|« Griz claim MSU has game film advantage||Western Carolina coach Dennis Wagner resigns »|
Hardy becoming leader for Montana
A big factor in Fairview native Greg Hardy’s decision to play football at the University of Montana was the Grizzlies’ winning tradition
Winners of 18 Big Sky conference championships, the Grizzlies have won five more than any other Big Sky opponent. It’s understandable then, that last season’s disappointing 7-4 record left a bad taste in Hardy’s mouth, especially since the Grizzlies lost their final game to rival Montana State.
“Losing those games and losing to the Cats at the end of the season really put a chip on our shoulder,” Hardy said. “After we got send home last year, we realized we have to work hard, we can’t take anything for granted.”
Determined to have a better season this year, Hardy, a junior tight end, pushed himself during offseason workouts in an effort to improve as a player and set an example for his teammates.
“He’s a guy that has not missed any of our voluntary workouts,” Montana tight end coach Scott Gragg said. “He brings his lunch pail to work and that speaks volumes to his peers.”
Hardy has also taken on a leadership role, and when he decides to speak, he gets the attention of his teammates. “When he says something, it has value,” Gragg said. “I would consider him one of the top leaders on our offense.”
Before the season, Hardy was named to the Big Sky preseason all-conference team and has worked hard to justify the hype. He is Montana’s fourth leading pass-catcher with 17 receptions for 153 yards and has become a bigger factor in recent weeks, hauling in a season-high five catches for 36 yards in a win over Weber State on Oct. 29 and catching two passes for 29 yards in a win over Western Oregon on Nov. 5.
As a team, the Grizzlies are 6-1 against Big Sky opponents and 8-2 overall. A showdown with 9-1 Montana State looms on Saturday. With a win, the Grizzlies can clinch a share of the Big Sky conference title and earn the conference’s automatic berth into the FCS playoffs.
Early athletic feats
Hardy showed an aptitude for football at an early age. He began playing flag football in Williston, N.D. when he was in third grade. In sixth grade, he finished second at the regional NFL Punt, Pass and Kick competition held in Minnesota. The next year, he took first. But it was not until his junior year of high school that he realized playing Division I college football was a real possibility for him.
“My big thing was I always wanted to play basketball,” Hardy said. “Talking with my family and a bunch of teachers and my coach, I think they helped me realize football was the right way to go, because that’s what I was built for.”
Standing 6-foot-5 with a big, athletic 240-pound frame, Hardy looks the part of a football player, but his size and athleticism also helped him excel in basketball and track and field. In high school, he was a four-time all-conference selection in all three sports, a four-time all-state selection in track, three-time all-state pick in basketball and a two-time all-state choice for football. He also holds two Fairview High School rebounding records with 28 in a single-game and a season average of 14.0. For his high school career, he averaged 17.4 points and 13.4 rebounds per game.
On the gridiron, Hardy was named Fairview’s most valuable player as both a junior and a senior. His senior year, he moved from tight end to quarterback, something he says made him a better all-around football player because it allowed him to see the game from a different perspective.
As a kid growing up on the Montana-North Dakota border, Hardy was not a fan of the Grizzlies. His loyalties lied east as he cheered for the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State. He also loved watching the Michigan Wolverines and was enamored with Michigan’s fabled stadium, “The Big House.”
But the Grizzlies won him over in the recruiting process. Hardy was recruited by Montana, Montana State and North Dakota, along with several smaller schools. Montana and North Dakota, in particular, were willing to overlook his small-school background.
“They both realized that it was OK that I was from a Class C school, it was all right that I played eight-man,” he said. “They didn’t look down on me because I didn’t play 11-man at some big high school.”
The Grizzlies’ coaching staff was also undeterred by Hardy’s boyhood allegiance to the Fighting Sioux, and made a trip to Fairview to visit him and watch him play basketball.
As a high school junior, Hardy attended a football camp in Missoula. When he got home, a scholarship offer from Montana was sitting in his mailbox. “I knew right there that I must have shown them something, and they showed me that they really wanted me,” he said.
The persistance of the Montana coaching staff, combined with Montana’s winning tradition, sealed Hardy’s decision. “The tradition, winning…I think that ultimately led me to coming to Missoula,” he said.
Adjusting to college game
Adjusting from high school football to the college game is difficult for any athlete, but it was even more of a challenge for Hardy, who also had to switch from playing eight-man football to 11-man.
“Coming from eight-man, I had no clue,” he said. “We have all these different coverages that I never had to deal with in eight-man. All I had to do in eight-man was pretty much man-to-man every play.”
Fortunately for Hardy, former Montana tight ends Dan Beaudin, Steve Pfahler and Rob Overton took him under their wings and helped him understand the different coverages. Hardy also had the benefit of a redshirt year, the result of a foot injury that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Knowing playbooks and seeing how defenses are is completely different from high school,” he said. “Me being allowed that redshirt year has really given me the upper hand as I’ve become older.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Hardy appeared in 10 games for the Grizzlies, seeing most of his action on special teams. Montana had an undefeated regular season and advanced all the way to the national championship game before losing to Villanova.
At the end of the season, head coach Bobby Hauck left the Grizzlies to accept the head coaching position at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. His replacement, Robin Pflugrad, brought a different offense to Montana, which spelled big changes for Hardy.
In Hauck’s pro-style offense, Hardy was encouraged to maintain the 260-pound frame he carried as a senior in high school. “He actually pushed me to be 260,” Hardy said. “He wanted us to drive and push defensive ends off the ball.”
Pflugrad brought a West Coast-style offense to Montana, which required the tight ends to be lighter and more athletic. At 260 pounds, Hardy said he felt like he was “pulling a dead horse.”
Committed to getting lighter, Hardy shed 25 pounds over the summer through a combination of his regular offseason workouts and watching what he ate.
“I feel so much faster,” he said. “I feel so much quicker in and out of my breaks. It makes a big difference, and ultimately I feel like I’m a bigger threat in the passing game since I’ve lost that weight.”
The 2010 season would prove to be Hardy’s breakout year. He won a position battle in fall camp to earn the starting nod at tight end and went on to play in 10 of the team’s 11 games, ending the season as Montana’s sixth leading receiver with 17 catches for 176 yards and a touchdown. His performance earned him Big Sky all-conference honorable mention honors at the end of the season.
Hardy’s improvement has continued this season. While his receiving numbers are similar to last year’s, Gragg said he has improved many aspects of his game, especially his run blocking.
“As a blocker and a receiver, he’s developed into a guy we feel confident with in both roles,” Gragg said. “He loves to play, loves to compete and he has a desire to be as good as he can possibly be.”
Family and school
Hardy’s success has been watched closely by his family. Despite living in Fairview, a 10-hour drive from Missoula, his mother has not missed a home game. His father has only missed a couple home games during beet harvest season, while his siblings and grandparents also make it to most home games.
“I’m pretty lucky and fortunate to have such a family group behind me to support me,” Hardy said. “The whole town of Fairview supports me more than I could ever ask or wish for, so it’s a pretty cool thing that I have going.”
While being an athlete is fun, Hardy says his top priority is his school work.
“You’re tired when you’re done with practice because it’s a three-hour practice and all you want to do is sleep, but you have homework,” he said. “It’s quite the balancing act.”
Hardy is a history major and his goal is to become a high school history teacher and football coach. Eventually, he would also like to earn a fast-track administration degree so he can become a school principal.
For now, Hardy cannot wait for Saturday’s opening kickoff against Montana State, so he and the Grizzlies can finally put last season behind them.
By Steve Hamel, Sidney Herald