The Griz & the Glory
Notes from a reporter who followed the Grizzlies to their second national championship.
by Cary Shimek
I woke up December 21—game day!—with that well-loved but admittedly goofy song stuck in my head: ... and the squeal of the pig will float on the air, from the tummy of the grizzly bear. “Up With Montana” had been pounded into my noggin the night before at the convention center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The UM marching band had played LOUD to be heard over the thousands of maroon-clad, beer-swilling fans who turned out for a Griz pep rally. And it played louder still when coach Joe Glenn took the stage and said, “We’re going to give you the best Christmas present a Griz fan ever wanted!”
Coach Glenn. What a guy. He’s almost scary, since he has more personality in his little finger than most people have in their entire bodies. He has this infectious, positive attitude that’s overpowering. As he sat down at a keyboard to lead the rowdy Big Sky faithful in the Griz fight song, I remember thinking we’re lucky he uses his powers for good—like helping UM win football championships.
That morning before the game, I knew Glenn already had given me the ultimate Griz-fan present. For today, win or lose, he was going to let me follow the players and coaches as they took their championship odyssey. I was to be given full access to pre-game preparations, the locker room, the sidelines, everything.
Edwards, looking like a tough guy in his Montana-style Fu Manchu mustache, had the grace to blush. He said thanks, climbed in, and we were under way.
The bus ride from campus to the airport was an amazing, moving experience. Hordes of Griz fans lined the streets to send the team off in style. Ranging from business people to little girls to tiny old men, the fans waved, cheered, and held up signs. My personal favorite said “DeCoite wear your cup”—referring to a nasty incident in the final playoff game when an opposing player delivered a low blow to free safety Dave DeCoite. The Northern Iowa player was ejected and footage of the low blow made ESPN.
Several car dealers set all the car lights in their lots blinking as the buses passed, and the players were wowed by a Montana Rail Link train engine with a “Good Luck Grizzlies” sign strapped to its side. That train chugged along parallel to the buses for miles.
Now, flying in the charter with the Griz sounds like fun, but it’s actually somewhat nerve-racking: It’s crowded and there’s a lot of beef on the plane. I found myself thinking, “Climb, climb, clear those mountains . . . .” Luckily everything went smoothly until we landed five hours later. Then I heard the players in the back of the plane going “ohhhh . . . oohhhh . . . ooohhhhh!”
It turns out the 2001 Griz do this weird thing where they take off their shirts and flex for one another. The “oohhhs” get louder each time the guys change pose. I looked back to see this big-gut dude flexing for the delighted flight attendants. Other Griz were “oohhing” him on.
Thus we landed in Tennessee. I remember feeling a little sorry for the lovely, sleepy southern city of Chattanooga. The Griz had arrived, and in a few days a sizable chunk of Montana’s population would follow. Such a calamity probably hadn’t occurred there since the Civil War . . . er, or at least since last year when we came and lost to Georgia Southern 25-27.
When the team arrived at the Marriott late that night, a small group of Montana fans were there already with a sign that read “Welcome Back. Up With Montana, Boys. Go Griz!” Since the game wasn’t for three days, that’s dedication!
Going on one of these championship treks makes you realize that Grizzly football is a giant family affair. The coaches bring their wives and babies, and players’ parents are hanging around everywhere. Past and present players mingle with die-hard fans—it’s a big, football traveling circus. In just one sideshow, I saw two former Montana quarterbacks, Drew Miller and Brad Lebo, playing catch on the sidelines—with zinging passes.
The day before the game, the Griz attended the 2001 NCAA Awards Luncheon in the convention center. “Awards” is kind of a misnomer, since no awards are actually given out. The Montana and Furman players just gathered together for an elegant dining experience and glared at one another across the room. It was a chance to size up the competition as the players and coaches were introduced. Everybody also had an opportunity to watch the adrenaline-pumping ESPN introduction that would be played on television right before kickoff. We learned that the largest viewing audience ever for a I-AA game was expected. Millions would see Montana and Furman bust heads.
