Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

The players’ coach November 22, 2016 story by Bill Lamberty  • Published 11/22/16

Jeff Choate still remembers the phone call 25 years ago that changed the path of his life, even through the fog of pain and the medicine prescribed to relieve it.

Montana State’s first-year head football coach now recalls the immediate aftermath of a horrible automobile accident the July before his sophomore year at Western Montana College, which is now the University of Montana Western. A devastating knee injury from the wreck placed his career as a Bulldogs linebacker in doubt.

Choate recalls that his head coach, Mick Dennehy, told him then, “You can come back here. No matter what happens, we want you to be part of this thing going forward.”

Dennehy, now retired from a coaching career that included a stint as an assistant coach at MSU and a wildly successful four seasons as the head coach at the University of Montana, remembers that visit.

“I just wanted to make sure he was OK and wanted him to know that things would work out one way or another,” Dennehy said of the call. “It was too early to know if he was going to be able to play. But if he couldn’t, we’d put him to work doing something else.”

A quarter-century later, Choate has launched his first season as a head coach. He accepted the MSU job last December, and in the time since has altered the program’s culture, refueled its tank of talent and installed new systems in all phases of the game. All the while he has connected with players and staff, fans and foes, with a high-voltage smile, a razor-like wit and an undeniable, unavoidable energy.

“It’s so much fun,” said senior offensive guard JP Flynn about playing for Choate with enthusiasm that matches that of his head coach. “There’s great energy. One of the first things Coach Choate did when he got here was mix up the entire locker room. It used to be divided up by positions; now my locker is next to (linebacker) Josh Hill and (receiver) Keon Stephens. That’s a big change. He’s bringing together the whole team into one unit and mak(ing) sure we don’t miss this opportunity (to make lifelong friendships).”

He didn’t know it at the time, but the roots of Choate’s self-described “players’ coach” style began growing during the time after his car wreck. Rather than immediately returning to Dillon, where he had hoped for a sophomore season full of promise—“I really believe he would have become a hell of a college football player,” Dennehy insists—the graduate of St. Marie’s High School in Idaho headed to Boise and countless hours of solitary rehabilitation. Returning to Western, to his team and his teammates, motivated him, he said.

“A lot of times positive things can come out of real negative or tragic situations,” Choate said, “and that helped me formulate that vision for my own life. There were times that I would say, ‘What if football isn’t an option?’ (Playing football) drove me and motivated me, but that’s when I centered on the idea that I want to teach and coach.”

Choate returned to Western as a player in 1991, but the end came quickly. “I tore up my (injured left) knee again, and that made me realize it was time to hang up my cleats.”

Dennehy’s response was equally swift. “We gave him a camera and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Armed with only one full-time assistant coach, Dennehy utilized the voluntary services of many young men hoping to break into that business.

“They were all going to be coaches,” Dennehy said, “and hopefully they learned a little bit along the way from some of us older guys. But they knew how to block and they knew how to tackle and the teaching part of it came pretty (easily) for Jeff.”
Following his time at Western, Choate embarked on a successful career as a high school teacher, administrator and coach. His resumé reads like a geography lesson for the state of Idaho, beginning in Challis in 1994 and including stops in Twin Falls and Post Falls.

But in 2002, he called Dennehy, then head coach at Utah State, and asked for help to get into college coaching.

“I told him, ‘I’d love to have you, but make sure you sit down and think hard about (it), because you’re giving up a lot,’” Dennehy recalled, explaining that any potential spot paid little, if anything. A couple days later, Choate called back.
“Yeah, I’ve got to do it,” Choate said.

The decision to leave the comfort of his career was not easy but had become increasingly clear to Choate.

“If I hadn’t got into administration (as athletic director), I might still be coaching in high school,” he said. “It took me out of the classroom, and there was so much involved outside of coaching, like making sure courts and fields were ready, making sure the officials showed up, that it made me realized what I really enjoyed was coaching and teaching.”

Choate added responsibility in each of his three seasons at Utah State, rising from graduate assistant helping with a position group, to position coach, to coordinating special teams. That experience accentuated trends that would become characteristics of his career, specifically the willingness to grow as a coach and accept increased duties and the acuity to manage both people and tasks. Those traits served him well in the special teams area.

“I’ve got two (former assistants) who are special teams coordinators in the NFL,” Dennehy says, “and I think Jeff is every bit as qualified and as talented.”

Choate has coordinated special teams at Eastern Illinois (2005), Boise State (2006–11), Florida (2013) and Washington (2014–15), where he also coached defensive line.

Skills gained coaching special teams, long considered by many in college football as a precursor to head coaching success, stand out while watching Choate prepare his first Bobcat team for the 2016 season.

“The key ingredient in being able to put special teams together is being organized,” Dennehy said. “You’ve got to get 50 minutes of (special teams work) into 20 minutes of practice time, and he’s really, really good at that and (at) moving from one phase of a drill to the next phase and utilizing staff to help him. Sometimes it’s like a magic show, and he’s as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

The accumulation of skill, knowledge and personal history gives Choate what University of Washington Coach Chris Peterson has referred to as “the ‘it’ factor” that sometimes, but rarely, presents itself in a coach. Dennehy said that “if you just sit down and visit with him you can tell … this would be a fun guy to play for.”

His energy and enthusiasm were present for as long as anyone can remember. Wally Feldt, currently the Frontier Conference information director and a presence in and around Montana Western Athletics since Choate’s playing days, remembers that Choate “seems perpetually (to have) a smile on his face. He’s so dang positive about everything. And it hasn’t changed in all the times I’ve seen him over the years.”

That ability to connect with people through life’s small moments has, if anything, become more acute through time.
MSU offensive line coach Brian Armstrong’s college playing career was beginning at Montana Western during Choate’s days coaching there.

“I was just a young guy trying to figure my own way out, but even though he was on the other side of the ball, there was no question how important (players were to Choate) on a personal level. That’s something I’ve always respected about him.”
That personal touch, Dennehy said, is a difference maker.

“He’s a great football coach. And he’s going to be a great head coach.”