MISSOULA — He’s quick to smile, with a mid-summer golfer’s tan that makes him look 10 years younger.
Ask Mick Delaney if 2014 is his final year as head coach of the Montana football team and he chuckles.
“I get asked that every single day and sometimes 10 times a day,” he joked at the annual Big Sky Summer Kickoff Tuesday at the Park City Marriott. “That remains to be seen.
“My health right now, thank the Lord, is very good. My energy is still really good. At this point it’s always a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month situation and we’ll re-evaluate at the end of the season and see what kind of energy I have left, what direction the administration wants to go.”
One thing Delaney the coach never has to be reminded of is he’s only as good as his last game and/or season. The Griz finished 10-3 in 2014, so there’s every reason for him to feel good about his leadership going forward.
Asked a second time about leading Montana beyond 2014, Delaney responded enthusiastically.
“Sure!” he quipped. “I mean, hell, I’m only 71. Why not?
“I really enjoy the relationships with the coaches I have, energetic coaches that work so hard and do not have a huge ego agenda. Then obviously I would never stay in this business for almost 50 years if I didn’t enjoy the young men I have come in contact with day-in and day-out. You hopefully try to make a positive influence on their lives spiritually, physically and mentally. Any time you’re around young people who have energy and a lot of enthusiasm, it’s just really easy to be part of that.”
For a coach to be in the mix on any level for almost a half century requires a certain level of personal evolution. It’s safe to say Delaney has changed his approach with the times.
“Kids have changed tremendously because they’re much more intelligent,” he said. “Communication and technology have grown leaps and bounds since I started coaching obviously in 1964.
“I believe kids have changed but they want the same thing. They want discipline. They want an opportunity to have a team and have the team be important. We discipline our kids every bit as hard as we did 45 years ago with the Petrinos and Sweeneys. We just do it in a different way.”
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Delaney guided the Griz over what he calls a “bump in the road” when his team finished 5-6 in 2012. Earning a playoff berth last season was icing on the cake for a 10-3 campaign, but you get the feeling Montana’s skipper has higher expectations this season.
“We’re really excited and really anxious to get going,” he said of preseason workouts, which start in earnest on Aug. 3. “This has been a special group so to speak, being part of the turnaround last year and then having the leadership we have in this senior class is outstanding.
“As far as the anticipation and the anxiousness, I think everybody really wants to get started. They jumped right into the summer workouts and they’ve been just an unbelievable group.”
For Montana to even match last year’s record may require improvement. The schedule is considerably tougher, with FBS Wyoming up first on Aug. 30 and three-time defending national champion North Dakota State up three weeks later.
Those games are on the road along with Big Sky Conference tests at North Dakota, Cal Poly, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah. The Griz do get a break at the end of the season in the form of a home game against Montana State, but generally speaking, the league slate couldn’t get much more challenging.
“You know, if you’re going to be among the best, you’ve got to play teams that are going to keep you the best,” Delaney said. “For whatever reason, we’ve played very well on the road since I’ve been here. It’s been kind of a trait of Grizzly football.
“Obviously you’re expected to win in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. If we played Notre Dame or Southern Cal they’d expect us to win at home. Those expectations are good, but this program has been a real solid road team.”
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The Grizzlies’ hard work in the weight room , under the guidance of veteran strength coach Mike Gerber, is one reason Delaney is excited about August. Another is their willingness to treat player-run practices — they’ve been gathering twice a week this summer — as important opportunities.
Montana’s experience and talent at quarterback, running back and receiver have been well-documented. The offense is not as established up front and that area will be a priority next month.
“We’ve got great competition there but I think it’s going to take a little while,” Delaney said. “That’s why you play nonconference games like Wyoming, North Dakota State, South Dakota and Central Washington.
“It’s going to take a little while probably for them to mold together, but we do have guys that I think are going to be really good players and really solid. And we have a junior college kid (Jared Clark) coming in. When it’s all said and done I think we’ll be pretty good on the offensive line.”
The tight end position is also a priority in preseason workouts. The team lost 2013 mainstays Clay Pierson and Jordan Harper and will look to converted wideout Mitch Saylor, redshirt freshman Mike Ralston and juco transfer Jermaine Jones, among others, to pick up the slack.
“(Ralston) is a prototypical tight end, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds,” Delaney said. “(He has) no game experience but had a good spring and is having a really good summer.
“Again it will take a little time. Tight end is an important position in this pro style offense so I’m really looking forward to what we will end up with.”
On defense, Montana lost seven starters, including three veteran linebackers. But Delaney isn’t too worried heading into camp.
“I think we’re going to be as good on defense as we’ve been since I’ve been here,” he said. “Obviously I’m a very optimistic positive person, or at least try to be, but when I look over there and watch the tape from spring and watch the kids, what they do and how they handle themselves, I just feel we’re going to be really good on defense.
“I think we’re as good as anybody up front … I think it’s going to be a fast defense and a very aggressive defense. I know that we tackled better in the spring than we did in the fall. It was a huge point of emphasis and we’ll continue that in pre-fall. I think we’ll be a fun defense to watch.”