By Jon Kasper, Big Sky Conference
A dynasty began with the moving of earth in September of 1985.
If you want to see the moment when the fortunes of the University of Montana football program changed, then start up the DeLorean, adjust the time circuits, fire up the flux capacitor and return to the base of Hellgate Canyon in Missoula, Montana on that significant date.
You’ll see construction workers, tractors, and a whole lot of dirt. The workforce likely had no idea the impact that project would have on the state of Montana, the Big Sky Conference, and the FCS world. Washington-Grizzly Stadium changed it all.
While the stadium isn’t solely responsible for the success of Grizzly football, it has served as the foundation of a football kingdom. Top recruits arrived, wins came in droves, and fans flocked. What opened as a 12,000-seat venue can now accommodate more than 26,000. The game-day atmosphere and raucous fans have built a national reputation, one that is the envy of nearly all FCS and many FBS fan bases.
Since Washington-Grizzly Stadium played host to its first game in October of 1986, Montana has won two FCS national championships, 15 Big Sky Championships, qualified for the playoffs 20 times, and appeared in seven national championship games.
“It brought life to the place, and people believed it could be done,” said Bobby Hauck, who was Montana’s head coach from 2003-09. “When we were there, they expanded the stadium twice. Getting that stadium built, and coach (Don) Read coming in kick started the thing.”
The Grizzlies enjoyed 26 consecutive winning seasons from 1986-2011, and have compiled an overall record of 270-91 and a conference record of 168-45 from 1986-2013. UM advanced to the playoffs a record 17 consecutive seasons from 1993-2009, and won or shared 12 straight Big Sky titles from 1998-2009. Montana’s 119 victories from 2000-09 led all Division I teams in the decade.
Montana’s football juggernaut ranks No. 1 on the Big Sky Conference’s list of “50 Greatest Moments.”
Before Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Montana was far from a football powerhouse. It captured just two co-Big Sky titles from 1971-85 and amassed a 66-94-2 record with just three winning seasons. Home was Dornblaser Stadium, located south of the main campus. It opened in 1968 as a “temporary venue” until a new stadium could be funded.
“It was an embarrassment,” said Joe Glenn, who served as an assistant at Montana from 1980-85 and returned as the head coach from 2000-02. “People would come to games and leave with green paint on them from the bleachers. It wasn’t a college football stadium. It didn’t have it. It did motivate us to drive hard for a new stadium, and I give Larry Donovan a lot of credit for that.”
Donovan might not have been the most popular figure in Grizzly history, but the man who served as the head coach from 1980-85 did what he could to make sure that the drawings of a proposed on-campus stadium became a reality. Donovan befriended Missoula billionaire Dennis Washington and his wife Phyllis. Washington donated $1 million toward construction costs. The rest of the stadium’s $3.2 million price tag was funded by a capital campaign.
“It became a recruiting boon to Missoula,” said Glenn, now the head coach at South Dakota. “It was a great move to put it right at the base of Mount Sentinel, right in front of the Hellgate Canyon. It just worked out to be such a tremendous shot in the arm. I’ve always given Larry all the credit. He got Dennis and Phyllis tied in.”
The 12,000-seat stadium with 39 luxury suites opened on Oct. 18, 1986, and the Grizzlies christened their new home by rallying for a 38-31 victory over Idaho State. It was the first of 176 victories to date against only 26 losses.
Read, a former head coach at Oregon and Portland State, was hired prior to the 1986 season to resurrect the program. “Papa Bear” did more than that, installing an exciting, innovative pass-heavy offense that thrilled fans and enticed recruits. Montana became a Big Sky and national power under Read’s watch.
“Montana was a sleeping giant as I saw it,” said Read, now retired and living in Oregon. “Football in the state of Montana was good. We needed to recruit Montana, and we also did bring in a lot of Oregon kids. To build a program, the nucleus needed to be Montana kids. We had to be dominant in the state of Montana. Montana State had been dominating the state.”
Read and his staff combed the state in three vans, visiting high schools from Kalispell to Sidney, selling the stadium and his program, and encouraging coaches to bring their athletes to camp in Missoula.
“I didn’t hit every high school in the state, but the ones I didn’t hit I can count on one hand,” Read said.
A nucleus of home-grown talent has remained a key philosophy from Read to the current coach Mick Delaney. Treasure State natives like Tim Hauck (Big Timber), Marc Mariani (Havre), and Colt Anderson (Butte) arrived as walk-ons, became All-Americans, and landed in the National Football League.
The significant number of locals helped build and expand the fan base. It’s not unusual for families to drive 500 to 700 miles from places like Plentywood or Baker to watch the Grizzlies. Almost every game for the past 15 years has been televised throughout the state.
