Is it possible that a high school team can be considered great if it did not win a state championship?
That is a rhetorical question I have been asking myself in these days of coronavirus isolation. In the absence of spring sports, I have been thinking about football and basketball.
I have been thinking from my prospective as executive director of the Butte Sports Hall of Fame and as a sports junkie.
The answer to that question, of course, is yes. A team can certainly be great without winning a state title.
The first one that jumps to my mind is the 2019 Butte High football team. While the Bulldogs fell in the title game to Bozeman, there is no way a sane person could saddle that team with an adjective that is anything less than great.
Surely, the thousands and thousands of people who packed Naranche Stadium for eight magical Friday nights last fall will certainly agree with that.
The 1988-89 Butte High boys’ basketball team is another that earned the “great” title without winning a state championship.
Those Bulldogs, led by Gary Kane, Todd Ericson and Jasson McNallie, took a 21-0 record into the state championship game in Billings, where they were upset 53-50 by Kalispell Flathead. Butte High beat the Braves twice in the regular season and again in the Western AA Divisional championship game that year, but Kalispell took home the title.
The 1988-89 Bulldogs’ 21-1 record is still the best in school history, slightly above the 21-2 mark of the 1989-90 Bulldogs, who also placed second at state.
Are those two Butte High teams great, even though they lost in the championship game? That is a silly question.
Ask any member of Butte Central’s 1989-90 Class A state runner-up squad about Curtis Smith and the boys. Those Bulldogs beat the Maroons 67-36, and it could have been much worse.
Sometimes, you just do not get the breaks. Ask Tom Brady and the 2007 Patriots, who came one Giant loss away from a 19-0 season, if that is the case.
Longtime Butte High wrestling coach Jim Street once told me that he thinks his 1992-93 team might be the best one he ever coached.
Those Bulldogs, however, were Street’s first team that did not win the state title since 1979. Instead, Butte High finished a heartbreaking second, and that haunts the wrestlers on that team to this day.
Another great squad worth mentioning is the 1987 Butte High football team.
Those Bulldogs, led by the likes of Randy Street, Lance Allen, Chad Lempke and Ericson, went 10-2. They avenged a loss to Helena High in the playoffs, but fell 14-12 to Helena Capital in the championship game at what was then called East Jr. High Stadium.
In his game, “Butte’s Big Game: Butte Central vs. Butte High,” the late Pat Kearney referred to the 1987 Bulldogs as an “offensive force.” The team rolled up 338 points, which was second only to the 460 scored by the 1923 Bulldogs (more on them later).
Here’s another question. Even if every rational sports fan agrees that the team earned the “great” label, is it a team worthy of induction into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame?
Be careful, that question might get you punched in the face.
Shortly after becoming the executive director of the Hall in June of 2016, I realized what an explosive question this is.
The majority side against the team without a title, and they are unyielding. The minority is just as adamant.
Lowering the standards of the Hall of Fame and admitting a team that did not win it all would be insulting to the champions who did. I have heard those words a thousand times in less than four years.
While I disagree with that sentiment, I also appreciate their passion in wanting to protect the integrity of the Butte Sports Hall of Fame.
There is a ton of that passion, too. I have had people on both sides of the debate threaten to boycott the Hall of Fame forever if the 1989 team is ever admitted. I have people threaten to do the same if they are not.
Another lightning rod is the 1970 Butte Central football team.
Those Maroons finished the season at 7-1, and their lone defeat was an upset loss to the Hawks on a muddy Bozeman field. That one loss dropped the Maroons into a three-way tie with Bozeman and Billings Central for the Southern A title.
A tiebreaker sent Billings Central to the title game, where the Rams lost to Havre.
Even though Buddy Walsh, Bernie Brophy, Bert Markovich and the rest of the Maroons beat both championship game participants in the regular season, they were left of the title game back in the days when there were no playoffs.
So far, those Maroons have also been left out of the Hall of Fame.
The 2014 Maroons were beat by one point — thanks to an amazing catch on a 2-point conversion — by Dillon in the championship game. Were they less than great because they did not win the school’s first state title since 1973?
Get out of here.
The same goes with the 1992 runner-up Maroons.
The 1923 Butte High Bulldogs are another team missing rings, but Kearney, Butte’s foremost sports historian and co-founder of the Butte Sports Hall of Fame, called them “a team for the ages” in a Butte Sports column in September of 2012.
Kearney’s column followed Butte High’s record-setting offensive performance in a shootout loss at Billings Skyview during Week 2 of the Bulldogs’ run to their first state title since 1991.
Butte High piled up 703 yards of total offense in that 55-48 defeat. That broke the 1923 team record of 673 yards set in a 96-0 win over Whitehall.
Clearly ahead of their times offensively under second-year head coach Swede Dahlberg, the 1923 Bulldogs saw their record stand up for 89 years.
Later in 2012, the Bulldogs broke the 1923 record of 460 points in a season. The 2012 Bulldogs scored 530 points, and that record held up until Tommy Mellott and Kameron Moreno led the Bulldogs to 538 points in 2019.
It should be noted that the 1923 Bulldogs only played nine games, going 8-1. They averaged 51.1 points per game, which edged the 2019 Bulldogs’ 44.8 by a touchdown.
The 1916 Bulldogs, who scored 320 points while going 5-0-1, still hold the top average in school history with 53.3 points per game.
Jim Bertoglio, a 1923 star whose six touchdowns against Deer Lodge is tied for most in school history with Dallas Cook (2013) and John Herzog (1954), scored 20 touchdowns to lead the Bulldogs in 1923. Ralph Olson scored 15 that year.
Butte High, though, suffered an upset loss to Anaconda, of all teams, and the Bulldogs missed out on a chance to play in the state championship game.
“It has to be considered one of the biggest upsets and disappointments in the history of Butte High football,” Kearney wrote, pointing out that it took an incredible performance by the 2012 Bulldogs to shine the light on just how good the 1923 club was.
“They have to be considered the best team at Butte High who never won the ultimate prize: the state championship,” Kearney wrote.
In 1993, nearly 70 years after their heartbreaking loss to Anaconda, the 1923 Butte High team joined the Butte Sports Hall of Fame, and no one was insulted.
It is hard to say if the Bulldogs of 1987, 1989 or 2019 or Maroons of 1970, 1992 or 2014 will ever get the call to the Hall of Fame.
All I know is I might get punched in the face for bringing them up.
— Bill Foley, who has never lost a championship game, writes a column that usually appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.