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Bill Speltz: Grizzly coaches tighten belts, adapt to trying times

Bill Speltz: Grizzly coaches tighten belts, adapt to trying times

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MISSOULA — Tough times have prompted the University of Montana athletic department to make some changes.

There is no money machine hidden in the bowels of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. So when the Brawl of the Wild was canceled this weekend — along with the rest of the 2020 football season — it hurt real bad financially.

In order to bridge the gap during this COVID-19 nightmare, the UM athletic department has fine-tuned its approach to doling out money for athletic scholarships. It affects current and future Grizzlies.

For starters, it's important to remember that just because all current student-athletes have been granted an extra year of eligibility, it doesn't mean they will all have scholarships in 2020-21.

"We want to keep them all as long as we can, but that's not a financial reality for us," UM athletic director Kent Haslam told the Missoulian and 406mtpsorts.com.

Montana has put in place budgetary limits for all coaches. Instead of the usual X number of scholarships for in-state or out-of-state athletes, the coaches have to follow guidelines based on the amount of money available.

They'll need to be more creative finding ways to cover fees for athletes that won't be getting full athletic scholarships. And even with that creativity, it's going to be hard to maintain the same number of scholarship players. 

"It will change the way they'll have to recruit," Haslam noted. "It's not a huge, drastic shift from the past, but it gives us a little more of a prediction on what we're going to spend on scholarships instead of fluctuating based on how many out-of-state kids you have versus in-state.

"To make up some difference, we'll use private funds and be more aggressive fundraising. And the coaches have been great utilizing other scholarships a student-athlete might get from an academic standpoint, recruiting smart kids."

There's a harsh reality here that cannot be ignored. Some of Montana's athletic programs are simply more important than others when it comes to the financial well-being of the athletic department. When you're trying to stay afloat, you have to think about things like that.

"We want all of our sports to be competitive," Haslam noted. "But we certainly generate the most revenue off of men's and women's basketball and football."

The buzzword today is survival. Haslam and the Grizzlies need to navigate their way through a terribly challenging fiscal year (July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021). Then they need a really healthy fall of 2021.

The best news since March is that the Montana men's and women's basketball teams will start playing this week. Both have road openers that will help them get ready for their Big Sky Conference debuts in December.

It's not like returning to business as usual because fans will not be allowed when the Lady Griz play their home opener a week from Thursday. But at least it's a step toward recovery for the UM athletic department.

"We've got a lot of protocols in place and it will be nice to get to a place where we're competing and then seeing how these mitigation efforts are working," said Haslam, who estimated he spends about 50 percent of his work week addressing COVID-19 issues. "We'll be back to having radio broadcasts with ads, Pluto TV televising with ad sales ... Then we need to move toward an NCAA tournament. Canceling that and football was a double blow."

Before the end of the basketball season, Haslam is hoping the Missoula City-County Health Department will give the OK to allow "700 or 800" fans into Dahlberg Arena for home contests. But he's not holding his breath because none of us know what the future holds right now.

The one thing Haslam does know, that we should all should understand, is the University of Montana athletic department has a been a success story for a long time. That department generates more revenue and relies less on university handouts than any other athletic department on the FCS level.

Think about that for a minute. It speaks volumes about the success of the athletic programs, the leadership at UM and the generosity of Griz Nation.

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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