Rob Ash was a proven winner long before he arrived at Montana State in 2007.
The Bobcats’ seventh-year head football coach has just three losing seasons among the 34 head coaching campaigns on his resume. He is the all-time leader in victories at Division III Juniata (51) and Drake (125). His 55 wins at Montana State are a school record and his 230 career wins are the 39th-most in college football history, ninth-most among active coaches.
It’s the work Ash has done away from the Bobcat Stadium stage that may be the most beneficial for the university and the community of Bozeman.
Ash, the 2011 Liberty Mutual FCS Coach of the Year, has taken a Montana State football program that was a mess and has made it into a model.
Ash took over a Bobcat program awash in controversy when he took MSU’s head coaching job in the summer of 2007. During the fall of 2006, Mike Kramer led the Bobcats to an 8-5 record and a first-round FCS playoff win at home over Furman University. But the reputation of the program was under siege and their academic standing was in purgatory. Six current or former Montana State athletes, including five men with football ties, were linked to a cocaine distribution conspiracy on campus that came to a head with the murder of Jason Wright. The wave peaked in April of 2007 when MSU star wide receiver Rick Gatewood was tied to the drug ring. Later that spring, basketball player Brandon Miller and former football player John Lebrum were charged in Wright’s murder.
In February of 2006, a panel of independent investigators hired by the school found that the football program had “almost total autonomy” in the admission of recruits and that the school was “prioritizing the team’s competitive needs without full consideration of the academic impact.”
Ash was hired in June of 2007. In May of that same year, Kramer was fired because of a “crisis in leadership”, according to the MSU athletic director. In August of 2007, Sports Illustrated ran George Dohrmann’s article titled, “Trouble in Paradise: Two former athletes allegedly murder a drug dealer. An ex-football player is charged with heading a cocaine ring. Montana State is coping with a crime wave”.
The off-the-field controversy wasn’t the only issue. MSU had an Academic Progress Rating of 847. The NCAA docked the Bobcats three scholarships and limited the team’s practice time. Last season, MSU football’s APR was 946, the fourth-best among the Big Sky Conference’s 11 full-time members. The Bobcats had 12 players earn Academic All-Big Sky honors last fall.
“The outside perception was that there was some really bad things wrong,” said MSU defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Bo Beck, who’s spent 10 seasons since 2002 on Ash’s staff. “No. 1 was the APR. Coach was the right guy to fix that. He’s always been an academic guy. The stuff he put into place with the people downstairs in academics and turning that part around as fast as we did was huge.”
Ash instilled a three-pillar philosophy among his players right way. Ash teaches his players to excel on the field, in the classroom, on campus and in the community. Ash’s staff spends every school day going to various classes to make sure all their players are in attendance. In addition to class time, players must attend study sessions four times a week. In the community, the Bobcats have contributed more than 800 hours of community service in the last year alone.
“Part of (the improvement) is in the recruiting process,” Ash said. “The best way to improve your team GPA is to recruit smart guys. We try to take a minimum number of guys who are low academic guys, and we get rid of guys who don’t perform. Pretty soon, you have a team dynamic in which guys understand that’s what is expected and they expect it from each other.”
While the reputation of the program off the field has been repaired, the product on the field continues to thrive. The Bobcats have shared each of the last three Big Sky Conference crowns. MSU has advanced to the quarterfinals Football Championship Subdivision playoffs two years in a row. Senior quarterback DeNarius McGhee has garnered multiple All-America honors and earned the Big Sky’s Offensive Most Outstanding Player award in 2010 and 2012. Last season, senior defensive end Caleb Schreibeis became the first Bobcat to win the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in the FCS. In the classroom, 12 Bobcats were named the Big Sky’s All-Academic team and wide receiver Tanner Bleskin was a second-team Academic All-America.
“It’s absolutely phenomenal what he’s built,” said Mike Person, a 2010 All-America offensive lineman who now plays for the St. Louis Rams. “It’s so nice to see what he’s done and the way he’s done it. Those first few years, it was tough, but these last few years, it’s just clicked. The progress speaks for itself and I only see better things in the future.”
Colter Nuanez is a freelance journalist living in Southwest Montana. He is the senior writer and co-founder of Bobcat Beat, a website covering all things Montana State athletics. His work has appeared in newspapers around the country, including the Houston Chronicle, the Seattle Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Austin Texas-Statesman and USA Today. He can be reached at BobcatBeat56@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @Bobcat_Beat.