When introduced to Montana State’s new Athletic Director Leon Costello you cannot help but notice his demeanor. He has genuine midwestern charm that immediately disarms any concern you may have. I had the chance to sit down with Costello the weekend before the first football game of the year. We discussed many aspects of what direction of Montana State University Athletics is going as well as college sports as a whole.
Andrew Waters: How has your introduction to MSU been?
Leon Costello: It’s been great! Going through this process, I got a glimpse of how special [Montana State] is, and really, what makes the place are the people. Going through the interview process, I didn’t really get to see it because I arrived June 15, a few months before the students, [to get] to know the school. [Since] the students and student athletes arrived, it’s been overwhelming at times, but it really has been such a good feeling and good energy on campus.
AW: What part of your history will be most influential on how you approach your position now?
LC: I think being a student athlete and knowing what they go through on a given day. Balancing academics, practice, games and travel, [as well as] trying to study, eat, weight train and all that goes into being a student athlete, it has helped me understand and organize my thoughts on how we can help them. We have academic support, we have athletic trainers, weight training staff and coaches that know what they are doing in the classroom. We are working on developing them athletically, academically and socially. The goals are to develop champions now, champions in the classroom and competition and in life when they leave with a degree from a great university.
AW: In 2015 the Northwestern football team attempted to create a union for their team. Does that affect your approach to how you treat athletics as a job?
LC: Yes, it got to that point with the NCAA because we have not done a good enough job of telling the story of the student-athletes. If you look at what a student athlete receives, if it’s a scholarship, and not everybody gets one, that is number one. Access to education is the number one benefit. [It also involves] all of the support that goes into making the experience great, all of the money that goes into hiring good coaches, hiring the support staff, hiring the administrative staff, to make sure that they have a great experience. They also get to travel and see many different areas of the United States and sometimes even internationally. We just haven’t done a very good job of telling that story. When [athletes] come here [they] get all of these things, and I think that gets forgotten. Everybody just thinks they are playing a sport. Everyone thinks we are selling all of these tickets and they are not getting paid. Well, they kind of are. They are getting all of these other things that go along with their scholarship.
AW: To follow up on that, These are not necessarily the people who need to be told about what they are receiving.
LC: Well yes, but we need to do a better job of defining what benefits they are receiving. I’ve been in the business for long time now, 15 years, and there are still some student-athletes, fans, and others that have some misnomer that the scholarships are basically free, and they are not. We have to go out and raise money in order to pay for those scholarships. We need to educate to the student-athletes that there are donors who help create their experience. We have to do a better job of educating our student-athletes about everything that goes into their experience.
AW: With the recent incident at University of Montana involving athletes committing sexual assault, what is your approach to preventing sexual assault here at MSU?
LC: We have to educate all student-athletes on campus. It is an ongoing process. We have to do a good job bringing in experts to educate our athletes, whether it’s a speaker, a seminar, or whatever it is. That is our job. Knowing that, we are going to have student-athletes who make mistakes. And it’s how we deal with those mistakes, abiding by the student code of conduct on campus or our student-athlete code of conduct. Playing a sport at the Division I level and being on a team is a privilege, it’s not a God-given right. There are certain things you have to do in order to maintain your status on the team. If you do something wrong we have a process in place to take care of those issues. If we have an issue, we know exactly who we are going to talk to in order to have it handled properly. We need to make sure we handle things in the right way and have the right people in involved. We can do our part in order to prevent it and hopefully educate [the athletes] so they know this is why you don’t do it, [and] these are the steps you take in order to ensure that everything is being done right.
AW: Is there any difference in approach when there is also the potential for what happened at Penn State when it’s the coaches instead of players.
LC: Well it’s about getting it reported. If your coaches or players see something or hear something they need to know they have a voice. They need to talk. They have to know to get it to a higher authority and we stress that we have a process in place for these situations. I feel really good about that, we have made a commitment here on campus to prevent sexual assault and the communication across campus is essential in order to establish that these are the steps we are going to follow.
Is the real reason you left South Dakota because you no longer wanted your mascot to be the Jackrabbit?
No, to be honest I actually liked the mascot. There is not another Jackrabbit in Division I. There are a few high schools, but it was something that made us unique. When we went to the NCAA Tournaments in Basketball and the playoffs in football people remembered you because of your name. But also because we were really good. It was a badge of honor when you wore that logo because when someone said it they knew exactly who you were. It was kinda fun to have a unique nickname and mascot.
On Oct. 4th Costello introduced his first “Letter from the A.D.” which can be found at msubobcats.com. After 100 days in office he remarks on the quality of people that he has met. He also informs that the Athletic Department is working on the five-year strategic plan that will be released soon. For updates on what Costello is doing, you can follow him on Twitter at @leonmcostello.