The players seemed relaxed and loose. I think it helped that they had been there the year before and were staying in the same hotel, practicing in the same places, and playing on the same field. They were focused, confident. Finishing the job—redemption—was on everyone’s mind.
I wound up at a table with several defensive players. Tackle Curt Colter was there, along with end Ciche Pitcher. Defensive players are great because they are the headhunters; these are the guys who dream of reducing quarterbacks to boneless mush. Colter had a bloody nose (nerves? dry air?), and the other players suggested he smear the blood all over his face to look more intimidating. He didn’t do it, but it was a nice thought. They also talked a little about the playing conditions a year ago. “We had this big, fat rain last year,” Pitcher said. “It’d hit you and you’d stumble and almost fall down.”
Luckily game day dawned glorious and sunny. The only one who seemed bummed by that was massive offensive tackle Jon Skinner, who said he loved sliding around in the mud last year. There’s a tough Dillon kid for you.
After eating, the players broke into unit meetings—the offensive line in one room, the defensive backs in another, and so on. Then most of the team gathered for an inspirational talk by Father Jim Hogan, the team chaplain. He travels everywhere with the Griz, providing support as a spiritual leader and counselor.
Hogan’s pregame talk really seemed to help focus the Griz for the test ahead. It was a combination lecture, prayer, and meditation:
“I think at the heart of so much of the team spirit that you have is the willingness to exalt others. To lift up others and recognize their significance. I’ve shared this with you a number of times this year, but I feel that’s really what you do. And that’s the source of your dignity. Last week there were a lot of cheap shots, and your response was to bring out the best you have in yourselves. You deserve the best.”
Hogan asked players to close their eyes and focus as he talked: “So I invite you back into that inner stillness. This is a very special, unique moment in your lives as individuals and a Grizzly team. Breathe deep and take it to the depths. All the wonders you seek are within yourselves, to be the best, to do your best. As you breathe out, make a commitment to your teammates, that you will be your best.”
Then the room cleared out and Glenn sat down with Mick Holien, the voice of the Griz on Missoula’s KGVO radio, for a pregame interview. Watching those two work was like watching an old married couple dance: They knew exactly what they were doing, they were comfortable with each other, and there were no missteps. They just sat down and spat out the interview in one take.
“I feel the chemistry on this team, just the unselfishness, the friendship, the bond, the family, the fraternity—all the things I love about college football—are strong on this team,” Glenn said. “I think we’re ready to play the greatest football game we’ve played since I’ve been in Montana, and I just hope it’s enough.” Glenn ended the interview with his favorite war cry, “Powder River, let her buck,” a rodeo euphemism for “bring it on.”
Tension crackled in the air like electricity. It was time to leave for the stadium. As the players filed through the Marriott lobby past family and fans toward the buses, an elderly man yelled out “Montana!” The crowd responded “Grizzlies!” and people started clapping and cheering. I saw the players’ eyes light up; my own felt a little misty. You could just feel the love and support emanating from those folks. They knew their team deserved a championship. Now they had to go get it.
When we got to the stadium, I worked out my nerves by walking around the field, watching the purple-clad Furman fans gather on one side, facing off against the maroon Montana mob across the field. It was like the gathering of rival armies.
The Furman mascot is a paladin, a kind of holy knight, who sits astride his warhorse, Sterling, in full steel armor, girded with a sword. The man in the armor, Dan Hanson, says he takes Sterling out before the game to get him used to the crowd so the horse doesn’t go berserk and start trampling cheerleaders. Hanson and Sterling, members of a group called the Knights of Pendragon, even participated in a jousting exhibition at Furman’s first home football game.
I was mightily impressed by all this, thinking our Monte the bear had finally met his match. Then Sterling lifted his tail and .... Whoa! Monte never did that! But Hanson just yelled for his “squire” to clean it up. I think that squire has the worst job in I-AA football.
When I went to the Griz locker room, last-minute preparations were well under way. The trainers gave final tape jobs and massages; players strapped on the pads. I noticed something about “New Lord of the Rings” scribbled on a board. Players were tense and pacing. At one point, big Skinner sat outside on a folding chair, looked up at the sky, and said, “Doesn’t look like it’s going to rain this year.”
