities and what our academic needs are, as well.
“The new AD and I will certainly have the conversation, but it needs to be very thoroughly analyzed to balance it with the other needs of the university.”