Bobcats’ coach, recruiter knows both sides of Cat-Griz gameBOZEMAN, Mont. — He has won a national championship for one side. He’s brought in dozens of talented players who may deliver a title for the other.
By: Tim Dumas, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
BOZEMAN, Mont. — He has won a national championship for one side. He’s brought in dozens of talented players who may deliver a title for the other.
Justin Gaines was once a Grizzly. He’s now a Bobcat. He was an all-conference player at the University of Montana and now he is one of the top recruiters in the Big Sky Conference. His prized proteges at MSU include quarterback Denarius McGhee, receiver Everett Gilbert and running back C.J. Palmer.
Not bad for a guy who once thought Montana’s capital was pronounced “He-LEEN-a.”
Gaines came to Missoula from the Florida panhandle 15 years ago in search of playoff success and a football-mad town. He got both.
After falling in Florida’s high school playoffs to a Bradenton team that included future Nebraska star Tommie Frazier, Gaines decided to give the University of Montana a try. Almost sight unseen.
Gaines was recruited by Lehigh, Samford, Georgia Southern and Tulane.
Then Montana assistant coach Jerome Souers darkened Gaines’ door in Niceville, Fla.
“He gave me a media guide and I read it and I fell in love with (Missoula) even before I came for a visit,” Gaines, who now coaches defensive backs at Montana State, recalled. “When I was growing up, I was all about football. I just wanted to get into the best football situation I could get into. I fell in love with Missoula instantly. It was all about football; school was a necessary evil.”
During his freshman year at Montana, the Grizzlies won the national championship. So did Frazier at Nebraska. Gaines was a part of three Big Sky Conference championships as well.
“It felt like you were at a Division I-A school,” he said. “I felt like I was at Florida State. It was just a great, great college atmosphere. It was an unbelievable experience.”
His most vivid ‘Cat-Griz memory is of the 1997 game in Bozeman. MSU led late in the fourth quarter, only to see the Grizzlies rally back on a long pass that set up a last-second, game-winning field goal. It may have been the Bobcats’ toughest loss in a 16-year string of setbacks to the Griz.
“We should have lost the game,” Gaines, the Grizzly, said. “In Bozeman, I remember how much the fans really didn’t like us. That was one of the funnest atmospheres to play in.”
Gaines did graduate with a degree in history and spent time coaching in Texas and at Northern Arizona, where Souers is now head coach. But he kept tabs on his adopted state.
“I always followed Montana State after I graduated to see how they were doing,” Gaines, the Bobcat, said. “I knew how important football was in the state.”
Gaines joined the Bobcats just after head coach Rob Ash was hired in 2007 and has made a name for himself as a recruiter. He’s responsible for bringing in many of the 18 Texas players who now dot the MSU roster. That includes McGhee, the top freshman quarterback in the country; Gilbert, who has caught at least two passes in each game he’s played over two seasons, and Palmer, the bruising running back who is as durable as he is powerful.
Gaines is also proud of the fact that Montana State is closing the gap against UM when it comes to recruiting players from Montana.
“We’re getting the in-state kids,” he said. “In the past, Montana has dominated the in-state kids. Now we’re getting our fair share. That’s starting to turn the tide around here.”