Douglas reflects on career with Bulldogs, Cornhuskers

Douglas reflects on career with Bulldogs, Cornhuskers
Don Douglas, 16, stands on the sideline of a University of Nebraska football game in this courtesy photo. Standing to his right is running backs coach Franck Solich, who went on to become the head coach of Nebraska. Offensive line coach Milt Tenopir is to his left.

QB was ‘that guy’ for ’81 champions


By Bill Foley

Don Douglas is perfectly OK if history remembers him as Dani Douglas’ father.

For the past two seasons, Dani has played on the women’s basketball team at Vassar College, an NCAA Division III school in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 2017, she helped lead Columbia Falls to the Montana Class A State basketball title.

She sank three 3-pointers and scored 16 points as Wildcats beat Hardin 73-50 in the championship game in the Butte Civic Center that March.

“When Dani won her state championship game in basketball, that was way more rewarding than when we won,” Don Douglas said.

Dani, who transferred from rival Whitefish before her junior season, was an All-State point guard for the Wildkats before graduating in 2018.

The Douglas family poses for a phot after Columbia Falls beat Hardin to win the Class A state championship March 4, 2017 in Butte. They are, from left, Christi, Don, Dani, Beau and Caitlynn. (Courtesy photo)

It probably is not common knowledge in the Flathead Valley, or the Empire State for that matter, but Don Douglas is still a really big deal around here, where champions are remembered forever and championship quarterbacks are immortalized.

In the magical fall of 1981, Douglas led the Butte High Bulldogs to the Class AA State football title. Only three other quarterbacks — Barry Sullivan (in 1977), Josh Paffhausen (1991) and Dallas Cook (2012) — have done that in the last 50 years.

His play with the Bulldogs earned Douglas a scholarship with one of the top football programs in the country, and he was in uniform for three major college football bowl games.

“He was that guy,” classmate Kelly Davis said. “He sure made our senior season was fantastic.”

His college career did not have a storybook ending, and Douglas’ name eventually disappeared from the sports pages as the years ticked by.

Now, Douglas lives a quiet life in Kalispell, where he manages full-time and vacation rentals. He goes fishing a ton, and he spends time with his wife Christi, their son and two daughters when he can.

He seems like an ordinary Montana guy.

Bulldog fans lucky enough to have seen him play, however, know differently.

The 1976 Mile High All-Stars are shown in this photo. Douglas is in the back row on the left, standing next to coach Al Bersanti. (Photo courtesy Mike Parent)

Fireball beginnings

Before he became a Mining City legend on the gridiron, Douglas was a standout basketball player at Wittier Elementary and East Junior High.

His name was known well enough as a javelin thrower that he was brought up to the Butte High varsity team as a freshman, when freshman attended East or West Junior High School.

Legendary East coach Gene Fogarty even took him to a varsity football practice for an audition as a punter for head coach Jon McElroy that fall.

It was on the baseball diamond, though, where Douglas first showed his dominance.

As a 12-year-old in 1976, Douglas led the Kiwanis to the Little League city championship. He struck out 15 batters and allowed just three hits in a 14-1 win over the Elks in the championship game.

Mike Parent has coached the Elks, which eventually became Photo Stars USA over the years, for 52 seasons. He is proud of the 1 in that score.

“At least we got one off him,” Parent said, pointing out that his team has only been shut out three times in more than half a century. “Donnie was good at everything he did.”

Striking people out was what he did best. In one game in 1976, Douglas recorded all 18 outs of the game by way the K.

Douglas and the Mile High All-Star team took second in the state tournament that season. Douglas did not pitch in the 22-18 championship game loss to Libby. He did hit a home run, a double and two singles.

In Babe Ruth, Douglas helped pitch the Skyline All-Stars to the state championship and a trip to Miles City for the Pacific Northwest Regional tournament in 1979.  He struck out 12, walked three and allowed four hits in a 3-2 win over Kalispell in the championship game in Fairfield.

At the regional tournament, Douglas struck out 11 batters in a 5-0 win over Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“I was very lucky. I could just throw the ball hard, but my fastball had a lot of movement on it,” Douglas said. “Mine always tailed, or it would rise. I had that movement on it that would really help.”

