BY JASON BACAJ
By just about any measure—enrollment, donations, research expenditures, athletics—Montana State University has been the premiere postsecondary school in Montana for the last several years. This past fall saw MSU as the only higher education institution in the state with an enrollment over 16,000. In August 2021, the school received a $101 million donation to expand its nursing program. And last year, tremendous athletic success on a national scale will mark that period in history as the “Year of the Bobcat,” as President Waded Cruzado calls it.
The football team reached the Football Championship Subdivision national title game for the first time in 37 years with a team that saw four players go on to make NFL rosters. The women’s rodeo team won the College National Finals Rodeo. The cross-country team achieved its first national ranking in 17 years, as did the men’s tennis team. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams reached the NCAA tournament and the ski team had multiple athletes garner All-American accolades. Plus, the school’s athletics facilities improved across the board. All of those accomplishments can be traced back to the university’s leadership: President Cruzado, whose tenure began in 2010, and Athletic Director Leon Costello, hired in 2016.
Mountain Outlaw sat down with both leaders to learn more about the challenges and highlights they’ve witnessed in recent years and what the future may hold for the university.
MOUNTAIN OUTLAW: What have been the highlights of 2022 for the Montana State Athletic Department so far? Obviously, playing in Frisco, Texas for the Football Championship Subdivision national title in January got things started off on a high note.
LEON COSTELLO: I still remember being on the bus and seeing all the people in that tailgate area (outside Toyota Stadium) when we turned the corner. The work of so many people goes into making that happen, making it a reality and to see it come to fruition is pretty special.
All that led into great things in the winter with men’s and women’s basketball, the ski programs, indoor track and field. Right into spring with outdoor track and field, men’s tennis. Looking back, it’s a sense of pride. And so where my mind goes right now is, man, how do we do that again? Because it was a lot of fun.
MO: I’m kind of curious: with your last job being over at South Dakota State, were you conflicted at all last December when the ‘Cats beat SDSU to reach the national championship game?
LC: Not at all. No. In this business, the world is so small because you get to know so many people. But having worked so long at South Dakota State, you still have great friends there. One of my mentors is still there, (Justin Sell) the athletic director. Being able to compete against a friend is great. I’d rather have it that way than competing against somebody you don’t know. It brings two worlds together and, obviously, coming out on top is sweeter.
When you’re in that game, you think back and I’d worked with Justin I think 16 years. All the time that we spent working together, both with the same vision, same missions in mind and how we try to develop our programs. I think we do it very similarly. As I look back at it, it doesn’t surprise me that we were both there trying to do the same things the right way with great people and hopefully great outcomes in the end. So far both universities (MSU and SDSU) have been able to do that.
“When you get them here, you want to have the right facilities to be able to develop and train student-athletes. Through the recruiting process we make sure that they know they can achieve their goals while they’re here.” – Leon Costello
MO: With the football team’s success, when will MSU fully wrap the stands around Bobcat Stadium and enclose the field in a bowl?
LC: The first step of that was the Bobcat Athletic Complex. This is our first full football season in that building and to understand what facilities can and will do for your programs, it’s pretty amazing. We have a lot of priorities and the football stadium is one of them. And an indoor practice facility, just with the weather that we get.
We’ve started the new academic center. The training facility in (the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse) is getting a facelift, the weight room will get one over the holiday break. The old football locker room will now become two—one for men’s basketball and one for women’s. The BAC has allowed us to renovate and update key areas here.
MO: Much like the new facilities give you a shot to improve things for all teams, how do those upgraded facilities help out with recruiting?
LC: It all comes down to detail with recruiting. When you get them here, you want to have the right facilities to be able to develop and train student-athletes. Through the recruiting process we make sure that they know they can achieve their goals while they’re here. That’s making sure we have the proper weight training space, proper medical space, proper academic space, all the things that go into making their experience a good one so that they know that when they come here, they’re going to be able to accomplish all their dreams and goals while they’re here.
“It all comes down to student-athletes and making sure that we’re able to support them and care for them.” – Leon Costello
MO: What does the future hold for Montana State’s championship-winning rodeo team?
LC: Earlier this year we purchased some land with an indoor arena and outdoor arena with a house. It’s a full-fledged ranch that our rodeo teams can now call home. Previously they practiced in different spots at different times—you know, never really as a full team. Now they have the ability to practice all day long in a space they can operate how they see fit.
This is the first fall we’ve been able to do this, so we’re still feeling our way through the scheduling part of it. But from comments from coaches and student-athletes, it’s already better for them and their culture. They can board horses at the location, so it saves them time throughout the day and not be on the road as much, which is a safety factor especially as the weather starts to turn here. It really sets us up well for the future.
MO: What do you use as a guiding star when deciding how to prioritize all these projects?
LC: It all comes down to student-athletes and making sure that we’re able to support them and care for them. So, I ask three questions before we do anything. One: Will this help the student-athletes? If that answer is no, then why are we even talking about it. The second: Can we do it as far as policy, procedure and compliance? And then the third is: Do we have the funds or resources to do this?
