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Kent Haslam believes the athletic department at the University of Montana has turned the corner from the negative publicity it took on during the previous year.

There’s just one roadblock to get past -- the NCAA’s investigation into supposed improprieties surrounding the Griz football program.

But the genial Haslam, UM’s first-year athletic director, can see the finish line.

“Typically, an NCAA investigation takes about 18 months from beginning to end,” he said during a stop in Billings last week. “Soon everything will be public and everyone will be able to see it.”

The NCAA has been investigating the Grizzlies since December of 2011. It’s believed the probe surrounds alleged player benefits at football tailgates -- food and such -- in addition to a more serious charge,  which contends that the parents of a football player bailed former teammate Gerald Kemp out of jail after he was arrested in the infamous Taser incident during a fracas with the cops at a party in Missoula in October of 2011.

A big no-no.

Haslam said he “can’t get into the details” of any infractions he suspects the NCAA may levy against the football program, but it won’t come as a surprise if the Griz lose a couple scholarships or are forced to vacate some victories from what was a hugely successful 2011 season.

Ostensibly, the NCAA is investigating Montana for what’s known as a lack of institutional control.

“I wish I could lay everything out for you at this point, but it’s probably not the best thing for me to do,” Haslam said. “All I can say is that we’ll get through it, and we’ll be a better athletic department when it’s done.

“There will be some things we’ll need to improve on, but I think we’ll be fine.”

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Haslam, head football coach Mick Delaney and other UM dignitaries were in Billings as part of the Grizzly Scholarship Association’s annual spring tour, which brings them east through Havre, Glasgow, Sidney, etc.

The 70-year-old, Butte-born Delaney was in especially good spirits, his energy high and his determination palpable.

The 2013 football season marks the final year of Delaney’s current two-year contract. If the Grizzlies improve on last year’s 5-6 record, Delaney could be in line for a new deal.

Right now, Delaney has more than enough desire to remain as coach, and he doesn’t feel a bit of pressure when it comes to winning and losing. He and his staff work and prepare extremely hard every week, and that won’t change.

Most of all, he has the full support of Haslam.

“If we’re successful like we hope to be and like we’re working to be, those things will take care of themselves,” Delaney said. “If my health is OK and if the administration is happy with the direction we’re going, I’d say (I’d want to coach) probably two more seasons, maybe three. But that could change in a heartbeat, too.”

Added Haslam: “From my perspective, coach Delaney has done everything that he’s been asked to do. He handles things very forthright. He’s got Butte blood in him, so he handles things straight on.

“Never once has there been a time when he tried to skate around an issue or not be forthright about an issue. And I’ve appreciated that. He’s a great man, he works hard, and he has a tremendous passion for this university.”

♦   

What will the Football Championship Subdivision look like five years from now? If you support the FCS, it doesn’t look pretty.

Recently, the FCS lost flagship programs Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the Bowl Subdivision, specifically the Sun Belt Conference. That hurt, and it probably won’t stop there.

But perhaps worse was the Big 10’s recent announcement of a scheduling model that cuts games against FCS opponents entirely. For years FCS teams have relied on making big money for playing against teams from the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC, etc.

They're known as “guarantee games,” which help immensely when it comes to FCS programs paying their bills.

What if the other major Division I conferences follow the Big 10’s scheduling lead? It could change the FCS drastically, especially from a financial standpoint.

“Right now, unfortunately, college football is about money,” Delaney said. “Why are people jumping and moving? It’s about money and prestige.

“Where are we at at our level? That’s hard to tell. But hopefully there will always be a niche for schools like Montana, Montana State and the Big Sky schools. Does that mean moving up? I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do.

“The shuffling is not going to stop. I think you have to put yourself in the best situation to be successful. Right now, where the University of Montana is at in the FCS world, we’re in a good niche.”

♦  

Haslam and his crew assured Grizzly supporters on their easterly swing that university president Royce Engstrom is 100 percent committed to the success of athletics.

Engstrom is still maligned in many circles for his decision to dismiss football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day in the face of off-the-field scrutiny last March. But Haslam, a veteran of the athletic department who Engstrom tabbed to succeed O’Day, says the president’s advocacy for UM’s 14 sports programs is solid.

Yet it was reported last week that the university faces a $16 million budget shortfall, which will inevitably affect athletics. Haslam hopes to take a surgical approach to remedying the situation, whether that number turns out to be accurate or not.

“We’re looking at a high-end of about $200,000 of general-fund cuts,” he said. “The things we don’t want to cut are what impact student-athletes. We don’t want to cut scholarships. We don’t want to cut student-athlete welfare. We don’t want to cut recruiting.

“Could it mean that repairs at Washington-Grizzly Stadium get deferred a little bit longer? It could. Does it mean we rely more on our partners that generate revenue, like Learfield Sports and the Grizzly Scholarship Association? You bet. The first approach is to generate more revenue, and then make sure that when we do make cuts we don’t impact the student-athlete experience.”

Haslam said groundbreaking on the much-needed and long-awaited student-athlete academic center at the Adams fieldhouse on campus is imminent, pending a signature from Gov. Steve Bullock to the legislation approving the construction.

The academic center will be funded entirely by $2.5 million in private money, Haslam said.

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