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COLUMN: Highlighting a not very long ago era

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | September 1, 2021 9:25 PM

It has been 20 years since the Montana Grizzlies won the Football Championship Subdivision title, and that’s a decent interval even if, at least for me, it has gone by in a blink.

The approach of the Grizzlies’ first fall football game of 2021, at the home of Pac-12 power Washington this Saturday, gave Montana coach Bobby Hauck cause to revisit something else from two decades past — his time coaching with Rick Neuheisel in Seattle.

At the Grizzlies’ Monday press conference he recalled using every chance he had to talk to former coach Don James, and of meeting other Husky legends like Steve Emtman.

“I also remember having a lot of success, a lot of wins,” Hauck added. “I’ll always remember winning the Rose Bowl. So, yeah. Just a powerful place.”

It reminded me of 1999, when I was at Husky Stadium to watch one of those matchups schedule makers dream of: Washington, with new $1 million per year coach Neuheisel, taking on Neuheisel’s former team, the Colorado Buffaloes.

I was in Seattle because Rivals.com (remember that?) was recruiting sports writers, and I put in for a press pass figuring I’d do a column on Hauck, then 34.

Rivals.com didn’t work out but the column did. Before the game Hauck talked to and then got a hug from a guy wearing No. 1 for Colorado. When I asked who it was, Hauck said, “That’s Ben Kelly. He might be the best player in the nation.”

Kelly, a lightly-regarded corner out of high school — reportedly Hauck stood on a table to sell the CU staff on him — then returned a fumble and kickoff for touchdowns in a game the Buffs eventually lost, 31-24.

Four years later Hauck was coaching the Griz, who overcame injuries to its top two quarterbacks and made the 2003 playoffs with what the new mentor felt was a sub-par roster.

If he thought Joe Glenn hadn’t done a great job recruiting heading out the door for Wyoming, there was still enough talent on hand to make the 2004 Division I championship. The Griz lost that game to James Madison and losses in Chattanooga followed in 2008 (to Richmond) and 2009 (to Villanova).

Since then North Dakota State has taken over for the Colonial Athletic Association as the bully on the FCS block, and Montana hasn’t been quite the same.

Hauck’s return, after a far less successful stint as UNLV’s head coach and a more gratifying stay as an assistant at San Diego State, smacks of unfinished business. Which is fine.

I looked at his last recruiting class at UM, and out of 19 signees nine didn’t so much as earn a letter for UM. After Robin Pflugrad was elevated to Griz head coach, he gathered his staff and unveiled the list of solid commits for the 2010 signing day: It began and ended with Whitefish’s Derek Crittenden.

“Holy horse apples,” Bob Beers said, or words to that effect, and the staff scrambled to put together a class of 18 that, unlike the one before, wasn’t half bad. Zach Wagenmann would flourish, Glacier’s Shay Smithwick-Hann stepped in at QB for Jordan Johnson and John Kanongata’a completed an outstanding linebacking crew that included 2009 signees Jordan Tripp and Brock Coyle.

Which is to say that recruiting is an inexact science, and that one man’s blue chipper can be his successor’s, “what is he doing here.”

So here we are, 11 years after Pflugrad began his brief tenure, and four years after Hauck replaced the underperforming Bob Stitt. It’s also 20 years since the Huskies and Griz had those twin football highlights of wins in Pasadena and Chattanooga.

It’s been a dizzying couple of decades; the Huskies waited 18 years for another Rose Bowl victory. The distance between had to make the return to the top more special. For the first time in a while, it isn’t hard to imagine what it would be like for the Griz to get back to the top.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com.