Montana State University

Spring 2017

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Mountains and Minds

A man with a plan June 06, 2017 by Bill Lamberty • Published 06/06/17

Leon Costello traces his career as a college athletics administrator to a task that many find tedious. As a member of the basketball team at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, he was asked to serve during the search process, as a member of the student-athlete advisory committee, to find the school’s next athletics director, leading to more time than many college students would find appealing.

But it also led to opportunity.

“It opened my eyes to the possibilities in athletics administration and the role of administrators in developing student-athletes,” said Costello, who to that point studied athletic training and sports medicine. “That experience really indoctrinated me.”

Last summer, Costello’s journey came full circle when he became Montana State University’s seventh full-time director of athletics. Indoctrination into that role came quickly, as well.

He said since that time, a whirlwind of activity has barely subsided.

“A lot of good things happened this year, and some great things—capped off by the ski team’s accomplishment (an individual national championship and top 10 team finish) and women’s basketball winning the Big Sky Conference. We’re getting ready for what’s to come, and that’s what I’m most excited about.”

The process of “what’s to come” paved the road for Costello’s first year, which involved listening and plenty of planning.

“The one thing we’ve talked a lot about recently is the strategic plan,” he said, “I’m glad we waited until we got through the fall and spring to do that because there were a lot of questions I wouldn’t have been able to answer earlier. It takes time to live it, and I learned a lot. Getting started has been fun.”

Getting started has never been a problem for Costello, an Iowa native who as a Loras Duhawk played hoops in non-scholarship Division III where “you play a sport because you love it,” he said. “I had the opportunity to play a couple of different sports, and basketball was the one I chose. In Division III you play because you want to keep playing.”

Costello made an impact there.

“I remember Leon well during his time at Loras,” said Steve Helminiak, the school’s current head football coach who was an assistant during Costello’s playing days. “He was an excellent person and basketball player while at Loras. He was an athletic, energetic and intelligent basketball player, the ideal student-athlete.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education and sport science (1998) and his master’s in sports management from Western Illinois (2002), Costello accepted a marketing position at the University of Northern Iowa in 2002. Early on, a couple of important things happened, he said. First, he began a working relationship Justin Sell, an athletics administrator. Costello rose through the ranks at UNI, eventually becoming associate athletic director for external relations. In 2009, Sell became the director of athletics at South Dakota State. In 2010, Costello followed him.

“Watching (Sell) go through his career, I got to see every step firsthand,” Costello said. “Most of all, he put me in position to be ready for this job. If he thought there were experiences (for which) I needed to be ready, he helped me with that. I owe a lot of my preparation to him as far as knowing what I needed next and getting me into those roles.”

More importantly, it was at UNI that Costello met his wife, Heather, who also worked for Sell.
While at South Dakota State, Costello managed much of the department’s day-to-day functions while Sell spent time on the road fundraising for facilities upgrades. Costello was also involved in the fundraising and design processes, and during these years was able to build and hone “my management style and the skills it takes for the role I’m in now.”

When opportunity presented itself at Montana State, Costello reflexively began with what he knows best.

“In my experiences, I firmly believe that when you have a plan, it saves you time and saves you money down the road,” he said. “You know exactly what it is you’re going to do, where you’re going to do it, so five years down the road you’re not telling yourself, ‘I wish we’d done this,’ or ‘I wish we’d thought about this.’ Having a plan in place takes that out of the equation.”

After a fall and winter spent listening to student-athletes and coaches, fans and alumni and professors and staff members, the process of building plans for the department and its facilities kicked into full gear this spring. Much of February and March were spent working with college athletics veterans who work as consultants in creating a strategic plan and a facilities master plan “that will inform each other and work together to give us the chance to experience success in all areas.”

Costello’s college athletics experience is rooted in marketing, and he says revenue generation is a crucial component of an athletic program’s success.

“Fundraising and drawing fans to events, building off past success and creating exciting environments in our venues allow for growth,” he said. He added that feeds into Montana State’s focus on student-athlete success.

“Our vision is to create an unbelievable student-athlete experience. Everyone within an athletic department has a job because of student-athletes. We want them to develop socially, we want them to develop academically, and we want them to win championships. It’s our job to give them every chance to become the best person they can be in each of those areas.”

Costello’s experience as a student-athlete and working in marketing makes him appreciate the most significant lesson he takes from his first year at Montana State.

“What I’ve learned is that we have really passionate fans, we have a supportive campus and community that love the Bobcats, and we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. We have a great foundation, and so many people who support us right now and want to help us, and I think they’ll see the fruits of their labor in a short amount of time.” ■