If all three of those are yes, then it’s ‘Why aren’t we doing it right now?’ It’s really that simple. It comes down to supporting our student-athletes and our coaches and programs. We’ve got student-athletes who have chosen us to continue their education and play the Division One sport of their choice. We want to make their four or five years here as successful as possible.
MO: What are you grateful for in this role?
LC: People make any organization what it is and we have great people in athletics. We also have great support, from the campus community to the president’s leadership team. I mean, look at Bobcat Stadium on a Saturday. It’s pretty amazing what we get to experience. And then our donors are second to none. Our fundraising has increased because they believe in the things that we’re doing. I just want to make sure that we can continue that. It’s been amazing so far, but I also know that we’re not done yet.
“If you were to combine all the annual research expenditures of all colleges
and universities in Montana, public and private, Montana State University produces more annual research expenditures than all of them combined.” – Dr. Waded Cruzado
MOUNTAIN OUTLAW: When looking back on your 12 years as president of Montana State, is there any one project or accomplishment that stands out?
DR. WADED CRUZADO: For the last 12 years we have been working hard to ensure that the importance of the land grant university is heard loud and clear. For me, that means an emphasis on educating the sons and daughters of the working families of America, with special attention to Montana residents. That’s our mission, but it’s also our best contribution to advancing the state of Montana.
MO: What are the visions you have for the new hospitality school?
WC: We’re very excited about the progress and the interest that people have shown in the hospitality management program. We established the program a few years ago, paying attention to the fact that tourism is the No. 2 driver of Montana’s economy. As a land grant university, we want to make sure that we’re responsive to that. There’s great interest in both the two-year culinary arts program offered by Gallatin College and the baccalaureate program here at MSU.
And we’re now in conversations with the Jake Jabs College of Business to add an additional focus on business practices because we want to make sure that we prepare the future professionals in the industry.
MO: What’s the trajectory you’re trying to put the hospitality school on for the next dozen years?
WC: We are in conversations for a public-private partnership to build the campus hotel. It will be wonderful for our students, not only to receive the theoretical training here but the actual training in a campus hotel where our students will be able to see the operations from beginning to end. So we’re very excited about that.
MO: How does the university approach balancing the ever-growing student community with the rapid growth going on in the Gallatin Valley as a whole?
WC: We have been fortunate to live in a time where we can witness the acceleration of Bozeman and Gallatin County. I think our responsibility is to ensure that we prepare those professionals who are going to enter these incredible opportunities that are becoming available now.
Going back to the question about hospitality management: When we, as a public institution, put out a request for proposals for possible partners for our campus hotel, there were 17 letters of interest from all over the nation. Evidently there is a lot of interest in our region, not just to find a home but also to enjoy everything that southwestern Montana has to offer—particularly Yellowstone National Park and the Big Sky community and Bridger Bowl. It’s the place to be. We want to make sure that we’re part of that excitement, and that we prepare competent professionals to serve the industry.
MO: How has the university navigated the universal difficulties around hiring and retaining faculty and staff in the pandemic era?
WC: The university is not immune to the stressors that the rest of the community has been feeling. I happen to believe that we have the most talented people in the state. Many, many individuals recognize that talent and they want that talent to go and work for them. We also wanted to make sure that we are the best public employer that we can afford to be. So, for years, we have been trying to ensure that we increased our starting salaries.
Right in the middle of the pandemic, in the summer of 2020, we were able to universally up the starting salaries for all our positions.
MO: What are you grateful for?
WC: First of all, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to serve the premier university in the state of Montana. This is an extraordinary university. We’re approaching 130 years of service in the interest of people, and it has also coincided with a time of tremendous enthusiasm and growth in so many areas. Needless to say, the public sees a lot of what we do in terms of student enrollment and the growth we’ve registered in that. But we have also grown incredibly in the area of research. It took us 37 years to reach $100 million in research expenditures per year. It took us another 11 years to double that.
If you were to combine all the annual research expenditures of all colleges and universities in Montana, public and private, Montana State University produces more annual research expenditures than all of them combined. That means that our faculty members, our researchers, our students are at the forefront of knowledge. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to work with our students, who are the best students in the whole wide world.
I’m delighted to work with our incredible faculty that we have, who add an incredible luster to our history. For example, just in the last year, four of our faculty members were elected to the National Academies of Science and to the National Academies of Medicine. We cannot nominate those individuals; those individuals are recognized by their peers.
And I’m very, very proud of and grateful for our staff, who are incredibly hardworking and talented. And I am very grateful for our alumni. They are so committed to the university. It’s not only evident on campus in our buildings, just take a look at the support they show for Bobcat athletics. Our students know that we are a big family, that there’s a community rooting for them, that they’re not just competing by themselves.
The university was able to provide that sense of community we all needed so badly coming out of the isolation of the pandemic. People were so happy to come out to our athletic events, artistic events, cultural events and root for those Bobcats. I’m very grateful for all of that
Jason Bacaj is the Managing Editor of Explore Big Sky newspaper at Outlaw Partners.