Inside the locker room I saw players helping one another don their modern-day armor. High-testosterone rock music blared from a boom box: Metallica, Limp Bizkit and AC/DC. Then I saw these two kids hanging out in a corner. Turns out they were relatives of junior safety Trey Young. Trey’s brother Patrick, fourteen, and his cousin Demetrius, sixteen. We talked about how cool it was to be in the locker room before the big game.
Despite the building tension, the Griz still seemed incredibly loose, and jokes were still flying around. I felt slightly annoyed: Didn’t they know they were about to play for a national championship? I had been part of two state championship football teams in high school (class B, don’t mess with me), and we didn’t talk the hour before a game. We simply brooded in our grid-iron manliness, letting the tension build for an on-field eruption. But these were Glenn’s Grizzlies, and I soon learned there were other ways of doing things.
About ten minutes before kickoff, the intensity level skyrocketed. Players began swearing. A lot! I was glad my grandma wasn’t listening. Griz banged on lockers or did some spontaneous hollering and clapping. I saw Pitcher punching the air, looking like a hungry headhunter, and Glenn gave star running back Yohance Humphery a hug. The offensive line disappeared into a side room for a pregame bonding moment that involved deep-throated roaring. AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” blared on the stereo.
Then All-American offensive guard Thatcher Szalay, the scariest Griz, went berserk. He stormed around the locker room like a rampaging wildebeest yelling, “It’s our f#@$%*g stadium!” at his teammates. I became afraid. Yes, Thatch, I nodded, it’s our f$#@!&%g stadium. Now don’t kill us.
Glenn then gathered the troops for his pregame speech. Here’s a slice of what he said:
“Here we are for a national championship. You have the opportunity of a lifetime, to play for a national championship and be the best in the country. Play with class, poise, and stay focused throughout the game. It’s a game where you have to use all your God-given abilities and be mentally ready to work for sixty minutes. Believe in yourself and your teammates. Hold yourself accountable for your actions. Rely on yourselves to step up; expect more from yourself. Show what you can do. Don’t talk about it. Just go out and dominate, so you can hold your head high and be proud.
“I want to say to you, this team we are playing is known for hanging in there. We know you give them all the respect in the world. Now, I don’t know anybody who does what you do, and that’s the longer you play the better you get. It’s going to be a back-alley street fight for sixty minutes. Hang in there. Things won’t always go our way perfectly. Now, we are going to go out and play for Montana. For sixty minutes Montana carries everything you got, men, lay it all on the line today for Montana.
“I got my money on you boys.”
The hungry Griz hooted and howled at this last bit, and then they ran outside into the southern twilight and the rising roar of Montana fans. It was do or die time.
I’m kind of a pessimist when it comes to things I really want. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. That way if something good does happen, you are pleasantly surprised. If something bad happens . . . well, you kind of expected it.
When the game started I kept expecting the hammer to fall. I had been at last year’s championship game when Georgia Southern scored on a 73-yard touchdown run on its first play from scrimmage. Against Furman I worried the same sort of thing might happen.
In fact, the game didn’t start well for the Griz. Montana and Furman soon discovered they were in a battle between two excellent defenses. Neither team moved the ball well to start the game. Then we caught a break: Senior strong safety Vince Huntsberger—he of the high IQ and piercing eagle eyes—got a turnover on the Furman 12-yard line. But the Paladin defense stepped up, and UM settled for a 31-yard field goal attempt, which went wide. To get that sort of field position and not get any points put my guts in knots, but the Griz players and coaches looked calm and collected on the sidelines. There was no letup in those guys, no getting down. I saw senior linebacker Matt Steinau squirt water on his face, strap on his helmet, and get back to work.
The turning point in the game came early in the second quarter when a Furman punt pinned the Griz on their own 1-yard line. In that position most teams would probably try to eke out a few yards to give their punter more room. However, in a drive that will be long remembered in Grizzly lore, quarterback John Edwards meticulously moved his squad 99 yards down the field. The Griz O-line smacked Furman backwards, and the UM running and short-passing attack kept the drive alive. The game announcer said “First down ... Grrizzzzzz” again and again.
