I was extremely saddened when I received word while on the road last week of the passing of iconic University of Montana Griz supporter Bob O’Conner.
But he meant far more to Missoula and Montana than being a diehard Griz fan.
His influence was not only felt on the UM campus, where he will be most remembered for loading parking signs in his old station wagon hours before an event to make sure fans could easily find their way.
My game days often began with a wave from Mr. O, who always greeted me with an enthusiastic “Hey Mick.”
That was often followed with his evaluation of how a team or a player was performing and usually a couple of words of advice or even a question for the coaching staff as I headed into the pre-game interview.
He was the first person to grab my arm at the opening reception and introduction of the 1986 Lady Griz team, saying, “You’re the Voice of the Lady Griz, now get out there and meet these people,” as he ushered me through the throng of people at the Holiday Inn.
That was my introduction to a 27-year friendship with Bob, who lived every bit of his 90 years, the majority of which he shared with his wife, Adeline. They were inseparable until her 2008 death.
Mr. O was a perceptive, competitive and fiery Missoula little league baseball coach who fostered a plethora of aspiring major leaguers through the ranks of the Mount Sentinel and All-Star programs.
When I was chairman of the Missoula Maverick American Legion board in the 1980s, Mr. O and I had spirited conversations about whether 14-year-olds, like future professional baseball player Jason Shanahan, should be allowed to leave the little league ranks to play at a higher level of competition.
And when I moved to the men’s sports broadcast side in 1993, he often chided me for being a traitor to the women’s program.
Mr. O was a vital part of the “Copper Connection” Lady Griz booster club in those early years when the women’s athletic budget lagged far behind and could not have survived without his and many others’ fundraising assistance.
For many years he spearheaded the cleaning of Washington-Grizzly Stadium after football games, with the proceeds going to the little leaguers.
A past winner of the Ray Rocene Award, presented yearly by the Missoula Athletic Council to Missoula’s top sports volunteer, Bob was a vocal member of the Honor Court that chooses the recipient.
Just last spring, along with Erwin Byrnes, he advocated strongly for a coach he didn’t think was given strong enough consideration. And you could have heard a pin drop, as Mr. O knew how to hold the group’s attention.
I was fortunate enough to sit next to Mr. O at the men’s and women’s basketball scrimmages in October. The conversation was cheerful as he recounted to a friend how the two of us became acquainted.
People like Mr. O represent the sheer fabric of University of Montana athletics and I am so pleased I was able to spend a couple of more hours in his counsel.
Sports legend, iconic fixture: That just doesn’t go far enough to describe Mr. O.
He was just a fine person and I count my blessings for being lucky enough to be among the thousands who called him their friend.
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