MISSOULA — Kalispell Glacier's football coach — and former Montana Grizzly great — Grady Bennett has received some razzing over the years about sending handfuls of his players to Montana State.
Since 2011, around 10 former Glacier players have signed with Montana State.
"I'm not going to lie, I've taken — in kind of maybe a joking way — a little heat over the years because we've been fortunate enough to send a lot of guys to Montana State," Bennett told 406mtsports.com.
"... A lot of people, they think that that's my doing. 'Geez, Bennett, what are you doing, sending all your guys to the Bobcats? I thought you were a Griz.'"
It appears the tide is turning in Montana's favor, at least for now.
Four members of Montana football's 26-person recruiting class — Max Morris, Drew Turner, Jackson Pepe and Cody Hartsoch — hail from Glacier.
Three Wolfpack alums are already on Montana's roster — Brandon Purdy, Evan Epperly and Andrew Harris — so come fall, there'll be seven young men who went from being members of the Wolfpack to members of the Grizzly sleuth.
"All these kids are the reason I coach," Bennett said. "Within each individual, there's so many special stories that make what we do as high school coaches worth it. They're the reason we do what we do."
Since Glacier opened its doors in 2007, nine players moved straight south to suit up for Montana.
The first was Griz reserve quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann, who took his redshirt in 2010.
"It was great to be the first one from Glacier to make it down to the U," Smithwick-Hann said, before deferring to other Kalispell Flathead-to-UM greats like Bennett and Lex Hilliard. "Hopefully there's many more to come."
He added: "There were great players for the university but, you know there was a little stretch there where it felt like all the kids up here were going to the other side of the mountains a little bit. ... It's nice to see some guys starting to go to Missoula. I think they've done a little better job of recruiting up here, the Griz have, in the last couple years."
In recent history, Montana State's roster has been loaded with Glacier talent. Last season there were six Wolfpack-turned-Bobcats on Montana State's roster. In Missoula, there were three.
The 2018 recruiting class evens out the alumni numbers. Montana will have had nine Glacier products pass through Washington-Grizzly Stadium, while Montana State has 10.
"They're showing a lot of interest up here," Smithwick-Hann said. "One of the big things I'd say is when you have a team like Glacier who's been to the state championship pretty much every year for the last six or seven years, success is really what gets players recognized and going somewhere.
"Coach Bennett and that staff over there deserve a lot of credit for getting guys to the Griz or to the Cats or whoever it is, building a strong program. That's what gets you noticed and a lot of credit goes to those coaches."
In the 11 years the school's been open, Glacier and its players have taken over the Montana High School Association's (MHSA) record book.
Most points in a season. Most touchdowns in a season. Most PATs in a season. Most PATs in a game. Most passing touchdowns in a season. Most career extra points (Purdy). Most extra points in a season (Purdy). Most touchdown passes thrown in a season (Montana State's Brady McChesney).
And those are just the records. That doesn't count the other top-10 instances. The MHSA records document includes 118 "Glacier" mentions.
"We've had a run of really, really good football players," Bennett said. "It's all about the talent, there's no doubt. On the flip side, I always tell everybody that I'm going to give my coaches credit because the No. 1 is developing their talent and developing them as football players, getting them ready to play at that level, but second of all, just giving them a good experience where they want to keep going.
"I think there's a lot of high school kids when they get done, they're just burned out. They just didn't have a great experience, they don't want to keep going. They're just done. I give the coaches a ton of credit because they create an experience and an atmosphere where kids love it and they want to keep playing as long as they can. I think that's really special."
Smithwick-Hann believes part of the reason why Bennett's a successful coach is because he truly cares about each and every one of his players.
"He's one of the best people I know. He's really supportive of what you do as far as the decisions you make and he's not somebody who gets on you and yells and screams," Smithwick-Hann said. "He's somebody who wants to talk you through it and wants to make sure you're having the most success and he does bring out the best abilities you have."
Bennett's conversations with his players are honest ones.
"I have this talk with all those guys, 'When you go Division I, you are definitely taking a risk. You have to understand, you have to work your tail off,'" Bennett said, before detailing that moving up the depth chart is harder than it sounds.
"... It happens all the time where there's a guy that puts a lot of time in and never really gets on the field. They have to know that's part of the risk that they're taking. It'll be fun to watch if any of them can carve out a position for themselves."
His assessments of his players are honest too.
On Turner: "You look at Drew and feel like he has the best shot to truly be on the field for the Grizzlies in a major capacity in a major role. I think, when Bobby Hauck got the job I said, 'The best fit right now is Drew Turner,' because he's a downhill runner, he's an A gap guy that's powerful. He's a one-cut, just like Bobby wants. ... I think this is a perfect fit for him."
On Morris: "It was a really neat journey to be on with him and to watch how far he's come and where he's at now. He pretty much had given up on it, really. When the season was over, I think the talk that we had, he came into it pretty much ready to tell me that football was over and he was just going to move on. His dream was to play for the Griz. That was always his dream in the back of his mind since he was a little kid. When Coach Hauck got the job, ... he made it a reality."
On Pepe: "We asked him to do a lot. He was on every special team. He was on offense. He was on defense. Just a great all-around player. Sometimes kids, they're really, really good but they actually get stretched maybe a little too thin so I think for Jackson when he gets to really go focus on being a safety and he can put 100 percent of his effort into that, I think you're going to see him really develop into the player that he can be. I'm excited for him. He has all the physical tools and it's going to be fun, just for all of them, to watch them grow."
On Hartsoch: "As a sophomore I was still begging Cody to stay out for football. He thought he was a basketball guy and thought that college basketball was his ticket. ... Luckily he stayed with it and then really, I think just this year, he kinda started to truly fall in love with it. He kinda reminds me, as far as Jackson Thiebes. Jackson was the same way and just fell in love with football finally as a senior and took off from there and a little bit of a trip to get back. Ends up being a starter and a big time player for Montana. Cody, gosh, what an upside. To get him as a walk-on, really is a steal. He's got a great frame and he's just starting to learn how to lift and just starting to love football. He could be, gosh, who knows. That's fun too to sit back and watch and man, he could end up being the best story of all of them."
With these four making the jump, Bennett jokingly hopes the Bobcat-fueled razzing stops. Because for once, UM and MSU will be even.
In 2018, there will be 14 Wolfpack alums combined on both rosters with seven apiece.
"It's flipped enough now where I think people are going to be like, 'There you go, that'a way,'" Bennett said, laughing. "It's good though. It's just so special to have so many guys on both rosters, playing at that level. It's almost hard to put words to it, really."