OGDEN -- Even as Big Sky Conference charter members Weber State and Montana celebrate the league's 50th anniversary, this season has been unlike any other in the previous half-century for either school's football program.
In March, Montana athletics director Jim O'Day and football coach Robin Pflugrad were fired suddenly amid an investigation into the school's response to sexual assault allegations made against students, including football players. Recently retired assistant coach Mick Delaney was named interim head coach, then given a two-year contract in July.
In April, the Wildcats were jilted by head coach John L. Smith, who left unexpectedly to take the Arkansas job just a few months after replacing retired WSU coach Ron McBride.
Weber State named defensive coordinator Jody Sears its interim coach soon after.
WSU will be playing its first home game in nearly a month on Saturday when the Grizzlies come to Stewart Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff.
Sears says he can see certain parallels in the way the two Big Sky schools were dealt unexpected coaching changes at an unusual time of the season to make a transition.
"Any time a program goes through change, anytime a program goes through adversity, anytime a program goes through a transition, all of the above, there's going to be some ripple effects or some blowback, so to speak, I don't know what you call it," Sears said. "So yeah, there's definitely some similarities from what's happened in the offseason, but for ourselves, we're not going to use that as an excuse for any kind of loss or negative impact. We're just going to use it as a positive and as a tool to learn and grow from and become stronger."
Weber State (1-7, 1-4 Big Sky) has struggled in the aftermath of Smith's unexpected departure, opening the season 0-7 before picking up its first win of the year Oct. 20 against Southern Utah before a bye week. Montana, a perennial league power and FCS playoff team, has also had its challenges with an uncharacteristic record of 4-5, 2-4.
Sears is familiar with Montana from his days as the defensive coordinator at Eastern Washington and knows the Grizzlies are used to being the big dogs of the Big Sky.
Their struggles this year are "in record only," Sears said. "They're really good. They're big, they're physical, they're fast, they're talented.
"In my opinion, they just reload. They don't have to start things over and rebuild. It seems like they're always reloading. (The record) is the only difference I see, but in personnel, in scheme, all that stuff. You better have your pistols cocked because they're coming to town."
The Griz are facing more challenges this week after starting left tackle Trevor Poole was arrested on felony drug charges, and three others were suspended by Delaney -- center Kjelby Oiland, linebacker John Kanongata'a and linebacker Nick Holt. Oiland and Kanongata'a were both starters.
Prior to the season, Delaney also recognized similarities in what he and Sears are dealing with as coaches to take the reins of a program at an unusual time.
"The way that we've had to handle the staff and players are probably very similar because it's a different personality and different style, not that the offense/defense are any different but just the approach," he said at the Big Sky kickoff meetings in Park City in July.
"I'm sure Jody's approach is different than John L.'s and my approach is different than Robin's. Each guy has to be their own self to make things like that work. I think we have quality kids like Weber State does and the University of Montana does, they are ready to buy in as long as you're doing the right thing, the right way, as long as you're being honest with them. Jody has waited a long time for this opportunity (to be a head coach). I've had the opportunity before and I thought with my situation, no way would they ever let me come back to coach after being retired for six months. But once it happened, the same challenges were there, basically -- get the guys together, keep the staff together, keep everybody on the same page. So the way (the coaching changes at Montana and Weber State) happened, probably not similar, but the results after it happened, probably very similar."