Winter 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 2
When Legends Won't Dieby Rick Stern
Hollywood couldn't have written a better script for Montana's 1995 season: Home-grown hero smashes team and league records while leading the Griz through a successful regular season. He and his teammates shine in three home playoff blowouts. The storybook season culminates with an improbable, last-minute win over Marshall, when the Grizzlies captured the Division I-AA National Championship.
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Enter the 1996 season. The Grizzly football team not only had eleven scheduled opponents, it also had to contend with the legends of the previous year. The question was, after quarterback Dave Dickenson has graduated and Head Coach Don Read has retired, what do you do for an encore?
Fortunately, Read's replacement, head coach Mick Dennehy, had some ideas. First, he defused a brewing quarterback controversy by shifting junior Josh Paffhausen to wide receiver and handing the reigns to sophomore Brian Ah Yat--a move that not only solved the question of Dickenson's replacement, but that of Matt Wells, Montana's all-time leading receiver. He took pressure off Ah Yat by choosing the Grizzlies' eighteen returning starters to lead the 1996 squad. Then, with the help of his players, Dennehy did something that no other coach in Montana history had ever done: He led his team to an 11-0 record in the regular season.
There were similarities to great Montana teams of Don Read's era: a pass-happy offense, good defense against the run, solid special teams play and the ability to make successful adjustments at halftime. But Dennehy's style shone through in 1996, especially in the way Montana ran the football.
"Basically, what we're doing both on offense and defense is pretty much the same," said Dennehy. He said that offensive coordinator Brent Pease and defensive coordinator Jerome Souers did a great job of "adding some wrinkles and fine-tuning what we normally do, but basically we're the same old Grizzlies."
But give those same old Grizzlies a year's experience and a national championship, and the story is more difficult to pinpoint. The 1996 regular season can't be summed up as easily as the previous three because this year's Grizzlies were a more well-rounded team. Instead of relying on Dickenson to outscore the opponent as in the previous three seasons, someone-or several people--always stepped forward, the sign of a great team.
"Last year we were all relatively young," said fifth-year senior safety Sean Goicoechea of the defense he helped anchor. "At the beginning of the year we were juniors, relatively inexperienced. None of us had really started before. We built upon that all year last year, and I think playoff time was when we all jelled and peaked at the same time."
The team continued to peak as the '96 season began, holding Division I-A foe Oregon State to 14 points in Corvallis, while the Griz scored 35. With ten senior starters, one can honestly say that junior linebacker Jason Crebo--the Big Sky Conference's 1996 Defensive Player of the Year--is perhaps the best player on the Montana defense. Nine of the Grizzlies' eleven defensive starters and eight players on the Grizzly offense were named to the Big Sky's All-Conference team.
The Grizzlies were seriously challenged in at least four games--three of which saw Montana down at halftime. On October 19 Montana trailed Eastern Washington most of the game until, with 56 seconds remaining, Ah Yat connected with senior wide receiver Joe Douglass, who wiggled along the sidelines for a 39-yard touchdown and a 34-30 Montana victory. The next week at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the sixth-ranked Northern Arizona Lumberjacks held a 20-17 lead at halftime before Montana outscored for a 48-32 win. Again, the Ah Yat to Douglass connection was a key to the victory. At the Cal State Northridge matchup, the Griz had difficulty stopping the powerful Northridge passing attack. The team held just a one-point lead until the fourth quarter, when Ah Yat found senior Mike Erhardt for two touchdowns and a score of 43-36.
The Griz easily put away Portland State. (The stadium cheered when Portland finally made a first down in the third quarter.) Then the Griz faced Weber State. The team held a 17-0 edge at the first quarter's end, then held on in their best defensive battle of the season. Weber held the Griz to a season-low 24 points, but the Griz still edged out the Wildcats, 24-10.
Free safety Blaine McElmurry, strong safety Sean Goicoechea and center Dave Kempfert lead the team in singing the fight song after a Grizzly home win.
(ABOVE: First-year quarterback Brian Ah Yat. )
The season finale against the surprisingly talented Montana State Bobcats found the Grizzlies down again at halftime, 14-7. The Grizzlies displayed their ability to make adjustments in the second half to shut out the Bobcats in the final thirty minutes, 35-14. The win was their eleventh in a row over Montana State and their eleventh straight win in the season.
