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BOZEMAN — Rob Ash, the winningest football coach in Montana State history, was fired Monday after the Bobcats suffered their first losing season since 2001 and finished lower than fourth in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in his nine-year tenure.

MSU athletic director Peter Fields made the announcement during a press conference after meeting with Ash on Monday morning. Ash had a 70-38 overall record and won three Big Sky championships, but a 54-35 rout at the hands of arch-rival Montana here Saturday culminated a disappointing season that began in September with hopes of competing for a national title.

“I felt that the program wasn’t maintaining the level of expectations of our fans and everybody associated with the program,” Fields said. “This season was hard for everybody. It was hard for Rob. It was hard for the coaching staff and the players … watching them leave the field after a loss.”

Ash, who turns 65 in May, met with the players at noon Monday and was not available for comment. Fields said he would meet with the players later Monday afternoon.

An attempt to reach Ash on the phone was not successful, but Ash told the Gazette via text message, "No comment. Sorry."

Players weren’t available either, though some took to Twitter.

“That was a lot harder than I thought it was gonna be,” sophomore linebacker Blake Braun tweeted. “It felt like my GF (girlfriend) just broke up with me.”

And redshirt freshman defensive back DeMonte King tweeted: “Very unfair to coach (Kane) Ioane (co-defensive coordinator). Amazing coach, amazing guy. ANY player would have told you that.”

Ioane, who has been with the program since he became a starting safety as a freshman in 2000, said in a phone interview that Ash was pulled out of a morning coaches meeting by Fields. Ash returned with the news of his dismissal.

"It was a tough moment," Ioane said. "He was obviously emotional. But he was very professional, as always. He is the ultimate class act."

Ioane said he does not know if he will try to be retained by MSU's next head coach.

"At this point I'm not quite sure if that really is the next step," he said. "It's about what's best for me and what's the next step. Does that include Montana State in the plans again? Obviously I love Montana State. It will always be a big part of my life."

Offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said in a phone interview that he was disappointed, but acknowledged this reality as part of the coaching business.

"You need to produce. You need to win," Cramsey said. "We didn't do that, so the president (Waded Cruzado) and (Fields) thought they had to go in a different direction.

"You're always nervous after a bad season. You can say a lot of things about stats and community and GPAs and all of that stuff, but you need to win games. It's a great profession, but it's a tough industry."

Cramsey has a strong relationship with quarterback Dakota Prukop, who Cramsey said is disappointed with Monday's announcement.

"Me and Dakota are very close," Cramsey said. "I talked to him. He is very upset, very unhappy. He does not want to play for another coach. He does not want to play for someone other than myself."

Fields said a search will begin immediately and that ideally he’ll have a new coach in place in “10 to 14 days," though he acknowledged that's optimistic. All eight assistant coaches were released but will have the opportunity to be evaluated by the new head coach, he said, adding that Cramsey will be the point person for players and recruits who need assistance.

“We have a lot of really good things going here and have to have somebody who’s a really good fit,” Fields said, adding that he “truly believes we should be in the top 10 (nationally) all the time. With the resources we’re putting into it, we should be up there.”

For Ash, 2015 was his fifth losing season in 36 years as a head coach and second since 1991. He had two losing seasons at Drake and two at Division III Juniata College.

But Ash was 2-7 against Montana and never beat the Grizzlies in Bozeman. This year’s team snapped a streak of 13 consecutive winning seasons for MSU.

“We had high expectations for this year — and that’s Rob too, not just me,” Fields said. “From the fan base to the students to the alumni — it’s everybody.”

The Bobcats had a prolific offense that matched expectations, but a porous defense that allowed five teams to score more than 40 points was the primary culprit for unmet dreams.

“Rob’s done a good job of building a number of facets of the program,” Fields said. “Academically we’re in good shape. We do a lot of community service stuff. We have a better program.”

But in the end, Fields said, it was about wins and losses. Fields acknowledged that Ash was disappointed in his decision.

“Rob’s a competitor and Rob is a good person,” he said. “He’s invested in what he does and believes in what he does.”

Ash signed a rolling three-year contract after last season, but under the terms of the deal he will only have to be paid through the current school year.

“All decisions like this are hard,” Fields said. “This is not an easy decision, and you don’t take it lightly. Many people are impacted. Tentacles all go out — assistant coaches, people internally. This is a tremendous burden, and it’s hard.”

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Statewide 406 Sports Editor

Jeff Welsch is executive sports editor for 406 Sports and The Billings Gazette.