He got even more help in 1979 when his family housed Butte Copper Kings pitcher Gregory Cicotte. The pitcher didn’t pile up wins for the Copper Kings, but he taught the young Douglas a new pitcher for his arsenal.

“He showed me how to throw a knuckle-curve ball,” Douglas said. “My target was the batter’s head. It would drop back in. They would bail.”

Cicotte, by the way, is the son of former Big League pitcher Al Cicotte, whose great-uncle is Eddie Cicotte. Eddie Cicotte, a knuckleballer for the Chicago White Sox, was thrown out of baseball for his role in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Brad Mills, who was inducted into the Easter Oregon Hall of Fame for his baseball success in 2014, was a teammate of Douglas on that championship team. Mills, Douglas and Joe McClafferty made up the three-man rotation for the Butte stars.

Mills still marvels at Douglas’ knuckle curve.

“It was devastating,” he said. “It was unreal. He was dominating the Babe Ruth League with that pitch.”

Mills and Douglas made the Butte Miners as 16-year-old players in 1980. Douglas, though, hurt his elbow while throwing the javelin and pitching. That effectively ended his baseball career.

“I really had a hard time throwing something small,” Douglas said of the injury. “So, I just faded away from baseball.”

Douglas in 1981

Super class

The 1981-82 school year was one of the greatest for the Mining City when it comes to sports.

Butte High won Class AA titles in football, wrestling and boys’ track. Butte Central brought home Class A championships in girls’ basketball, girls’ track and boys’ track. Don Peoples Jr., Brian Morris, et al. also played in the Class A state championship football game.

“We always wondered, what if we had one high school back then?” Kelly Davis said. “It seemed like back then there was just a lot of kids out for sports.”

Kelly Davis in 1982

None, though, could top Douglas. Not even his good friend Brian Morris, who went onto play football at Stanford.

Douglas, who was listed at 6-foot and 180 pounds as a senior, had a hand in all three touchdowns in Butte High’s 18-12 season-opening win over Butte Central. He scored on runs of 57 and 6 yards. He threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Terry LeProwse in overtime, just before senior linebacker Larry Peterson intercepted a pass in the end zone to seal the victory.

“He was a good athlete,” McElroy said. “The thing I remember the most was if he misread something, he made something.”

McElroy, who was the head coach at Butte High from 1976 through 1993, led the Bulldogs to three championships, and his quarterbacks could all run and throw. They also had a lot put on their shoulders.

“We ran an offense where the quarterback really had a lot to do how it ended up,” McElroy said. “All my quarterbacks had a lot in their hand when they walked on the field. Hopefully, we could teach them enough.”

Douglas’ favorite play was an option that involved reading the defensive end. He had the option to hand it off to his running back, which he did to the tune of 1,061 yards to the great Matt Pelletier in 1980, pass the ball or run.

“If that defensive end goes wide, I can hand it to Pelletier. Or I can fake it to him, and I had two options out there. That left me with all the open field on the edge,” Douglas said. “It was just a play that you couldn’t stop.”

The first time the play was called, Douglas liked to hand it off no matter the read.

“It might get stopped at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “But it set up the next play.”

Butte High’s offense was a bit ahead of its time under McElroy.

“We were a shotgun team. I think we had to be one of the first teams in the state to run the shotgun,” Douglas said. “That was a huge advantage. I knew I could outrun every defense out there. That was the confidence I had. I knew if I could get one step I would be gone.”

Another of his favorite plays was “24 veer.” He dialed that up for the long touchdown against the Maroons.

“They didn’t get the play in from the sideline,” Douglas explained. “So, I called my favorite play.”

That turned out to be the difference in perhaps the best Butte-Butte Central game of all.

“I didn’t know what we were going to do when we called a play,” McElroy. “We didn’t know if he was going to run, hand it off or throw. If he made a mistake, he made up for. There never really was a bad play.”

In addition to his strong arm — he once through the football 87 yards in his final year of college — Douglas possessed blazing speed. He was clocked at 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.

Douglas, who placed fourth in the javelin in 1982 with a throw of 189 feet, 9 inches, ran a leg of Butte High’s state championship 400-meter relay team along with Chris Knuckey, Marty Janhunen and Kelly Davis.

