MISSOULA — Over nearly four decades he’s watched Montana transform from a basketball school to one crazy about football. He’s witnessed the explosion of collegiate women’s sports. And he’s been courtside and in the press box while following the likes of Griz legends Dave Dickenson, Shannon Cate and Larry Krystkowiak.
Starting next fall he’ll see it all from a brand-new perspective: the bleachers.
Dave Guffey, who next month will start his 37th year as Montana’s sports information director, decided recently that will retire next June 30.
“It’s been a great run, but it’s time. I’ve been fortunate to be here as long as I have and to be around a lot of great people. It’s been very rewarding,” says Guffey, who started in October 1978, seven months after Micheal Ray Richardson played his final game in a Griz uniform.
“It’s going to be really weird and kind of scary, because it’s been such a big part of my life for so long. I’m looking forward to having my falls off and being able to do what I want to do. That will still mean going to Griz games, that will never change, but now as just a fan.”
Guffey has watched 439 of Montana’s last 442 football games, from the days the Grizzlies struggled to outdraw the men’s basketball team at Dornblaser Stadium to the I-AA/FCS dynasty that emerged with the on-campus construction of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Some perspective: He hasn’t missed a Griz football game since the third year of the Don Read era.
“I’ve missed three football games in my tenure. Two for the birth of my sons, and my wife’s brother had the audacity to get married during the football season,” Guffey says, feigning disgust.
“I’ve seen all 52 playoff games and seven national championships. I’d say I’ve been pretty lucky. Not too many SIDs can claim that.”
Guffey arrived in Missoula when Montana was mad about basketball, and football was mostly something to do in the fall until the winter sports season arrived. If football even registered at all.
In Guffey’s first abbreviated football season, in the fall of 1978, the Grizzlies opened with a 23-12 home loss to the University of Puget Sound and ended their home schedule drawing 1,001 fans to watch a victory over Northern Colorado.
The Griz basketball team that winter averaged 7,658 fans over 14 home dates.
The dynamics of the teams Guffey primarily has covered for the sports information office since 1978 have changed considerably, but their SID has remained a constant.
“You think of the history Dave has witnessed over the years, and it’s really remarkable,” says UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam, the ninth AD under which Guffey has worked.
“He’s seen the growth of Montana from a regional university to one that now has a nationally recognized athletics program. He saw where football started and what it’s become today. He’s seen what Robin Selvig has done with the Lady Griz from day one.
“He’s been a witness to all of it and holds a lot of knowledge of this place. That’s very valuable, so we look forward to keeping Dave engaged in what we do here, even in retirement.”
In Guffey’s first week on the job, Montana hosted Idaho at Dornblaser Stadium and lost 34-30. Three weeks later a 3-5 Montana team hosted 7-1 Montana State. The Griz won 24-8.
“I remember going out on the town that night, and it was crazy,” says Guffey. “Everyone was elated we beat the Cats. That’s when I figured out the rivalry was a pretty big deal.”
In his first eight years on the job, Guffey publicized a football team that had just one winning record — 7-3 in 1981. Enter Don Read in 1986, and Montana would not have a losing record until 2012. Postseason appearances became the norm, then the expectation of Griz Nation.
Guffey worked alongside Griz coaches Gene Carlson (1976-79) and Larry Donovan (1980-85), then with Read (1986-95), Mick Dennehy (1996-99), Joe Glenn (2000-02), Bobby Hauck (2003-09), Robin Pflugrad (2010-11) and now Mick Delaney.
Read led Montana to the 1995 I-AA national championship, Glenn to the 2001 title.
“To have only six football coaches since 1986 tells you everything you need to know about the success of the program. Don Read got it going, and it’s still going,” says Guffey. “To average 25,000 per game in a town of 70,000 is pretty amazing.”
Guffey’s first basketball season, 1978-79, coincided with the start of Mike Montgomery’s eight-year run leading the Grizzlies.
Montgomery, who retired last spring following a stellar coaching career that concluded at California, led Montana to eight straight winning seasons, with at least 21 victories in each of his final four years, but he never got his team to the NCAA tournament.
Whether it was Idaho, Nevada, Boise State, Montana State or Weber State, there was always a Big Sky tournament stumbling block.
That all changed for the Grizzlies in 1990-91, in Stew Morrill’s fifth and final year at UM after replacing Montgomery. Montana won the regular-season title by a game over Nevada, then hosted the tournament and defeated Idaho in the championship game behind tournament MVP Kevin Kearney.
That’s the first memory that flashes to mind when Guffey is asked about his favorite moments from over the years.
“We’d done well under Mike Montgomery but had never made it to the NCAAs,” he says. “When we finally won the league tournament and made the NCAAs, that was a really big deal at the time.”
Guffey’s other two memorable moments are from football, not surprising given the rise and continued success of the program and the statewide devotion it’s developed. One highlights the team’s emergence as a conference force, the other as a national power.
In 1993 Montana traveled to Idaho for the penultimate game of the regular season. A Big Sky Conference title was on the line. The result: a 54-34 Montana victory that helped the Grizzlies win their first outright Big Sky title since 1970.
Two year later Montana won its first national championship, 22-20 at Marshall. Or what Guffey likes to think could have been title No. 3.
“I think we could have won three straight national championships in football, in 1993, ’94 and ’95,” he says. “We lost 49-48 to Delaware in 1993, and if Dave Dickenson had been healthy in 1994 we could have beat (eventual national champion) Youngstown State in the semifinals.”
All the memories come easily and off the cuff, an encyclopedic memory of all things Grizzly. It’s a reminder of what will be lost when the SID decamps next summer. He’s not leaving Missoula, though, so maybe a resource not so much lost as less easy for people to find.
When Guffey first sat down at his desk in 1978, his primary piece of equipment was a manual typewriter. His basketball statistics crew was manned by eight people, and photographs required a time-intensive process to go from shooting to having an actual print in hand.
The fax machine was a big enough advancement. Had he been able to look ahead to 2014 in his early years, it’s doubtful he would have believed it.
Today he sits at his computer, every school’s roster and statistics only a few clicks away. Nearby sits a smartphone. The basketball stat crew? Now down to just two people, with neither one holding a pencil. And everyone’s a photographer, with images available in the time it takes to snap your fingers.
“A lot of people who got into this business when I did were sportswriters, and the profession has changed dramatically since then. It’s night and day,” says Guffey, who worked at the Fresno Bee and in the sports information office at Fresno State before he was hired at Montana.
“It’s been a challenge to keep up with all the recent technical advances, but I’ve done my best.”
Guffey’s next challenge: learning a skill that’s a little less stressful and practiced in a more peaceful setting than an athletics department. “My goal is to become a proficient fly-fisherman. I’ll admit, I’m not very good,” he says. All he needs is time.
A national search to find Guffey’s replacement will commence in early 2015.
— Montana Sports Information