The Griz Lost, Not All At Once
A die-hard fan tells the story.
by Tom Lutey
Photos by Todd Goodrich
“They washed up in the parking lot of Montana’s national
championship football game like characters from the Odyssey,
eight men sailing across the Great American Desert in a Jamboree
They’d sacked Denver along the way, collapsed in Kansas
City, and lost all desire to go home somewhere between the sour
mash capital of Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the host city of the
championship game, Chattanooga. “It was a long
drive,” Jeff Hollenback shouted. “Thirty-five hours
and seven states. We stopped in Denver just long enough to pick
up my brother.”
He was waiting for the matchup between the Montana Grizzlies
and the James Madison Dukes, while his crew—Shawn, Ed and
Ron Hollenback, Farley Frame, Moe Johnson, Jared Wierson, and
Doug Chadwick—adjusted to solid ground. Behind them, six
alluring sirens danced the cotton-eyed Joe in cowboy hats crafted
from empty twelve-pack boxes. It was ten minutes to game time,
ten minutes before the Grizzlies’ storybook season hit the
rocks. No one saw it coming. We were lost in the lyrics of
“Up with Montana Boys.”
The Griz lost, not all at once. On the game’s opening
drive Montana marched down the field and scored. Speedy wide
receivers Jefferson Heidelberger and Levander Segars picked up
eighty yards off broken tackles, doing the unthinkable against a
James Madison defense that hadn’t allowed a first quarter
score all year. But all planes fly before they crash and soon it
was obvious something wasn’t right. The grass was being
ripped up like Marv Albert’s hair. Big clumps of torn turf
were revealing bald ground, which had been sodded in preparation
for the game to make the field look better on television.
JMU coach Mickey Matthews would later liken football on the
loose field to “playing basketball in your socks.”
And Montana’s hopes of a third national championship in ten
years quickly slipped away. JMU’s offense adjusted by
running the football straight ahead and any Griz in the
Dukes’ path were driven back as if they wore rollerskates.
JMU won 31-21. Duke fans headed to the bar. Griz faithful went
hunting for all-night restaurants.
Championship games are never a sure bet. Deep down inside, all
football fans know losses are possible even when their team is
12-2 and struggling to become the only program in the country to
end its season on a good note. But fans scrub the trauma of
losing from their brains as if erasing the pain of
Lose? we say. How could we lose? We see a bright light at the
end of the tunnel and never consider that it could be a train,
that our wings of feathers and wax aren’t fit for stadium
lighting, that exit polling right outside Washington-Grizzly
Stadium is less than reliable. Our non-fanatical coworkers quiz
our decision to fly clear across the country for a football game
as if we’ve rashly invested our 401(k)s in Powerball
Oh, how we have been down this road before. In 1996, with
hopes of back-to-back national titles, we chanted for a rematch
with Marshall University from the sidelines as our team throttled
Troy State 70-7. We’d never heard of Randy “The
Freak” Moss, a future NFL Pro Bowl receiver and Heisman
Trophy candidate who made our Montana boys look like
bush-leaguers in a 49-20 defeat in the big game.
In 2000, we sang “Chattanooga Choo Choo” with
then-coach Joe Glenn, only to find out we’d been tied to
the tracks of Georgia Southern’s Adrian “The A
Train” Peterson. It was a 27-25 loss that really
wasn’t as close as the score suggests.
Memo to fans: If you know nothing about a team, their colors,
their mascot, where they’re from, but know their best
player’s name begins with “The,” stay home.
It’s hard to stay home, though, when the stars seem to
be aligning for your team and even for you. They seemed to be
aligning for Griz fan Jim Joyner, who spent hours having his
entire head painted before each Griz game. Joyner’s
prospects of getting to Chattanooga weren’t good. But the
football gods intervened just days before kickoff. EA Sports, a
video game giant with a penchant for college football, awarded
Joyner Best Game Face, a prize that came with $1,000 cash. It was
just enough to get him and his head-painting brother, Tim, plane
tickets to the big game.
“I was thinking about renting a Suburban and driving to
Chattanooga,” Joyner said. Outside the stadium, he was
decked out in chains and skulls, a torn Griz jersey and a silver
head. Complete strangers were posing for pictures with the
Was it destiny? Well, do lemmings run into the sea? Joyner
knew the answer. So did Rich Borden, who crafted an ESPN sign
recognizing the boys in Scott’s garage on Prairie Schooner
Road in suburban Missoula.
Borden and the neighbors gather at Scott’s every Sunday
to drink beer and watch football on a small color television. He
battled fog and flight delays just to get to the game. The trip
took twenty hours, but he was the only member of the Sunday crew
to make it. That’s either destiny or the consequences of
going against predetermination. The Dukes were just lucky.
But one person’s lucky team is always another’s
team of destiny. The Dukes didn’t seem special, though
sometimes when you’re in Big Sky Country it’s hard to
consider all the stars. JMU’s football wasn’t flashy.
Its season record was identical to Montana’s. The Griz were
rolling over opponents in Missoula.
One huge difference between the Griz and the Dukes, though,
was James Madison’s string of road victories in the
playoffs. Their winning scores weren’t great, but every JMU
playoff victory came on the road, while Montana played at
home—in what, earlier in the year, Sports Illustrated
ranked as the twenty-fifth best college football atmosphere in
America, mentioned in the same breath as legendary programs like
Penn State and Michigan.
The Dukes were the first team in I-AA history to make it to
the national championship without a single home playoff game. No
other team had come close to that feat. In fact 70 percent of all
playoff road teams lose. It was easy to pass the Dukes off as
lucky. UM’s side of the playoff bracket contained six of
the top eight teams in the country. The Dukes’ side looked
After the game, a throng of parents waited outside the Griz
locker room for their sons to emerge. There were real players
with real injuries walking back onto the torn up grass. Everyone
bore the blue bruise of destiny’s sting.
There were James Madison fans still on the field stuffing
clumps of shredded victory grass into their pockets.
Down the street Griz fans wandered into a city with no real
team in the championship game for whom to cheer. They were caught
in a strange place grieving a loss no one around them seemed to
care much about, a feeling not unlike losing your parents in a
strange mall. It would be several sobering miles before they
found someone who did care.
Tom Lutey is a 1995 graduate of UM's School of Journalism and
an award-winning writer for the Montanan. In between Grizzly
football games, he writes for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane,
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