Kramer returns to Bozeman

What happened to the student section? The upper three sections of the student section during the second half of the Portland State game were as empty as the seats at an 8 a.m. lecture. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this — school work, hunting season, devil worshipping — all of which I’m sure contribute to the ever-shrinking student body at football games.

However, one reason, albeit small, might be the unfamiliarity the common student has with the history of Bobcat football. So, with possibly the last home game of the year coming up, I feel it is important that the common student should know the story of Idaho State and former Montana State head coach Mike Kramer.

Kramer took over as Montana State football head coach in 2000. This was a difficult era for Bobcat football. The Bobcats, despite a number of winning seasons under the late Cliff Hysell, had failed to make playoffs since 1984 and failed to beat the Grizzlies since 1985. With the Cats going 3-8 the previous year (coupled with a 3-49 defeat at the hands of the Grizzlies), the cupboard was all but bare when Kramer arrived in Bozeman.

Kramer, who previously coached at Helena High and Eastern Washington University (winning one conference championship), cut his teeth his two years in Bozeman. The Cats went winless in 2000, starting 16 freshmen for a program that was essentially hitting the reset button. Adding to that misery were two more consecutive defeats to the Grizzlies, who made two consecutive National Championship games in that span, winning the championship in 2001.

Despite the initial struggles, Kramer laid a foundation that included legendary Bobcat stalwarts Kane Ioane, Ryan Elliot, Cory Smith and Travis Lulay among others. The two years of patiently building began to pay off in 2002 when the Bobcats broke the Grizzlies’ 16 game Cat-Griz winning streak, making the playoffs in the process. The Cats would follow up by repeating those feats again in 2003. From 2002-2006, Kramer won three conference championships, three playoff berths and three Cat-Griz games.

Kramer is boisterous and possesses an undeniable energy and swagger that appealed greatly to the alumni in Montana. As a kid, I remembered attending one of his afternoon football workshops at the Great Falls Booster Club Spring Game. I went up to him, as a 12-year-old, asked him where the linemen were gathering, and he looked at me, smiled and said, “Oh yeah, you definitely belong there.” I instantly became giddy; I can understand how he could make 50-year-old men feel the same.

However, Kramer’s final years were tumultuous. A number of of his former players were arrested for various drug charges. Another player was arrested and eventually convicted for the kidnapping of a drug dealer that eventually led to the drug dealer’s death. Furthermore, the football program had a low graduation rate among its football players, which would eventually cause the NCAA to bring penalties against the program. A storm of bad publicity swept across the Bobcat program. Sports Illustrated later published an article on August 13, 2007 about the string of arrests, as well as the low graduation rate among football players. Fair or not, Kramer was fired in May 2007. Kramer would go on to file a lawsuit against the university, which ended in settlement in 2010.

After accepting the head coach position at Idaho State University in 2011, Kramer went 6-28 in his first three seasons with the Bengals. Controversy continued to follow Kramer in 2012 when a video surfaced showing the head coach pushing one of his wide receivers to the ground during practice, which reportedly led to a neck injury. Kramer ultimately was not charged. The player was later suspended indefinitely from the team “for a violation of team rules,” that the university claimed was unrelated to the incident.

Despite the controversies, Kramer now has the Bengals playing their best football since the days of Jared Allen (who calls the place the “Culinary Academy”). Idaho State marches into Bobcat Stadium on Nov. 15 with a 5-1 conference record, looking for their first conference title since 2002.

Current head coach Rob Ash has since taken the Bobcat program to another level, one Kramer did not experience. However, regardless of your opinion, Mike Kramer helped lay the groundwork for the football program that is currently enjoying success not seen since the 1980s.

This Saturday, where emotions will run high as the Bobcat seniors are honored, the Cats and the Bengals will do battle in what may be a de facto elimination game for a spot in the playoffs. For Kramer, it will be an opportunity to move on from the days when he once called Bozeman home.

AUTHORS NOTE :

It is important to acknowledge the passing two important figures in Montana sports. As mentioned above, former head coach Cliff Hysell passed at the age of 72 on October 26. Hysell was a member of the Bobcats in the mid-1960s during the glory days of Bobcat coach Jim Sweeney and served as an assistant coach in the 1970’s under the great Sonny Holland, helping guide the Cats to the 1976 Division II National Championship. In 1992 Hysell took over a program that had not had a winning season since the 1984 National Championship. In an era where the Grizzlies were reaping the economical and recruiting benefits from Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Hysell quietly put together contenders in the face of difficult competition. Hysell will forever be one of the Bobcats most underrated coaches.

It is also important to acknowledge the passing of Pat Kearney on Oct. 12. Pat Kearney was an author, historian and broadcaster from Butte. Among the books he penned about Montana athletics is the thoroughly researched “The Divide War: Montana’s Golden Treasure.” I’ve used this book thoroughly in most of my articles and it is an irreplaceable record of Montana sports history. He was 59.