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Happy Birthday Washington Grizzly
I saw her as a new born, took her through her infancy, shared moments during her adolescence and teen years and today mark her quarter-century presence.
And having worked during every football game at Washington Grizzly Stadium since 1986, I think I am entitled to share a unique view of what the lady has meant to Grizzly football.
Proposed some 10 years before it was constructed, the stadium reached fruition not for the start of the 1986 home campaign but for the second game of the Big Sky Conference season against charter Big Sky Conference member Idaho State.
And when the Grizzlies, who were destined to win just three league games, came from behind to upend the Bengals who were on the tail end of prominence after winning the national championship in 1981, the die was cast.
The Grizzlies next doubled the Cats in Missoula 59-28 and after losing at home to Idaho swept to road wins over Weber State and again over Idaho State and Portland State to secure the first winning season in five years and only the third winning campaign since 1975.
Don Read had come to the helm of the program after the departure of Coach Larry Donovan, whose Insight largely brought the stadium project to fruition, and there has not been another losing campaign, an amazing and a taken-for-granted string of 26 years.
The losses at Washington Grizzly in 1986 are but two of the 21 times the Grizzlies football teams have sustained disappointment in Missoula where Montana teams now are inching toward a 90 percent success rate.
Of course the facility the Grizzlies play in today is vastly different than that day in 1986 when a Brent Pease-led team came down the west tunnel from the locker room for the first time.
Under Pease, who now is the offensive coordinator at Boise State, the Grizzlies led the league in passing offense and finished third behind Reno and Weber state in total offense with all-purpose performer Mike Rice totaling more than 1,000 yards in receiving and scoring 13 TDs while also averaging almost 41 yards per punt.
That Bengal team featured Merril Hoge, who went on to an outstanding NFL career and now is a lead pro broadcaster, but in 86 he led the circuit in all-purpose yards as a rusher, pass receiver and kick returner, just 13 yards a game ahead of Rice.
I remember being so proud that the stadium seated 14,089 and that finally recruits could be taken to the facility rather than being told on their visit that the Grizzlies played their games off campus.
Now I’m disappointed in less than 27,000 are in attendance and it seems every game’s attendance stands in the top 10 all-time.
And from the get-go, with fans right on top of the action and the facility built into a bowl, you just knew how loud the place was going to play and play it did.
Construction never would have been possible without the $1 million naming-rights contribution of Dennis and Phyllis Washington, at that time the largest corporate contribution in state history,
I’m often asked, especially leading up to the anniversary, about my favorite stadium moments and I’ll admit to hedging because it is difficult they are difficult to distinguish.
Jimmy Farris hauling down a winning overtime reception in the snow jumps out as does Greg Nygren’s ride down the east sidelines after a goal line interception and of course Damon Parker being pitched the football by CFL all-pro Ricky Ray for a winning score against Sacramento State all have their place in history.
The night playoff games hold special significance and what about the scene against Appalachian State. And who could forget the Rolling Stones Concert?
The years all run together but your favorites are more important and I fully realize if I gave it further thought there were probably others more significant.
But it’s the people I’ve had the privilege to work with that I cherish the most: from the guy cleaning the bathrooms, to the volunteers super-cleaning the stadium to the parking attendants to the ticket takers and of course all press box personnel, including Al Manuel for whom the facility is named.
And kudos to all those guys who once wore Copper but now are adorned in Maroon who cherished the tradition of winning football and made sure the significance was passed through the generations.
Our lady needs some sprucing to again wear the crown she so richly deserves but 25 years ago Washington Grizzly Stadium set the bar high for other to follow.
And I’m proud to say I’ve held her hand through it all.
By Mick Holien, Missoulian