While each win was a team effort, one Grizzly player engineered both the ups and downs of Montana's season. Brian Ah Yat may have thrown a few crucial interceptions to allow opponents the opportunity to challenge the Grizzlies, but he always showed great poise in rallying Montana to victory.
Sure, he didn't do it alone. Thanks to an offensive line that Goicoechea calls "the basis of all the success we have on offense," Ah Yat has had plenty of time to throw--a skill he mastered well enough to share the Big Sky's Offensive Player of the Year Award with Northern Arizona's Archie Amerson. Ah Yat broke Dickenson's school and conference record with forty-two touchdown passes in 1996.
"I think Brian has had a great approach to this season," says Dennehy, referring to Ah Yat's decision to deflect attention from himself and avoid distraction by not speaking to the media. "He's done as good a job as anybody I could ever imagine in stepping in and taking over for a legend."
He also had some good targets, especially Erhardt, who finished his career tied for the Montana career mark in receiving touchdowns, and Douglass, who racked up more receiving yards than anyone else in I-AA.
The list of individual accolades could go on and on, which is why one could argue that the Grizzlies could have lost three or four players and still had a successful season. One thing can certainly be said of the 1996 Grizzlies: They have created some legends of their own.
Play It Again, Grizby Rita Munzenrider
Fresh from their eleventh straight victory over the Montana State Bobcats and their second consecutive Big Sky Conference championship, the 1996 Grizzlies treated themselves and fans to an extra month of football and a sense of déjà vu.
Although the year ultimately ended in a painful defeat to one of the Grizzlies' greatest foes, the 1996 team took the 1995 season and improved on it, thanks to the handiwork of eighteen returning starters and some new standouts. Rookie quarterback Brian Ah Yat and first-year head coach Mick Dennehy made believers out of those who worried there was no life for the Griz after Dave Dickenson and Don Read. In short, the 1996 Grizzly team racked up the best season in UM football history with a 14-1 record, twenty-one straight wins and a twenty-seven game winning streak at home--the longest among all I-AA schools.
Defensive tackle Brian Toone, left, and defensive end Randy Riley.
Ranked as the top team in Division I-AA, the Grizzly gridders headed into post-season play November 30. The Grizzlies dominated each playoff opponent and posted lopsided scores reminiscent of the 1995 playoffs. The team scored a total of 162 points, just one point shy of last year's playoff scoring total, while holding opponents to 24 total points, compared with last year's 14.
For the first of three playoff games against teams from the South, the Grizzlies were pitted against Louisiana's Nicholls State Colonels on the familiar--but frozen--turf of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Griz outgunned the Colonels, 48-3, a score reminiscent of the 48-0 shutout of Eastern Kentucky in the first game of the 1995 playoffs.
The Grizzlies delivered a blow to the East Tennessee State Buccaneers with a 44-14 victory December 7. The following weekend in the semifinal game, the Grizzlies' 70-7 trouncing of the Troy State Trojans became the most lopsided score in Division I-AA playoff history, shattering the record set last year by UM's 70-14 semifinal shellacking of Stephen F. Austin.
The Grizzlies' playoff success and perfect 14-0 record left Missoulians giddy with anticipation of a repeat championship. On December 18, thousands lined the route from campus to the airport in the frigid December darkness to cheer as buses--escorted by ten patrol cars with flashing lights and blaring sirens--carried the defending champs to their plane for the flight eastward. At businesses all along Broadway, workers huddled together to wave and point their index fingers skyward as 100 stunned gridders basked in the town's warm send-off. Emergency flashers and windshield wipers on dozens of cars at dealerships and rental agencies along the route blinked and swiped their support as the caravan passed, while the spirit of Montana Rail Link employees blared from a locomotive parked on the tracks nearby.
On December 21, the Grizzlies met Marshall on its home field for the Thundering Herd's final game as a I-AA program. Each team was undefeated and had scored a total of 609 points so far in the season, and both had new coaches and quarterbacks. The Herd was unstoppable, thanks to a quarterback and wide receiver imported from Division I-A--Eric Kresser from Florida and Randy Moss from Florida State. With a 49-29 victory over the Grizzlies, Marshall finished with a perfect 15-0 season.
