Nobody was tougher to buy a Christmas present for than my grandpa Bill.
Every year I tried to get him something that he would like, and every year he found something wrong with the present.
The author of the book I bought him was full of it. The sweatshirt was not his style. He did not like the candy.
I think he saw it as a competition, and he enjoyed his victories. Even if he liked the present, he would smile and let me believe that he did not.
One year, though, I beat him with a Lady Griz hat.
The guy who never wore a hat inside, suddenly could not take his favorite present off his head. He wore it all night on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas Day.
He wore it every day after the holidays.
The only hat he liked as much was his USS Rudyerd Bay cap that proudly displayed his World War II aircraft carrier.
My grandpa loved the University of Montana women’s basketball team like nobody else, though he cheered them on from afar.
He liked the Grizzlies in football and men’s basketball, too, but they were way behind Robin Selvig’s Lady Griz.
Grandpa Bill talked about Selvig’s teams like my grandpa Jerry talked about the Murderers’ Row Yankees of 1920s.
The great Shannon Cate was the Babe Ruth of those Selvig teams. She was also the Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
She was by far my grandpa’s favorite player on his favorite team because she was by far the greatest.
Actually, “great” is not a strong enough adjective for the best Grizzly of my lifetime. The only other Grizzly athlete of the last 40 years who can compare to Cate is Dave Dickenson.
She was simply that extraordinary.
In four remarkable years with the Grizzlies, Cate scored 2,172 points. She averaged 18.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game for her career.
During her senior season of 1991-92, she became the Big Sky Conference’s only first-team Kodak All-American.
Like with Dickenson, Cate’s number (21) was retired when her playing career came to an end. She entered the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
Cate led the Grizzlies to the NCAA Tournament four times. In those four seasons, the Grizzlies posted a record of 103-18.
Those numbers, awards and honors, however, do not even begin to tell the story of Shannon Cate.
While the name Lady Griz became so ingrained with the University of Montana women’s basketball team during Selvig’s incredible run, when Cate played it was not women’s basketball.
It was just basketball.
The Billings native revolutionized the women’s game, and she inspired a generation of players who took it to the next level.
Every girl with a basketball in the state wanted to be Shannon Cate. They wanted to play like her, and they wanted to look like her.
Even Cate’s teammates seemed to strive for her look. It seemed like every player on the team had blond hair and a fake tan that would make Donald Trump jealous.
When watching a Lady Griz game on television — back in the days when 52-inch, high-definition televisions did not adorn every living room — it was actually hard to tell which player was Shannon Cate.
Well, you could not tell which one was her until Cate touched the ball. Then it was obvious.
Cate was the best player on the floor, no matter the Grizzly opponent. Even when she played through a bad shoulder injury in an NCAA Tournament game at USC, Cate stood out.
After leaving the Grizzlies, Cate played briefly overseas before returning to Missoula to coach on Selvig’s staff. The WNBA started five years after Cate graduated, otherwise she would have been a first-round pick.
As a reporter for The Montana Kaimin, the University of Montana’s student newspaper, I was given the choice to cover the men’s or women’s basketball team, and it was a no brainer.
Thanks to all those talks with my grandpa, the Lady Griz were a way bigger deal than the men, even though it was several years after Cate played.
In that role, I got the chance to have a few short conversations with Cate, who was Shannon Schweyen by then. She married Montana State All-American track star Brian Schweyen.
If she remembers any of those conversations, it is only because I was a starstruck, bumbling fool when I talked to her. Every conversation turned into the Chris Farley Show.
“You, you re, re, remember that time when you played in the NCAA Tournament? That was awesome.”
After the first time I talked to her, I went back to my dorm room and called my grandpa.
“Hey, guess who I just talked to …”
A couple years later, I took my grandpa on an unauthorized tour of the Adams Fieldhouse. (It was before the building was renovated into the Adams Center).
As we walked through the lobby, Robin Selvig unexpectedly came walking out of a doorway.
“Coach Selvig,” I said. “I’d like to introduce you to my grandpa, Bill Foley.”
My grandpa tipped his cap with his left hand as he shook hands with Selvig.
“It is an honor to meet you,” he told the coach.
As we walked away, my grandpa compared the meeting to the time my grandma, a devote Democrat, shook hands with Bobby Kennedy.
I can only imagine how he would have reacted if Cate would have walked into the lobby, too.
After 24 years coaching on Selvig’s staff, the legendary player took on the impossible job of replacing the legendary coach.
While she was the obvious choice to succeed Selvig, it was still an impossible task for any coach. Those shoes were just too big to fill.
Things did not go great for Schweyen as a head coach. The Grizzlies went 7-23 in her first year.
Montana rebounded to go 14-17 in her second year, before going 14-16 in her third. This past season, the Grizzlies went 17-13.
Wednesday night, news broke that the Grizzlies were not bringing back Schweyen for a fifth season. A career that spanned 32 years as a player, assistant coach and head coach is over.
At 52-69 in four injury-riddled seasons, Schweyen’s Grizzlies did not win enough games. The coach also saw some players transfer to other teams.
I am not one to say if Schweyen should stay or she should go. I am too busy covering the teams in Butte during the basketball season to pay enough attention to the Grizzlies.
I just know that the news was shocking. It would be like Indiana State firing Larry Bird. Or Babe Ruth getting kicked out of Yankee Stadium.
Five years ago, my grandpa Bill passed away. The No. 1 fan of the Lady Griz was 89.
Not a day goes by that I do not miss my grandpa. I miss his advice. I miss his World War II stories. I miss him talking about the Lady Griz.
When I saw what the University of Montana did to its greatest Grizzly, though, I was really glad I did not have to see my grandpa to break the news.
It would have killed him.
— Bill Foley, who often sounds like the Chris Farley Show, writes a column that usually appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. He plans to write more frequently during the coronavirus lockdown. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. 2 comments