Meet Montana's Bob Stitt, your coach's favorite coach

Courtesy of University of Montana

MISSOULA, Montana - New Montana coach Bob Stitt has been called everything from Sasquatch to a mad scientist.

Since West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen used Stitt's version of the fly sweep to score four touchdowns in a 70-33 rout of Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl -- and then gave the Division II coach credit in his postgame interview for drawing up the volleyball-like play -- Stitt has become somewhat of an Internet legend, often whispered about but never seen.

It's not like Stitt, 51, is a household name - at least not yet. But over the last few seasons, Stitt developed a devoted following. Among his biggest fans are the offensive-minded coaches who have changed the way major college football is being played. Spread-offense believers like Washington State's Mike Leach, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, Cal's Sonny Dykes, Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and Holgorsen are among Stitt's biggest admirers.

Finally, college football's cult favorite is hitting the mainstream at FCS power Montana, which plays in the college football season's opening game on Saturday against No. 1 North Dakota State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

"Bob's one of those guys who is a football junkie," Dykes said. "Anytime you go to a clinic, Bob is there. He sits there and tries to learn a new way of doing something. ... When you have a conversation with Bob, you try to ask him about something else and it always goes back to football."

"He's interested in two things: Las Vegas buffets and football."

And his football interest revolves around playing faster than college football's fastest teams.

Last season, the Colorado School of Mines averaged 89.9 plays per game, which was more than Baylor, Oregon and West Virginia averaged in the FBS.

"When you have a conversation with Bob, you try to ask him about something else and it always goes back to football. He's interested in two things: Las Vegas buffets and football."
Cal coach Sonny Dykes

"People ask me on a week-to-week basis what we're going to do," Stitt said. "We don't know. We might run it 45 times. We might throw it 80 times. It's really predicated on how the defense plays us."

That versatility stands out to his peers.

"It's almost like a moving, throwing Wing-T," Leach said. "It's pretty cool. I think he's highly respected among coaches. Everybody would see how he did stuff. It kind of kept us in awe."

Stitt's lack of a traditional pedigree and experience are what makes his reputation among college football's brightest coaches even more remarkable.

He has waited his entire career for an opportunity like coaching at Montana. During his 25-year career, he spent exactly one season above the Division II level -- as Harvard's offensive coordinator in 1999. He spent the rest of his career at NAIA schools like his alma mater (Doane College in Crete, Nebraska) and Austin College and finally at Division II Colorado School of the Mines, where he had a 108-62 record from 2000 to 2014.

"I was a small-college player, and I never had anybody in my entire coaching career call me up and say, 'Hey, you want this job?' I've had to interview and grind for every job I ever got," Stitt said. "This is the first time somebody called me and asked me if I was interested. I've been ready for this for a long time."

And Stitt's fans have been waiting for their Bigfoot to walk out of the wilderness.

When the Orediggers played on national TV last season, #StittHappens was trending on Twitter for a couple of hours. Now, as Stitt prepares to coach his first game at Montana against four-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, T-shirts bearing that Twitter handle are flying off shelves at the school's bookstore.

"It's crazy how social media has changed everything," Stitt said. "As a head coach, it's not necessarily how you want to spend your time. In the old days, if you won you moved up. If you were a Division II coach, you won and moved up to the next level on the ladder. But a lot of athletics directors really want to win the press conference now. They want that big name to announce. Social media has helped us get our name out there."

Until now, though, Stitt's work has mostly been seen when other teams run his plays. Cal, East Carolina, Houston, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Washington State and West Virginia have run his plays in televised games during the past several seasons.

This summer, Minnesota Vikings quarterback coach Scott Turner consulted Stitt, who said the Vikings plan to use a package of his plays with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater this coming season.

In July, Brazil successfully ran Stitt's fly sweep for a long gain in a 28-0 victory over South Korea in an early-round game of the IFAF World Championships in Canton, Ohio. #Stitthappens - even in Brazil.

"I've known him a long time," said former Kentucky and New Mexico State coach and Air Raid guru Hal Mumme, who now coaches at Division III Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. "He's a great innovator. We copied a couple of things he did. He's a brilliant guy. They'd never won any games at Colorado School of Mines [before his arrival]. I've always admired coaches who could do more with less. He's definitely in that category."

Holgorsen and Stitt initially met at a one-back clinic at UNLV, where Stitt was asked to speak about the fly sweep. In 2003, Stitt wanted to add the fly sweep to Colorado School of Mines' offense. Unlike the traditional fly sweep, Stitt wanted the Orediggers to run it out of a shotgun formation. But when he tried to install the play, his players had difficulty getting the timing down.