"Randy Moss was far and away the best football player I've ever seen," Dennehy said later. "With Moss out of there, I think it would have been a pretty even game."
At Dahlberg Arena, a crowd of 2,000 awaited the Grizzlies' midnight arrival following the loss. Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas told the somber-faced Grizzlies, "It's hard to describe what you mean to this community...you have taught us all a lesson--a real important lesson--about working together as a team." One by one, smiles appeared as the players lifted their heads toward the crowd.
A State Dividedby Rita Munzenrider
Montanans stick together when it comes to electing their governor or disputing recent depictions of their state as lawless. But when it comes to the annual battle over the pigskin between The University of Montana and Montana State University, Montana is a state divided: True Montanans are either Bobcats or Grizzlies.
Even popular second-term Governor Marc Racicot can't ride the fence when it comes to one of Montana's most historic and impassioned contests. "I love to see the Bobcats have success on virtually every day of the year but for the day on which they meet the Grizzlies," says Racicot, a UM law school alumnus. "No question, my heart is there [UM]."
For almost a century, fans young and old have gathered to watch a gridiron battle that brings out the best--and worst--in Montanans. Fans from both sides sport sweatshirts with sayings such as "Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be Bobcats," "Partnership for a Griz-free Montana," "I have two favorite teams: The Grizzlies and whoever is playing the Bobcats" and "Friends don't let friends become Grizzlies."
Since the series started in 1897 on Missoula's field, the Grizzlies have dominated with fifty-nine wins compared with the Bobcats' thirty-two. Both teams have historically played their best game of the year against each other. "There've been times when one team is way down and ended up either winning or nearly winning," said Sonny Holland of Bozeman, former Bobcat player and head coach from 1971 to 1977. "There have been some excellent ball games where, going in, it didn't look like it would be that way. The kids play their hearts out."
The game can also bring out the worst in fans. For years, the meeting was marked by drinking and brawling, especially after the matches. "I used to go just to watch the fights afterward," said UM assistant athletic director Bill Schwanke. Missoula businessman Gene Tripp, who played for the Grizzlies from 1963 to 1965, remembers that "it was almost scary to go to the games."
Older fans remember when the rivals met halfway on neutral turf. From 1926 to 1950, the Griz-Cat game was played in Butte. Grizzly fans rode the train from Missoula and, in keeping with Butte tradition, a parade through uptown usually kicked off the match.
Then there were the pranks. On the eve of the 1939 Griz-Cat football game, pranksters changed the "M" on Mount Sentinel to a "B." Grizzly supporters retaliated by whitewashing the MSU campus. Band members formed The University of Montana's initials during a halftime show on Bozeman's field and dropped grass seed at their feet. The next spring, UM's initials sprouted in the middle of the Bobcats' football field.
One year, MSU band members tried to knock down the goal post at UM's Dornblaser Field with a tuba. After one crushing loss to the Cats, UM players and fans left the sacred cannon, used to salute Grizzly touchdowns, in the middle of the field. Bobcat boosters hooked the cannon to a truck and headed toward Bozeman. The cannon was left in a cafe parking lot in Bonner.
Many fans remember a manure incident in 1958, but the story differs. According to Holland, who played for MSU that year, Bobcat backers spread a load of manure on the field after the game, while others hooked up a fire hose and sprayed it through the stadium gate. Grizzly fans say the manure was their idea. They claim they hosed down Bobcat fans and tossed them into the manure truck.
The Griz-Cat game can also divide households, straining "mixed marriages." Thirty years ago, Griz-Cat games created so much tension between then-newlyweds Tom and Carol McElwain that, according to MSU graduate Carol, "It got so we quit going for a few years until we matured a little bit." "The darn Bobcats kept winning, and I'm a pretty poor loser and she's a poor winner," said Tom, a UM graduate and devoted Grizzly fan. In the Washington-Grizzly Stadium sky box the McElwains co-own with nine other couples, Carol is the only Bobcat fan. It's rough, she says, "especially when you're not winning and the only person they have to pick on is this one Bobcat." One time she even put a sack over her head and showed up as the unknown Bobcat.
Ferocious loyalties--to the Bobcats or the Grizzlies--will probably always divide the state. "There's no other way it can go," says Grizzly fan Ben Tyvand, who lettered for the Grizzlies in the 1940s. "There's no in between."