“One thing that is different than a lot of other programs is it is like a community,” said Dave Dickenson, who quarterbacked the Griz from 1993-95. “The football team is another form of the identity. The community felt like they owned the team. They supported us. It felt like it had a small-town feel, everyone was your family or your friend. Everyone had a little piece of the team.”
Montana made the playoffs in 1988, losing to conference rival Idaho in the first round. In 1989, Washington-Grizzly Stadium hosted a playoff game for the first time. Montana used homefield advantage to beat Jackson State and Eastern Illinois before falling at Georgia Southern in the program’s first ever appearance in the I-AA semifinals.
Dickenson, from Great Falls took the wheel in 1993 and led the program to greater heights. In 1993, Dickenson guided Montana to its first outright Big Sky Championship since 1970. UM advanced to the semifinals in 1994, and in 1995 captured the program’s first national championship, beating Marshall 22-20 in Huntington, WV.
Dickenson won the Walter Payton Award, capping a record-setting career highlighted by three consecutive Big Sky MVP awards, and numerous All-America honors. Passing games of 400-plus yards were routine as the 5-foot-11, Academic All-American dissected defenses with Read’s “Air Bear” offense.
“Myself and the other coaches we had on staff, we were all well versed in throwing the football,” Read said. “We were a pretty well-organized group of guys who believed you could win by throwing the football. The final thing about throwing the football is the fans can be entertained. The ball goes up and down the field. A battle in the middle of the field is not as exciting. The situation was right, and we had the coaches in place, and the facility to do all of those things.”
Read went out on top, retiring following the national championship. He coached 10 straight winning seasons and was victorious a school-record 85 times. Mick Dennehy, the offensive coordinator, was handed the keys and led UM to 14 straight victories and a return to the national championship game in 1996.
Dennehy left for Utah State after three playoff seasons. Glenn, who guided Northern Colorado to back-to-back Division II national championships, then coached three highly-successful years. He won 39 of 45 games, captured the national championship in 2001 and made the title game in 2000. From 2001-02, his team tied the national FCS record with a 24-game winning streak.
“I embraced the pressure,” Glenn said. “I was so thankful to Mick Dennehy for the team that he handed us. I told him after we left that he handed us a championship team. Sometimes you get the keys to a new car, and you have to make sure you don’t wreck it. We didn’t wreck it. That’s a lot of pressure, but I’d rather have that than having to turn the whole thing around when it bottoms out. I was one of several coaches who got fired there in 1985.”
Montana kept winning under Hauck, who arrived after Glenn left for Wyoming. Hauck, who started his coaching career under Read, led Montana to national championship appearances in 2004, 2008 and 2009. From 2006-09, Hauck’s teams won 31 of 32 conference games.
By this time, expansions to Washington-Grizzly Stadium had brought capacity to more than 25,000. Attendance often times exceeds capacity. The program bore little resemblance to the one Hauck witnessed when he began coaching in the late 1980s.
“It was like two different worlds,” Hauck said. “The only thing consistent was that people cared, but they care more now. I was just blown away as it got bigger and bigger. It’s the focal point of the state. Within the confines of the state, college football is no bigger anywhere. There is no more pressure on a coach anywhere. You either have to embrace that or you are doomed, so we embraced it.”
Many today in “Griz Nation” have no recollection of the dismal days at Dornblaser, or appreciate the tireless work by past head coaches, university presidents, and athletic directors such as Harley Lewis, Bill Moos, Wayne Hogan and Jim O’Day, who all helped build and maintain the dynasty for nearly 30 years. They assume it’s always been this way, and always will.
“I was blessed with two outstanding presidents that were athletic-minded in a sense,” Read said. “They knew the value of athletics and supported us the best they could financially. I was fortunate to have great people above me. Harley Lewis was a really good man. You can’t build something unless you have the tools and means from the top. We had great fans, and great media and alumni support.”
The expectations by the fan base today can sometimes border on unrealistic. Recently, there have been bumps in the road. A 2011 Big Sky Championship and trip to the national semifinals were erased by NCAA sanctions. The 2012 team finished with a 5-6 record. But in 2013, Delaney’s club returned to the playoffs and won 10 games.
“Winning just doesn’t happen because you have a Grizzly uniform on,” Glenn said. “The players have such a ‘never-say-die’ attitude, and it’s part of the program. They find a way to win. Every coach has left the program as good as or better than they found it. I don’t think anyone ever dropped the ball. There is a blueprint there for recruiting. The townspeople really bought in and the momentum built. A lot of people had a hand in building the program.”