Stitt's a-ha moment came when he figured out the play would be much easier to execute if the quarterback flipped the ball to the receiver running in motion, instead of giving it to him with a traditional handoff.

"The fly sweep wasn't new," Stitt said. "Putting the ball in the air was just our twist on it. It was just so hard to do it out of the shotgun and time it up with the guy going fast. If the snap was off a little bit, the timing was off. Then it clicked one day: Why can't we just put it in the air? If the timing is off, it's incomplete if they drop it. If the snap is off a little bit, you can still tap it to him."

Three years later, Stitt decided to stop by Houston's spring practice after attending a Colorado School of Mines fundraiser in the area. As luck would have it, Holgorsen, who was the Cougars' offensive coordinator at the time, was practicing the fly sweep that day. It wasn't long before Holgorsen recognized Stitt on the sideline.

"Hey, did you see us practicing the fly sweep?" Holgorsen asked.

"Yeah, but you're doing it wrong," Stitt said. "You've got to put the ball in the air."

Stitt walked on the field and showed Cougars quarterback Case Keenum how to properly run the play. The following season, Stitt watched Houston use his fly sweep in a 27-10 victory over Tulsa.

After Sumlin watched Keenum run the play the first time, he looked at Holgorsen and asked, "What was that?"

"Sometimes the simplest things make a play great," Stitt said.

That's what makes his offense so unique. Stitt isn't trying to reinvent the wheel -- he's only tweaking traditional plays to make them more efficient. When other coaches see his solutions, they're often left wondering why they didn't think of it.

"Most of the stuff is so simple people overlook it," Mumme said. "They don't think it's complicated enough."

One example: During the summer of 2014, Stitt traveled to Texas A&M to analyze game film with Aggies offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. The Aggies wanted to run a tunnel screen against man-to-man press coverage, but hadn't figured out a way to do it. Stitt told Spavital the solution was simple: Don't send the offensive linemen out to block.

"We studied two years of tape and saw how many times an offensive line actually got a block on a screen," Stitt said. "It wasn't very high. A lot of teams did not want to run screens against man [coverage] because there's a defender that's locked on the running back. If you block that guy and leave the offensive line in, it's a two-man deal. It's so simple but effective."

Texas A&M ran the tunnel screen three times for 49 yards and three first downs in its 52-28 victory at South Carolina in the 2014 opener.

"We got it from Stitt," Spavital said. "Every year, I'm learning more and more from him. I always give him a call to see if he is doing anything different. He actually has a lot more multiple things on the screen [pass]. It's what I took because it's the easiest to teach."

At the Colorado School of Mines, Stitt's players had an average ACT math score of 29 (out of 36), and only majored in engineering. Because of the school's stringent academic requirements, Stitt's teams were often overmatched physically.

After going 2-8 in his first season with the Orediggers, Stitt guided them to their first winning season in 10 years in 2001. He had a winning record in 13 of 15 seasons, won three Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles and appeared in the Division III playoffs three times.

Stitt's offense obviously involves much more than just one signature play. In fact, the Orediggers ran the fly sweep an average of only once per game. Typically, they carried 36 base plays into every game, with about 31 different checks available off each play.

The burden falls on Stitt's quarterbacks to get the offense into the right check, based on what an opponent's defense is showing. And Stitt wants his offense moving at the speed of sound -- or pretty damn close to it.

In the 2013 opener, the Orediggers set a school record with 727 yards of offense on 108 plays, tying a 40-year-old Division II record with 40 first downs in a 72-6 win over South Dakota Mines. Two weeks later, they had 749 yards of offense in a 62-22 victory over Black Hills State.

At Montana, Stitt will transform the Grizzlies from a pro-style, huddle offense to a hurry-up spread attack. Montana has a proud football tradition - it appeared in the FCS playoffs 17 straight times from 1993 to 2009 and won national championships in 1995 and 2001.

Montana hasn't been as successful lately, as it hasn't advanced past the second round of the FCS playoffs since 2009 (its 2011 semifinals appearance was vacated because of NCAA sanctions).

Stitt is ready to put his own mark on the program.

"I had a local here tell me, 'I'd rather lose 52-51 than win 10-9,'" Stitt said. "That tells you how people feel about offense."

Stitt's admirers are just as eager to see what he'll do on a bigger stage.

"I can't wait to watch it," Spavital said. "I'm fired up. I can't wait to see it at another level."