He also had what they call “football speed.”

“I was gifted with speed,” Douglas said. ““That speed doesn’t always transfer to the field, but mine did. I ran the 100 in track. I’d be out in front at the 50-yard mark, but then everyone would come back and I’d end up getting second or third.

“If anything, I felt faster on the field.”

Davis was a star receiver and a superstar hurdler for the Bulldogs a Butte Sports Hall of Famer who was part of Montana State’s 1984 NCAA I-AA national championship football team, said there was much more to Douglas than speed.

“If he needed to grab you and get you to focus your eyes to his eyes, he would. He was just a natural leader, and in a good way,” Davis said. “He sure led our team. That’s one of the reasons we ended up with the championship was his leadership. I’m pretty proud to have him as our quarterback.”

Sweet revenge

The Bulldogs went 10-1 in 1981, and five of their games, including the championship game, were decided by eight points or less.

That started with the thriller against the Maroons. The following week, Douglas did not start a home game against Anaconda because of a abdominal injury suffered against Central.

In the midst of a scoreless tie in the fourth quarter, McElroy turned to his quarterback for a rescue.

“Coach Mac came up to me and said, ‘Can you just play one series?’ Douglas remembered. “So, I went into the game, we went down the field and scored.”

Douglas engineered a 74-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Dan Krzan’s 7-yard run capped the drive with 1 minute, 54 seconds left in the game, and Butte High won 7-0.

Great Falls Russell came to town on Oct. 9 and handed Butte High a 20-14 Homecoming loss.

While the blemish prevented the Bulldogs from having a perfect season, Douglas said he was happy Butte High lost the game all these years later.

The loss meant the Bulldogs got to celebrate their state title in Great Falls.

“To this day, I am so thankful that we lost to them,” Douglas said. “The feeling that you have when you can beat a team on their field is so rewarding. Winning at home is so nice. But winning on the road gives you a whole different feeling. It’s just so special. To beat them in front of their crowd was so satisfying. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”

Courtroom arguments surrounding the Class AA playoffs that season enhanced the championship game drama, too.

Russell, which finished the regular season unbeaten and holding the No. 1 ranking, had seven victories declared forfeits by the Montana High School Association because the Rustlers used two ineligible players.

Legal arguments delayed the playoffs one week before the semifinals. The case went to the Montana Supreme Court before the Rustlers were allowed to play.

While the CMR players and the state hung on every legal argument, the Bulldogs put their weekend off to good use.

“It gave us a free weekend for hunting,” Douglas said. “That was awesome. Everyone who hunted, that’s where we were. It got our minds off of everything.”

Douglas ran for two touchdowns and passed for one more as Butte High beat Missoula Sentinel 37-19 in Missoula in the semifinals to set up a Nov. 20 rematch with the Rustlers at Memorial Stadium in Great Falls.

Butte High won 14-6, and Douglas was a part of both touchdowns.

He threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Sean Howard, who made a highlight-reel catch on the right side of the end zone, in the first quarter. He added a 36-yard touchdown run down the right sideline in the fourth quarter.

The first Butte High scoring drive can be seen in this video:

The second Bulldog scoring drive is on this video:

Both touchdowns came on fourth-down plays.

“Coach Mac was fearless,” Douglas said. “That was just one of the ways he instilled confidence in us. He always made you feel like he had more confidence in you than you had in yourself.”

The Montana Standard proclaimed, “Butte High settles out of court, 14-6” on the top of its front page the next morning.

Douglas, who went on to average 9.0 points per game as Butte High went 11-10 in basketball, finished the season with 988 yards and 10 touchdowns, both school records. He also ran 97 times for 511 yards and seven touchdowns.

“Donnie was not scared to take that ball himself. He was quick. He was hard to catch,” Davis said. “I think that was an attraction to Nebraska. They ran a lot of option and they let their quarterback have the decision to run or throw.”

Taking care of business

Jake Dennehy has become almost a folk hero after his 46-yard field goal gave Butte High the state title in 2012.

