Bobby Hauck’s return comes with a condition
by Henry Chisholm
As the Grizzlies took the field for a spring practice in early April, the sun disappeared behind sheets of pea-sized hail. Only a faint outline of the massive “M” on Mount Sentinel’s western face overlooking the University of Montana was visible, and, within minutes, the ice pebbles on the ground outnumbered the black beads of rubber that pad the turf. It’s cold. It’s windy. It’s next to impossible to grip a football.
Or as head coach Bobby Hauck put it: “It’s Montana.”
Big Sky Country is Hauck’s home and he won’t let you forget that. He was born in Missoula, home of the Grizzlies, and grew up four hours east in Big Timber, a small town on the Yellowstone River with an elevation nearly triple its population. He’s left for stints as the head coach at UNLV and, most recently, special teams maestro at San Diego State, but Bobby never looked quite right in another school’s colors.
In the middle of his pre-practice press conference, while he was surrounded by a handful of reporters and a pair of TV cameras, the hailstorm intensified. The coach, wearing an all-black Nike windbreaker sweatsuit, gray Nike trainers and a gray baseball hat embroidered with the “Griz” logo, broke a smile, laughed, then bellowed: “And there’s still people out watching.”
The fans he referenced were a small bunch, on the verge of double-digits, huddled 30-plus rows from the field under an overhang at the edge of the stadium’s concourse. The crowd was a far cry from what you’d find at the Rose Bowl or The Big House this time of year. But it didn’t matter. It doesn’t take much for Hauck to get fired up when he’s on a football field.
Bobby, now 53, is an icon in his homestate, right up there with Chet Huntley and Evel Knievel.
He took over his alma mater’s football program in 2003 and led it through an unprecedented run of success: In seven seasons, Bobby’s boys won 80 games and seven Big Sky Conference titles, while appearing in three National Championship games.
So why wasn’t a parade thrown to celebrate Hauck’s return from nine years in the Bowl Subdivision?
Because Bobby burned some bridges in Missoula.
Part of a Championship Subdivision coach’s job is to find FBS-caliber talent that has been passed over by FBS programs. These are players who, usually due to behavioral issues, couldn’t find their footing among big-name schools, despite what they offered on the field. They’re low-hanging fruit for the FCS’ elite with the potential to totally shift the bearing of a school’s football program, if they can pull themselves together off the field.
But out of this bunch, Hauck picked more than his fair share of bad apples. One Grizzly defensive back, Qwenton Freeman, who was kicked off the team shortly after refusing to cooperate with detectives during a murder investigation, pled guilty to two felony charges stemming from an armed robbery near campus and was arrested multiple times for throwing beer bottles at people in downtown Missoula.
Before this happened, Freeman was convicted of assault at the University of Arizona. He didn’t complete the court-ordered community service he was sentenced to resulting in an outstanding arrest warrant hanging over his head when he transferred to Montana. Hauck, supposedly, didn’t know about any of this when he invited Freeman to Missoula.
One player was a serial drunk driver, another held a gun to the head of a woman who owed him money. NFL star Trumaine Johnson was part of a group who beat a student outside a frat house. When Hauck learned of the incident, he called the student’s father and asked him not to press charges.
The school newspaper reported on the alleged assault and was subsequently banned by Hauck from speaking with anybody involved with the football program. Nobody argued that the reporting was inaccurate. According to Jeff Pearlman, who shredded Hauck in a column for Sports Illustrated during the prohibition, Hauck responded to a football-related question from a student reporter during a press conference by laughing and asking an adult for the next question.
Hauck’s return to Missoula was met with a petition on Change.org titled “Tell the University of Montana not to hire Hauck. Women are more important than winning.” The petition, which garnered nearly 800 signatures, alleged that Hauck recruited criminals to his teams, damaging the community. It details the crimes committed by his former players, ranging from misdemeanor assault charges at bars in downtown Missoula to a rape committed by one of Hauck’s recruits after the coach had left for UNLV.
Bobby says that this is a “false narrative.” Nevertheless, it persists.
Hauck spends practice yo-yoing from the midfield logo—a massive charging Grizzly bear. He’ll head to the end zone, where the offensive line is working, offer a pointer or two, watch for a few minutes from 10 yards away then head back to the bear where he’ll find something else to watch.
He made mistakes during his first tenure as the Grizzlies’ coach, but hearing him call a timeout from across the field during short-clock drills brings flashbacks to Montana’s dominance. There are things he could have handled differently, and in the coming years Montana will learn if he’s grown up since it last saw him.
On his first day on the job, Hauck said his four goals for his players haven’t changed since the last time he was here:
“To get your degree. To win the rivalry game. To win the Big Sky Championship. To win a national championship. It isn’t real difficult to figure those ones out.”
But he needs to add a fifth to the list. Bobby must realize that the gift he was given, a return to his alma mater with a chance to relive his glory days, comes with a condition: If Grizzly football players’ names show up in the news they’d better be in the sports page. If not, the next petition might just work.