BOZEMAN — The heady days of the 1980s and early ‘90s kept popping up at the meet-and-greet introducing Danny Sprinkle as Montana State’s 23rd men’s basketball coach April 5, and why not?
Never before or since has the college game generated more electric energy at Montana State — and for that matter across the divide at Montana, which was once considered one of the most artful and intimidating basketball venues in America.
Thirty years later, I’m still rinsing mustard and relish from my hair courtesy of the MSU band at the Big Sky Conference tournament, its otherwise low-key trumpet players righteously — and rightfully — indignant over a column I wrote as a Boise State reporter poking fun at Bozeman’s cow-town persona.
Thirty years later, I can also still remember the students at Montana rolling out a carpet of thudding spuds in a mock welcome to players from Idaho, whose teams were routinely mashed by the Grizzlies.
It’s an obvious and noble goal to reheat frigid winter nights in the Gallatin and Clark Fork valleys with high-octane fuel emanating from Brick Breeden and Adams fieldhouses.
It’s also, I suspect, unattainable barring a seismic shift in Montanans’ interests.
Like Blockbuster Video and Fotomat, the days when college hoops dominated our winter worlds seem to be going the way of Arctic sea ice. The ‘80s and ‘90s have used up their eligibility.
And you know, that’s OK.
The world changes. Interests change.
Increasing diversity of our pastimes doesn’t demean our athletic teams.
It just is what it is.
We’ve been watching this evolutionary reversal unfold before our eyes, whether it’s the decrease in attendance at high school events in Montana’s larger communities or the emptier seats at college basketball games.
Perhaps it’s even time to reconfigure how we measure success, at least off the court.
Do we gauge Sprinkle’s performance based on a time when Bozeman was more of a classic college town, its typical resident was Montana-bred and alternative activities were more limited? Do we critique Montana coach Travis DeCuire relative to an era when the high-flying teams of Mike Montgomery and Stew Morrill were a community centerpiece in part because other options were scarcer?
Sure, you can make the old winning-cures-everything argument that if Sprinkle builds it they will come.
One glance some 220 miles west on Interstate 90 offers evidence that ‘W’s aren’t a one-size-fits-all antidote.
From a zenith of nearly 8,000 spectators per night through the mid-1990s, the Griz have dipped into the 3,000s for much of the current decade. Thanks in part to DeCuire’s public pleas, this past season the average eclipsed 4,000 for the first time in six years — second in the Big Sky but still pale against the copper standard of three decades ago.
That’s despite the Griz dominating the Big Sky the past two years and finishing no worse than second in eight of the past nine seasons, with five regular-season titles. That’s despite Missoula County’s population rising from just under 80,000 in 1985 to roughly 120,000 today.
Likewise, Bozeman has been booming since the rest of the world discovered a river ran through it — or near it — in the early 1990s, resulting in the more than doubling of Gallatin County’s population. MSU's growth has followed suit in the past decade under the dynamic leadership of President Waded Cruzado.
Yet average attendance at MSU basketball games has dwindled to less than half of 1985’s figure, a nadir certainly due in great measure — but not entirely — to a paltry two winning seasons since 2002.
Montana's Lady Griz have felt the pinch, too, dipping from back-to-back years of 5,000-plus attendances in the mid-1990s to four seasons of less than 3,000 in the past eight years despite generally dominating the Big Sky much like the men.
How to explain?
Sure, football bears some culpability.
Back in basketball’s heady days, football was an autumn tune-up for hoops — the Griz playing at forgettable old Dornblaser Field and the Cats in equally ho-hum Sales Stadium. Neither program was galvanizing much save for MSU’s lightning-in-a-bottle 1984 Division I-AA national title run squeezed between one- and two-win seasons.
When Washington-Grizzly Stadium opened in 1986 and the Griz began clawing their way to the top of the national food chain, football and basketball in Montana did a synchronized 180-degree flip. That passion has trickled over to Bozeman, where the stadium now seats 17,000-plus with grander plans.
Yet even football has begun to show some chinks in its once-impenetrable armor. Attendance in coach Bob Stitt’s final season (2017) at UM was the lowest in a decade, though it showed an uptick in 2018 with Bobby Hauck’s re-arrival harkening to more glorious years.
Another draining factor: The Big Sky didn't help when it kicked its appealing mountain brand to the curb in the late 1980s and went money-lusting for Portland State, Sacramento State, Cal Davis, Cal State-Northridge and Cal Poly. They're all credible schools, but none have the cachet to lure folks out on a blizzardy night the way Boise State, Idaho and Nevada-Reno did when the league was an intimate eight teams.
Anyone who attended the gathering for Sprinkle on a Friday afternoon couldn’t help notice another ominous reality that has marketing directors scrambling for answers. Yes, it was a work day, but salt-and-pepper heads outnumbered blond, brown, black and red by a landslide.
The demographic is aging and replacements are not arriving in caravans at the border. The trick is getting younger generations away from their iPhones, iPads and Game Boys long enough to cultivate the same passions my generation had.
It’s quite possible it just won't happen.
The world changes. Interests change.
And that’s OK.
As long as we recognize that in measuring success for coaches such as Sprinkle and DeCuire, and accept the new landscape for what it is, does it matter that the ‘80s and ‘90s have used up their eligibility?