The drive finally stalled deep in Furman territory, but the Paladins jumped offside when kicker Chris Snyder attempted a field goal. This allowed Humphery to ramble in for a score a few plays later, giving UM a 7-0 lead. Later, Snyder added a field goal to give the Griz a 10-0 halftime lead.
As I followed the team into the locker room at halftime, I let myself hope a little. Things were going pretty well. The Furman offense didn’t seem to pass much, and our dominating defense was stuffing their running game. I noticed the Furman crowd had gotten pretty quiet.
Inside, the Griz players yakked encouragement at one another. They were saying things like “Don’t you dare get cocky” and “We still got thirty minutes to play.” Glenn was smiling more. The team broke into unit meetings. I listened in on secondary coordinator Dave Doeren. He told his defensive backs, “You’ve got to play like you are losing. Do you want to be the guys who shut them down or the guys who let them back in?”
The team was totally focused. The image that came to my mind was a pit bull that had found a nice juicy throat and wasn’t letting go. Before they went back out, Glenn said, “We need everything you got. It’s thirty minutes for the rest of your lives.”
If anything, the defenses were more dominant in the second half. The Griz managed another field goal, but there was a lot of punting going on, and the game became a battle for field position. Humphery ate up the clock with hard-core running, and the Griz defense became the true stars of the game, stifling Furman at every turn. The game went quickly, and the hammer I expected never fell.
The celebration began when Huntsberger intercepted a pass with 2:28 left to play. Now we had them. On the sideline, safety Trey Young grabbed a camcorder and T-shirt that declared the Griz were the 2001 I-AA champs. Glenn hugged Athletic Director Wayne Hogan and everyone else in the vicinity.
I didn’t see the last play of the game. I was engulfed by the thousands of Griz fans who rushed the field to give their players a giant Montana group hug. The party was on. The goal posts came down and the I-AA trophy was raised in triumph. I found out later that Furman had scored on that last play of the game via a meaningless 54-yard Hail Mary pass. Huntsberger, the premier Griz defender, got a hand on the ball and tried to knock it down, but instead he put it into the hands of receiver James Thomas. And that’s how Furman avoided being the only team held scoreless in the twenty-three-year history of I-AA championship games.
The UM offense wound up with 297 total yards—142 via Humphery’s churning, unrelenting legs. Edwards ran for 32 yards and passed for 124, and, more important, the offense never turned over the ball. The Griz defense held Furman to 293 total yards, with 54 of those coming on the desperation play that ended the game. The final score was 13-6 Griz.
I barely remember the on-field celebration after the game—my memory has been reduced to a chaos of fans hugging sweaty football players, Montanans howling their joy into the Chattanooga night, and flashing cameras everywhere. In the postgame ESPN news conference, Glenn said, “There is not a more deserving team in the United States than the Montana Grizzlies. They deserve this championship for how hard they’ve worked. The times they got behind, they never gave up. They never quit. Tremendous chemistry, tremendous friends.”
The Griz locker room after the game was hilarious. The floor was swimming with water and dirt clods. Players ran around hooting and hollering, throwing water at each other, and dousing their coaches. I stayed until I started to get wet. Outside the locker room, Glenn received his obligatory cold shower.
After the game many Griz fans gathered at an Alumni Association party across the street in the Cricket Pavilion. The association wasn’t allowed to sell beer at the event, but there was nothing in the rules against giving away alcohol. Thousands of beers were quickly drained. Then Glenn, Hogan, and UM President George Dennison arrived, bringing the championship trophy. Everyone wanted to touch it. And everyone did.
Sporting the biggest grin in the world, Glenn eventually addressed the gathered Montana multitude: “I just want to tell you that I cannot tell you how moving it is to see you all here and part of this. This championship is for every one of you. Now, can we do this one time?”
And he got the crowd singing. It was still ringing in my ears as I left the party:
Up with Montana boys, down with the foe,
A mediocre high school football player, Cary Shimek is a news editor at UM's University Relations who delights in living vicariously through the Griz and having the opportunity to see the game played right.