Not long after the championship game, the Bulldogs saw a huge crowd take over the Butte Plaza Mall as Butte High players signed autographs for the title-starved community. It was Butte High’s first state football title in 21 years.

In 1981, the Bulldogs were simply doing what they felt they were expected to do. Even though they were the kings of the Mining City, they acted more like their title was business as usual.

“Back then we really didn’t act like the kings of town,” Kelly Davis said. “We got the fire truck ride. We were excited, but I think the coaches were more excited because they realized what we just did. We were just doing what we were told.”

They were also doing what they saw the Bulldogs do four years earlier when Sullivan, Si Timberman and the boys won it all.

Sullivan, in particular, left his mark on Douglas, who remembers sneaking into Naranche Stadium to watch the Bulldogs play on the old dirt field as a young boy.

“We watched every single game that year,” Douglas said of the 1977 Bulldogs, who are still highly regarded as Butte High’s best team. “Barry Sullivan was like my idol because I wanted to be a quarterback. He was just so poised. He always had the confidence and he never turned the ball over.

“That inspired us, our whole class. We wanted to ride those tales.”

Davis echoed his old quarterback.

“We kind of looked up to those guys. That’s what we did in junior high. We’d go to games and watch Barry Sullivan, Si Timberman …” Davis said, before naming off several more members of the 1977 Bulldogs. “You go to the locker rooms and see their names. We were in junior high, and it was like you went to a professional game.”

Jon McElroy coached both those teams. Along with the 1991 championship squad, those teams obviously hold a special place in his heart.

The 1981 team, he said, was full of players willing to work for their success.

“We had some good athletes, then we had a bunch of believers,” McElroy said. “They kept getting better every week. I just remember those kids who busted their butt, made things happen and just worked hard.”

The championship season followed Butte High’s 8-2 campaign in 1980.

Douglas passed for 850 yards and eight touchdowns that season. He ran for 239 yards and four scores one year after he took over for injured starter Terry McDonald during his sophomore season.

Butte High’s 1980 playoff run ended with a 35-12 loss at Kalispell in the semifinals.

“We were on a roll,” Douglas said. “We hit Flathead up here in Kalispell, we just weren’t prepared for them. They were ready for us.”

In 1979, Butte High started 3-0 but finished at 4-5. It was the first of just four losing seasons in McElroy’s storied tenure as head coach.

His Bulldogs more than made up for it, going 18-3 the next two years.

Douglas finished his Bulldog career with 2,830 yards of total offense. That was a school record at the time.

It still ranks No. 9 in school history. In a sign of just how much different high school football is today, the great Tommy Mellott left Butte High with a record 10,118 yards of total offense.

Douglas takes a snap for Nebraska in a home game in 1984. (Courtesy photo)

Nebraska bound

On Feb. 10, 1982, Douglas signed to play football at the University of Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers were coming off a loss to Clemson in the what amounted to a national championship game a month earlier. But it was almost as if Douglas did not grasp the magnitude of the signing, which came the same week that Brian Morris signed with Stanford.

“I met (Tom) Osborne in his office,” Douglas said. “He said, ‘We’d like to offer you a full-ride scholarship, Donnie.’ I said, ‘I want to talk to my mom and dad and think it over.’ He said, ‘Well, don’t think too long.’

“I don’t think anybody ever said that to him.”

Douglas and his parents, Bud and Melinda, were rookies when it came to the recruiting game, and Don was getting hit from teams around the country.

“My parents never went through anything like that,” Douglas said. “They never knew the process.”

Once Nebraska came calling, so many other schools followed suit.

Don was not even sure how the schools knew about him. When he heard that Morris went to a Nebraska camp the summer before their senior season, he thought that might have played a part.

“I said to Brian, ‘Maybe they were watching film of you and they saw me, too,’” Douglas said. “I’d go to class and they’d come down with a handful of letters for me. It made you feel so good.

“I looked at one letter and it was the Governor of some state. He was trying to get me to play football in his state.”

In 1982, it did not get a whole lot bigger than Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers finished the 1982 season ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press Poll. Osborne’s team was ranked No. 1 throughout the 1983 season before falling to Miami in the Orange Bowl and finishing No. 2.

Nebraska was also ranked No. 1 four times before ending at No. 4 in 1984.

Cornhusker running back Mike Rozier was an All-American in 1982 and 1983. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1983.

“To see a Heisman Trophy winner on the field every day was so cool,” Douglas said. “Two years in a row, we had the Outland winners, who were the best lineman.”

In addition to Rozier, Dave Rimington, Irving Fryar, Dean Steinkuhler and MarkTrynowicz were Consensus All-American teammates of Douglas his days in Nebraska. Fryar caught a touchdown for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

While he never saw much playing time on the varsity, Douglas started on the Nebraska freshman team. He suited up for three bowl games, the Orange Bowl in 1983 and 1984, the Sugar Bowl in 1985.

Douglas, who wore No. 17 for the Bulldogs, donned No. 16 for the Cornhuskers.

“I was very fortunate to go there,” Douglas said. “That whole experience was just incredible. Even to this day, I know what it is like. If I went to Montana Tech or the Griz, I wouldn’t have that experience. It was just awesome.”

Douglas in 1986

Coming home

As big as Nebraska was, choosing to go there over Montana State and, in particular, the University of Montana was a tough call.

Kelly Davis went to MSU to become part of a legendary team.

Instead of being the big fish in a small pond, Douglas shot out for the big time. While he would not trade that experience, it did not quite work out like he wanted.

He went into the spring of 1985 looking to be the starting quarterback for the Cornhuskers. Instead, he found himself trying to battle through an injury and found himself low on a depth chart full of quarterbacks.

In the spring of 1985, Douglas decided it was time to leave the Cornhuskers. He said he did not feel comfortable how things were transpiring in football, and homesickness was calling him back.

He knew he still had coaches willing to welcome him home to Montana. Mike Van Deist and Joe Glenn were assistants to Montana Grizzly coach Larry Donavan in those days.

Glenn went onto become head coach of the Grizzlies a decade and a half later. He also became the head coach at Wyoming and South Dakota before retiring.

Van Diest, of course, went on to win six NAIA national titles as head coach at Carroll College.

Glenn and Van Diest recruited Douglas heavily when he was at Butte High.

“I was so blessed. I had Mike Van Diest and Joe Glenn over almost every weekend talking to me,” Douglas said. The coaches came to town so much, Douglas points out, because Morris and Davis were also top recruits.

“They are the two classiest people,” Douglas said of Van Diest and Glenn. “That was a hard decision, it really was, to go from Glenn and Van Diest to Nebraska. I really bonded with them.”

The coaches even helped Douglas make the decision that meant they lost out on the 1981 unanimous All-State player and Class AA Offensive Player of the Year.

“Glenn went to Nebraska,” Douglas said. “He said, ‘You know Donnie, it’s Nebraska. If I were you, I’d go to Nebraska.’”

They also made it clear that he had landing spot if Nebraska did not work out.

“I knew going to Nebraska was going to be hard. It’s a long shot,” Douglas said. “I always had that comfort because they said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, you’ve got a home here.’”

Douglas decided to transfer to the Grizzlies, even though he was and still is a Bobcats fan.

“I did miss the mountains,” Douglas said. “Looking at the flat horizon will drive you crazy.

“Fortunately for me, Larry Donovan, Joe Glenn, Mike Van Diest and the Griz staff welcomed me back.”

While he was back at home, Douglas was about to learn how unfair NCAA transfer rules could be. Today, a player transferring down from Division I to the Grizzlies could play right away. Or he could enter the Transfer Portal.

Since he only had one year left after a transfer, the options were not nearly as big as the days when schools were beating down his door.

“If they had the Transfer Portal then, he would have probably been picked up in the Big 10,” Davis said.

Instead, Douglas, now more than 200 pound thanks to a strong Nebraska weightlifting program, could only run the scout team and watch in 1985 as the Grizzlies struggled to a 3-8 record.

“I couldn’t play my first year when I transferred back, which absolutely sucked,” Douglas said. “That was just torture.”

That ended up being the end for Donovan and his staff, too. They were all fired as Don Read, a pioneer in the passing game, took over as head coach of the Grizzles.

