Bobcat Stadium

A then-record crowd of 20,767 watch the first night game at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman on Thursday, August 30, 2012.

BILLINGS — So Montana State is just $1.5 million shy of breaking ground on a long-anticipated and much-needed athletic complex at the north end of Bobcat Stadium, which serves as Phase 1 of an otherwise huge facilities master plan.

For athletic director Leon Costello, there’s light at the end of the first tunnel.

Now a final appeal is in the offing to push the fundraising objective for this phase over the top.

As it’s been said, the complex (with a final price tag of about $18 million) will be built to accommodate each of MSU’s 350-some-odd student-athletes. Plans call for it to be roughly 40,000 square feet in size, serve as the new and more natural headquarters of the football program and house a new weight room and areas for training, health and rehabilitation.

In turn, it’s expected that the old football offices across the parking lot at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse will be renovated into an essential student-athlete academic center.

It goes without saying what an undertaking like this will mean to Montana State in terms of physical, tangible benefits. But beyond the steel and concrete, what will it mean symbolically for an athletic department that has seemingly struggled to see capital projects come to fruition in the past?

“We’re continuing the process of getting better results,” said Costello, whose hiring in 2016 marked the end of business as it had been done for years in Bozeman. “My hope is this is the start of many great projects that will continue the momentum that’s being built here from the top down.”

The Bobcat Athletic Complex, as its being called, should serve as the most important and far-reaching addition to the athletic department’s infrastructure since Reno H. Sales Stadium was renovated and renamed Bobcat Stadium in 1998.

The 2011 bowling-in of the south end zone brought the football stadium’s capacity beyond 17,000 and has its obvious benefits — though fundraising for a $100 million stadium renovation announced in May 2008 never really got off the ground and the plan was ultimately scrapped. MSU's current plans are much more transformative.

And it hasn’t been easy keeping up in the high-stakes arms race of facility improvement.

Across the continental divide at Montana the archrival Grizzlies, to their credit, have prospered for years from the large and generous donations of entrepreneur Denny Washington and family. At South Dakota State — where Costello was a deputy AD before coming to MSU — the name of businessman Denny Sanford graces the Jackrabbits’ glistening athletic complex.

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Meanwhile, there isn’t so much as a Denny’s restaurant in Bozeman.

Without the aid of one or two big-time heavy hitters, Costello and Co. have appealed to a collective group of donors, with the largest gift not equaling half of the $16.5 million that’s been raised to this point. Now it’s a matter of gaining final approval from the board of regents, raising the last of the funds, completing the design, securing construction bids and putting shovels in the ground.

Seems like a lot, but Costello says it's not far off. The target is this fall.

“The goal was to get to a certain point to then be able to go out to everybody and say, ‘Hey, look. Every dollar that you contribute now is going to help us get this done,’ ” Costello said. “Now we’re at that point where every single dollar that we have is going to help us get there that much quicker.

“I feel really good about it. I feel good about the excitement among our fans and our alumni about this project. I feel really good about the people that have stepped up and helped us get to this point. There’s a need and a want for this facility to get done, and our donors and our alumni have responded. And I know that we have more out there that are going to help us get over that goal line. The goal is to wrap it up quickly.”

When that happens, the question is, what’s next?

MSU’s wide-ranging facilities master plan also lays out a vision to, in part, bowl in the north end zone in the area in front of the Bobcat Athletic Complex, to renovate the eyesore that is the east grandstand, to erect an indoor performance facility and to make greater improvements to Worthington Arena.

It’s taken nearly two years to put the majority of funds in place for Phase 1. How fast will the Bobcats move on their next strategy?

“The easiest answer is it’s yet to be determined. We know there are things on our list and we will move as quickly as we can in order to continue the momentum and keep things going,” said Costello, who noted the importance of avoiding donor fatigue. “But we’ll definitely take a breath.

“We’ll go back and work with the coaches and evaluate what our biggest need is at that moment. Then we’ll start working on a plan.

“I think we do need to be a little bit careful. The timing is going to be important. Really, it’s going to revolve around what our needs are and then go through the same process of developing a plan and going out and try to match the vision of our donors.”

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Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac