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Does Missoula really want a return to Hauck?

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It took less than a week after Griz football head coach Bob Stitt’s firing for it to start looking like 2009 in Missoula all over again, as Bobby Hauck, currently coaching special teams at San Diego State, flew to town to interview for his old job. Neither the Griz nor Hauck have accomplished apart what they accomplished together—a string of conference championships, consecutive title game appearances—but can you turn back the clock? Do you even want to, given the legal and moral tumult of the Hauck years? Let’s revisit the last four Griz coaching regimes before we recap what the Griz are looking to regain.

Bob Stitt, 2015–2017

Hailed as an offensive genius, Stitt’s arrival in Missoula (from the Colorado School of Mines) was accompanied by national media attention. His first season was promising, starting with a dramatic win over a top-ranked North Dakota State team and ending with a second-round playoff loss to the very same Bison. Then the Griz went 6–5 and 7–4, missed the playoffs and lost to the Cats in consecutive years. Like they say, sometimes Stitt happens and sometimes the Stitt happens to you.

Scandals and arrests: In the fall of 2015, three players were part of a group arrested for drunkenly breaking into a house in the Rattlesnake that they thought was empty.

Playoff appearances: 1

Griz-Cats: 1–2

Mick Delaney, 2012–2014

Brought back from a brief retirement after the semi-abrupt firing of Robin Pflugrad in 2012, the then-69-year-old Delaney did a more than respectable job handling a program emerging from NCAA sanctions and scandal. He retired after the 2014 season.

Scandals and arrests: One player arrested for buying drugs at Disco Bloodbath. A tight ends coach and a player got involved in a bar fight downtown.

Playoff Appearances: 2

Griz-Cats: 2–1

Robin Pflugrad, 2009–2012

Pflugrad was Hauck’s heir apparent, moving up from wide receivers coach after Hauck’s departure. Although he imposed stricter disciplinary measures on the team, like shutting down a long-running initiation party, Pflugrad presided over the massive meltdown that resulted when sexual assault allegations were brought against multiple players. He may have unfairly borne the brunt of the Hauck era’s recruiting and team-culture missteps.

Scandals: Pflugrad was the coach when rape charges were brought against players Beau Donaldson and Jordan Johnson. The NCAA also levied sanctions on the program over rules violations, including boosters paying bail and providing free legal representation for arrested players.

Playoff appearances: 1

Griz-Cats: 1–1

Bobby Hauck

Bobby Hauck, 2003–2009

Hauck took the Griz to three national title games and changed the tenor of the program, professionalizing and toughening it. After years of success, he left after the 2009 season to become head coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. His departure came at the end of a two-year run of players being involved in violent crimes. Hauck brought national media scrutiny to the program for freezing out UM’s student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin.

Scandals and arrests: Several instances of multiple players involved in violent assaults. One player charged with murder. (He was later acquitted after spending 25 months in a Los Angeles jail.)

Playoff appearances: 7, three in the national championship game.

Griz-Cats: 5–2

That takes us back to 2009, before players are being arrested on sexual assault charges, but well into a string of arrests on felony charges. Depending on your point of view, Hauck either symbolizes a string of successes or an anchor to a past the university is still trying to live down.

ESPN magazine writer, former Griz player and former Kaimin reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg expresses serious doubts that a Hauck return would benefit the program.

“I’m pretty disappointed that Missoula fans have so quickly forgotten the mess that resulted from Hauck’s tenure,” he says. “As we kind of examine why the University of Montana is having so many enrollment problems, I think you can really tie that back into that Hauck era, when all those sexual assaults happened, and those are, in my understanding, mainly kids that Hauck recruited. And the sort of black cloud that cast over the university, I think, really was a huge driver in the enrollment drop.”

Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslam declines to comment on the Hauck interview, but asked why the university might consider bringing the former coach back, he was willing to revisit Hauck’s successes.

“Certainly he was very successful here and he won a lot of football games,” Haslam says. “He’s an excellent coach and a Montana native and a University of Montana alum, and understands what this university is all about, and I know he’s going to be a very strong candidate, there’s no doubt about it.”

An informal survey of headlines from Hauck’s last two years in Missoula produces a total of 12 player arrests in a span of 18 months on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to murder. A Missoulian story published Monday night lists 10 player arrests under Hauck, and at least three arrests of Hauck-recruited players in the years just after he left. His UNLV teams didn’t seem to have had the same issues, making Hauck the first person in history to reduce his exposure to crime by moving from Missoula to Las Vegas.

It was an incident that went unreported to the police that blew up into a national sports story, however. In September 2009, the Kaimin reported that Griz players had been involved in an assault on another student. When student reporter Tyson Alger asked Hauck for comment on the incident, he replied “You’re done for the day. And you’ll be done for the season if you keep bugging me about this thing that I’ve answered four fucking times.”

Alger now covers University of Oregon athletics for the Portland Oregonian. Over the phone this weekend, Alger recalled the original story that earned Hauck’s ire. “It was well sourced, and I still stand by it 10 years later,” Alger says. “We asked him to comment four or five times, and they didn’t want to talk about it, but when you’re writing a story like that you’re trying to get both sides.”

What might have remained a local story just a few years earlier was suddenly all over sports media thanks to the emergence of Twitter. Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Deadspin all published takes on Hauck’s stonewalling.

Tyson was jarred by suddenly becoming a part of the story. “As a reporter, our job is to tell what’s happening, so that turned into a kind of uncomfortable situation for me,” Alger says. “It kind of made it out to be us versus them, when we were just trying to tell the news.”

Despite all that, Alger understands why fans and boosters would want Hauck back. “Say what you will about the guy, he was incredibly successful there,” Alger says. “He knows how things work at Montana, and I think he’s a good football coach who knows the area, knows the landscape of Montana football.”

Still, Hauck is hardly the only option. Van Valkenburg mentions Syracuse offensive coordinator Mike Lynch, who played for the Griz in the ’90s, as an interesting potential hire.

“I just feel like what Grizzly football needs is to be interesting and dynamic again, and not a retread with someone who’s going to start a battle and go to war with anyone who questions his authority,” Van Valkenburg says. He also points out that during his semester as a journalism school Pollner professor in 2015, he saw that Kaimin reporters didn’t have an easy time with Stitt either, and suggests that incoming university President Seth Bodnar would do well to improve transparency with the press across the board.

One thing, though, is certain: The university, the conference and the division have changed dramatically since 2009. “The landscape’s completely different. I think the culture within the athletic department is different,” Haslam says. “New leadership is coming in with the new president, and a lot of things are changing at the University of Montana.” Whether the football team will change with it, or look instead to its past, might be Haslam’s next call.

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