Can football make a comeback at MSU Billings after four-decade hiatus?

2014-08-09T15:31:00Z 2014-08-18T17:42:09Z Can football make a comeback at MSU Billings after four-decade hiatus?By JEFF WELSCH jwelsch@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Every day, Rick Halmes says, the vision arrives with such clarity that it’s almost as real as 1978, the last year Montana State University Billings — then Eastern Montana College — played varsity football.

Halmes sees a postcard-perfect September afternoon in 2018. Eleven young men are lined up in blue and gold on freshly laid sod, perhaps at Daylis Stadium or at Rocky Mountain College’s Herb Klindt Field. In moments the first MSUB kickoff in four decades will rise toward the rimrock, and the burly former EMC lineman is watching from the bleachers.

He will surely beam with pride and share embraces with fellow ex-Yellowjackets who have long dreamt of such a football rebirth. And he will just as surely wipe away a few tears with his bear-paw hands as he remembers Gene Brosovich and his plea in early 2012: Keep the dream going, Halmes’ former teammate had told him, because a lot of the fellas won’t be around much longer.

Shortly after, Brosovich was gone, too.

“It kinda burns in my soul,” Halmes says.

So explains the unrelenting drive the 27-year Billings resident has to restore football to the school that gave him a gift he is trying to repay.

Halmes is the driving force behind Big

Huddle, a local group dedicated to “promoting MSUB athletic excellence” and seeing footballs in the air again on autumn Saturdays.

The notion has percolated since 2008, when about 40 alums gathered at the Brosovich home on the rim for what became an emotional reunion of once-young men now in their 60s.

“The question finally came up: At some point is anybody going to take a serious run at establishing football?” Halmes recalled. “The answer was ‘it doesn’t look like it, so why don’t we?’ ”

Last year, during a Big Huddle rally at the Billings Hotel, the group had an audience with then-MSU Billings Chancellor Rolf Groseth and new Athletic Director Krista Montague about the athletic program’s direction in general and football in particular.

In the end, they asked Groseth what it would take for the NCAA Division II program to bring back football. The answer: About $5 million.

“So we said, ‘OK’ ” Halmes said, and with the door now slightly ajar the group rolled up its sleeves.

One other significant result of the conversation: MSUB decided to conduct a study of its 17 varsity programs, including where football might fit. The school has hired a Kansas firm called Strategic Edge Athletic Consulting to provide a strategic plan.

“It’s really going to be great to get data on paper and see what it’s going to take,” Montague said. “This study is going to look at numbers so everyone can stop guessing. The really crucial part of that is if this group does have the means they say they have to start something like football.”

Montague said the group will present results in the spring.

“We’re not looking for it to be a rubber stamp saying football is a great idea,” Halmes said. “That’s not going to happen in a million years. I think it’s going to say, ‘if this, this and this is done.’ I expect it should have some significance (for football).”

This much is certain: Big Huddle is serious. The group’s mantra since last year’s rally is “3-5-8”, reflecting the dream of approval in three years, kickoff in five and a new stadium in eight.

Halmes said his group has about $1 million in pledges. Big Huddle meets every Tuesday and has an executive committee with tasks assigned to supporters with expertise in key areas. They have volunteer advisers from the business community and are establishing 501(c)(3) non-profit status.

Along the way, they have reached out to every former Eastern Montana College football player.

“We’re thinking big and a lot is starting to come together,” said Diane Harkins, a retired local businesswoman and daughter-in-law of the late Mike Harkins, a men’s basketball coaching legend at the school. “I have never worked with old football players before, and I’ll tell you they’re something else. Get out of the way. They never cease to amaze me.”

Much of their drive stems from the pain of loss. Former players and other alumni have never fully reconciled dropping football, which they say has negatively impacted campus spirit.

“It was like a stabbing in the heart,” recalls Harkins’ husband, Mike, the former coach’s son. “That was a big part of college life and they took that away.”

Agrees Diane: “It’s evolved to something a lot of us older alumni people are not appreciating.”

The obstacles to restoring football are daunting.

Start with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires equal opportunities for men and women based on enrollment. MSU Billings’ 60-40 women-to-men ratio means that six of 10 athletic scholarships must go to women.

“If we add 100 opportunities for men with football, we have to have that many and more for women, or we would have to discontinue something on the men’s side,” Montague said. “That would be very challenging and a very interesting piece of it.”

For instance, MSU Billings has a niche as the only four-year school in the state with baseball. The growing popularity of soccer likely ensures its place. The school only recently added men’s and women’s track. Montague can’t imagine dropping any of the three.

Football is expensive at any level, but the far-flung Great Northwest Athletic Conference adds to that challenge. The school’s aging facilities need updating. And where would the team play?

The Big Huddle folks envision seating built around a $10 million track proposed for eight acres off Shiloh Road. Until that happens, the group has its eye on Daylis for that 2018 kickoff.

To keep momentum going, the group is staging another Big Huddle Reunion and Rally Aug. 14-17 at Big Horn Resort, featuring former Montana State football coach Sonny Holland and 10 of the state’s winningest high school coaches.

Will football return to MSUB? Montague and new Chancellor Mark Nook aren’t making any predictions.

“I’m not one who makes decisions emotionally,” Nook said. “Until we get the feasibility study in and get a little more concrete analysis, I’m not either supporting or not supporting. To lean one way or another without the consultants coming in would be inappropriate.”

The Big Huddle folks are just as eager to see the report. They also are unbowed in their dedication to that 2018 kickoff.

They see football as a natural fit for Billings, the only non-suburb city of more than 100,000 in the Intermountain West without a Division I or II program.

“What was a dream is now kind of a goal,” Halmes said. “We have a plan to get there. I know we can do this if we’re allowed to.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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