Obviously, that turned out to be a very good thing for the Grizzlies. It was not, however, necessarily great for Douglas, who lost out to fellow senior Brent Pease in the competition for the starting quarterback job.

Douglas, who got his No. 17 back in Missoula, liked the idea of playing in the offense designed by Read and offensive coordinator Tommy Lee, who later became the head coach at Montana Western.

Read and Lee, however, did not exactly like Douglas’ style. Douglas liked to use that 4.5 speed when a receiver was not open. The new staff liked a quarterback to stay in the pocket and pass.

“I was No. 1,” Douglas said of fall camp. “I was doing really good.”

Then, Douglas said, he and Lee stopped seeing eye to eye.

“He had an issue with me, with the way I was wired,” Douglas said. “If I dropped back and I saw 20 yards of open field, I just took off. I was just wired that way. I would take off, and they would tell me ‘no.’ Even if nobody was open, they wanted me to throw.”

Since big runs were key as Douglas led the Bulldogs past the Maroons and Rustlers in 1981, it was hard for him to stay put.

Late in the camp, I took off running and Lee just went crazy,” Douglas said, adding that Pease picked up the offense faster than he did. “Brent was really smart, and he had a strong arm. They made the decision they were going to start Brent.”

Even when the Grizzles started 1-3, the coaches stuck with Pease, and Douglas’ year with the Grizzlies was spent mostly on the sideline.

UM turned their season around, finishing at 6-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Sky Conference. The Grizzlies were on their way to becoming a national power.

Pease went on to play parts of two seasons for the Houston Oilers in the National Football League.

Douglas’ biggest highlight playing for Montana came in the fourth quarter of the Grizzlies’ 59-28 win over Montana State. It was the first Cat-Griz game in brand-new Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“It was a roll out, and I just took off running,” Douglas said of the 44-yard run.

Davis caught a 38-yard touchdown for the Bobcats, who fell quickly from the top of the mountain in 1984. His score came moments before the Douglas run.

“At the end of the game, Kelly Davis and I met at midfield,” Douglas remembers. “He said, ‘Nice run, Don. That reminded me of that run against CMR.’ Or maybe it was Central.”

Douglas fishes every chance he can get. (Courtesy photo)

A new hope

Douglas, whom McElroy praises for not being a “showboater,” was an only child who comes from humble roots.

“Your personality is different when you’re an only child,” he said. “You really had to have a creative mind. When you don’t have brothers or sisters, you have to invent games by yourself, whether it was throwing the ball on the roof and catching it.”

He says his parents did all they could to help him, on and off the field.

“I owe the most appreciation to my parents for the sacrifices they made that allowed me the opportunities to achieve the success I had in sports and life,” said.

Douglas grew up looking at Bulldogs as role models, and he was the role model for so many more.

If he is ever going to leave the quite life he has built in Kalispell, it will probably be to join the even quitter life of Alaska, where his parents now live.

All three of Douglas’ children are good athletes. We know about Dani. We would probably know a lot more about his oldest daughter, Caitlynn, if she did not blow out her knee playing volleyball in high school.

Caitlynn graduated with a degree in nursing from MSU, and recently got a full-time job in Bozeman.

Don and Christi’s youngest is Beau. He is transferring from Columbia Falls to Kalispell Glacier this school year. He, too, is a quarterback.

“He doesn’t have that blistering speed, but he’s got a really strong arm,” Douglas said. “And he’s really smart.”

Douglas is really happy with the idea of Beau playing for head coach Grady Bennett, himself a former Grizzly quarterback.

He likes that his son is getting the kind of weight training that Douglas did not get until he went to college.

He really likes the idea of Glacier playing Butte High at Naranche Stadium this fall, if the season is indeed played during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m so excited,” Douglas said. “I hope Beau will be suited out and on the sideline of Naranche.”

He will even be happy if his son’s team can beat his old team in his old stomping grounds.

He will even be OK if many Bulldog fans do not make the connection between the young member of the Wolfpack and the Butte High legend.

Don Douglas is perfectly OK if history remembers him as Beau Douglas’ father.

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  • Doug Richards
    August 9, 2020, 11:17 am

    Great memories! It was incredible being part of that bulldog championship year!


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