Kane Ioane mindful of program-building process at Montana State

November 4, 2016

BOZEMAN — Kane Ioane was here the last time Montana State lost this many Big Sky Conference football games to start a season. The year was 2000. Bill Clinton was president. The Cubs’ World Series title drought was a mere 92 years.

Before and after a coaching change that saw Mike Kramer replace Cliff Hysell, the Bobcats actually lost 14 straight conference games (and 18 overall) over the course of three seasons prior to finally breaking through with a 32-17 victory at Weber State on Sept. 8, 2001.

Ioane remembers it well.

“It took us to 2001, that next year, when we went down to Weber State and got our first conference victory in however long,” said Ioane, who was a hard-hitting safety in the midst of a hall of fame career back then, not long before embarking on what is now a 13-year stretch as an assistant coach with the Bobcats.

“Our confidence from that point kept going up and up.”

A winless season in 2000 turned into a Big Sky championship two years later.

With a 2-6 overall record and a 0-5 mark in the league — their longest winless stretch in the conference since Kramer’s first season — it makes you wonder about the Bobcats’ current plight under first-year coach Jeff Choate.

Granted, college football has changed immeasurably in the years since, and the beginning of Kramer’s tenure was a massive rebuilding project marked by a substantial roster overhaul. In Ioane’s first game as a true freshman in 2000, MSU lost to Division II Humboldt State.

The Cats survived that storm, but it surely wasn’t all good all the time in those days, both on and off the field.

Choate’s Bobcats are far removed from that kind of reconstruction: Recall the 55-0 drubbing they put on D-II Western Oregon in September. Plus, they have several senior leaders on hand to guide the program, guys like Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke and J.P. Flynn and Fletcher Collins.

And they’ve been in games, having lost their first three Big Sky contests by a combined 11 points.

This Montana State team seems closer to a breakthrough. So this isn’t a concrete comparison.

“I hate to call it ‘rebuilding.’ That’s not the right word,” Ioane said of this year’s Bobcats, who travel to Southern Utah this week. “But it has been an uphill battle to a certain extent. And until we figure out how to win and how to do things the way we want to do them, we are going to hit some bumps in the road.

“It’s going to take some time to become embedded in everybody. There’s a weeding-out process to a certain extent that needs to occur to figure out the guys that are going to come out here and compete on Saturdays and help us win ballgames, and there’s a process for us as a coaching staff to figure out what we can do to help us win ballgames.”

There are abstract similarities to be made, which Ioane, the only active Bobcat associated with both groups, roundly acknowledged.

The culture change, the learning to win, the struggles in the passing game (not to compare Chris Murray with Farhad Azimi) all factored into that rebuild in 2000 — and those same conditions have been part of a growth process Choate has talked extensively about since taking over from previous coach Rob Ash in December.

Choate insists the Bobcats aren’t in the business of cutting corners only to regress in future seasons, a reality seen too often with some programs in the Big Sky Conference.

Ioane said Choate “wants to win ballgames and be a contender for a long period of time. We don’t want to just be a flash in the pan. We want to build a program that is going to win consistently and threaten for championships year in and year out.

“Right now it seems slow and everyone’s anxious to see the end results, but you’ve got to just take it one by one and day by day. In the end, we’re going to reap the benefits of it.”

Wednesday’s practice ended with a fight between players, to which defensive lineman Tucker Yates said, “Everyone’s pissed off. We just got off a bye week and we’re tired of hitting each other. We want to go down to Southern Utah and win.”

The hunger has turned into a famine.

It doesn’t seem too long ago that Montana State was one of the premier programs in the Big Sky. It took a couple years for things to kick in post-Kramer, but under Ash from 2010-12 MSU won 30 games, went 21-3 in conference games and captured three league championships.

Somewhere along the way the Bobcats slipped off course. Now, under a new coach with a new philosophy, they’re trying to regain their footing.

All these years after Kramer’s efforts, it’s a familiar course.

“2012 ... you think it’s not that long ago but in reality it is,” Ioane said. “The success that that group had, slowly but surely we lost track of that. A lot of these guys that are here now don’t know what it’s like to have that success or what it’s like to work for that kind of success.

“We’re going through that process now — learning how to work in the offseason, learning how to practice, learning how to win games by learning how to win every single day. That’s part of what coach Choate and our staff are trying to teach these guys.

“Learning how to win and make that one play, two plays, three plays here and there that will make the difference as far as the end result is concerned ... once we do find that breakthrough moment, I think you will see that it’s going to take off from there.”