Beating the Grizzlies is a Season Maker

By Beacon Staff

The University of Montana football program is the Tiger Woods of the Big Sky Conference.

When it’s time to close the deal, when the goods are on the line, somehow the league trophy, or in some cases at least a piece of it, end up in the trophy case in Missoula.

Now granted this would have been a better column had Tiger won at the PGA recently and not gone down at the hands of the cool demeanor of Y.E. Yang.

But I guess that should bolster the hopes of the other eight teams in the league that every streak ends some day.

But when you combine unrealistic expectations and wearing a weekly bull’s eye on their chest, much to the chagrin of the rest of the league where coaches and players continue to come and go, the Grizzlies continue to prevail.

Mark my words: There is not an opponent who doesn’t circle the Montana game on its schedule as a key point to measuring the success of the program.

When Jerry Glanville came to Portland State two seasons back he spent part of every week prepping the Montana matchup. This year he tells us not so much. We’ll see.

My good friend, former Griz coach Jerome Souers, has never beaten the Grizzlies in his 10 years at the helm at Northern Arizona and several times Montana has gone to J.Lawrence Walkup Skydome with both teams undefeated and highly ranked and dominated the Lumberjacks. Mark my words, nothing bothers Souers more.

Every Saturday the team that is matching up with Montana – whether they admit it or not – is poised to play its best game of the season. Beating the Grizzlies is a season maker.

If there is an injured player, you can bet he’ll work his hardest to be ready for the Montana game. If there is a suspended player, you also can be sure if it all possible he won’t be in street clothes come the Grizzly matchup.

I wouldn’t want any opponent to feel differently about playing the Grizzlies. Bring your best and leave it all on the field. There’s nothing better than putting the hype and bravado aside and facing off in any forum of competition.

There has been several season when an upstart program – what I’ve always referred to as a “pretender” to the crown – could have and, in some instances, should have done just what Y.E. Yang did: slam the door and close the deal.

It was 12 years ago when Mike Kramer’s Eastern Washington team dominated the line of scrimmage and slipped past the Grizzlies 40-35 at Washington Grizzly Stadium to claim the title. While the Griz have shared four league crowns since then, no other team’s name is engraved alone on that league trophy.

Some teams fold late in the season; don’t close out the deal when they have the Griz down late in the game; make a bonehead play like Sacramento State’s Ricky Ray’s pitch that was corralled by Damon Parker in the waning stages of a game in 2000.

There are blocked field goals to preserve victory, late field goals for wins, all contributing to what only can be explained by preparation meeting opportunity equals success.

In the last 11 years, Montana has claimed 104 league wins against just 16 losses, a mark that’s not even been approached in league history.

They’ve advanced to the playoffs an NCAA-record 16 years in a row and played in the National Championship game six times in the last 14 seasons. No FCS team has been to the playoffs more often than Montana, which made the field for a record 19th time in 2008.

Now the naysayers can play down the Griz dominance by pointing to the perceived weakness of the Big Sky Conference. There’s no doubt the league is not as strong as when Boise State, Reno and Idaho were members, but how would you like to be cheering for those Vandals, or Utah State, or even Wyoming and a myriad other cellar dwellers. For every success of a move up, there’s a corresponding failure.

They will be a day when the WAC comes calling, as they did a couple of years ago, and there will be a day when the Grizzlies will play at another level than FCS football. But for now that throng that makes those at Washington Grizzly Stadium sit back – no, better yet, stand up and scream – and enjoy what you have.

And cheer up Big Sky Conference teams: Montana’s string of league championships, which is exceeded only by Oklahoma’s 12-year dominance on the Big 7 Conference from 1948 to 1959, will end some time.

It just won’t happen in 2009.