Big Sky “50 Greatest Men’s Moments”: No. 8: Don Read Goes Out on Top

By JON KASPER, for the Big Sky Conference

Enter a sports pub in Missoula, Mont., and you are bound to find a reminder.

Maybe it’s a photo of Andy Larson celebrating, a framed No. 15 Grizzly jersey, a piece of art work featuring coach Don Read, or a banner from the game.

They’ll never forget the 1995 Montana Grizzly football season. Decades from now, grandfathers will tell there grandkids about the exploits of quarterback Dave Dickenson, or where they were when Larson kicked the field goal. Maybe they were a passenger on one of the 10 charter flights to the game, or weclomed the heroes back in Missoula at the airport.

“I was out that night,” said long-time Montana Associate Athletic Director for Communications Dave Guffey. “It was like World War III had ended. Downtown was crazy. I went over to the Press Box, and it was wall-to-wall people. The replay of the game was on, and people were watching it. It was absolutely bedlam, like New Year’s Eve in New York City. People were so hungry for that kind of success. It culminated all the success we had since Don Read started here in 1986.”

Since that day in 1995 when the Grizzlies beat Marshall on its own turf 22-20 in Huntington, WV, Montana has won another Division I-AA national championship. But nothing can top that first one, which ranks eighth on the Big Sky Conference’s list of the “50 Greatest Men’s Moments.”

The team featured the greatest coach in school history and the architect of a budding dynasty in Read. It also featured arguably the school’s greatest player in Dickenson. The signal caller from Great Falls, Mont., knew he was playing his final game in the Grizzly copper and gold that Saturday afternoon against the Thundering Herd. What no one knew – not even Read – was that it would also be his final game.

HC FB Read Don

Head Coach DonRead

“I’d have to say it was the highlight of my career,” Read said from his home in Corvallis, Ore. “It seemed like every place we had coached at, we were rebuilding. All the things around Montana made it a natural. Anyone who would have been in my position couldn’t have helped but have success.”

It had been 25 years since Montana lost to North Dakota State for the second consecutive year in the Camellia Bowl. Grizzly football became a wasteland in the 1970s. Home games were played in a rickety off-campus stadium and were poorly attended. From 1971-85, Montana compiled a 63-94-2 overall record, with three winning seasons, and one Co-Big Sky Conference championship.

A new era began in 1986 with the hiring of Read, a veteran coach who enjoyed limited success at Oregon Tech, Oregon, and two stints and Portland State. That year also marked the opening of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the university’s on-campus stadium located at the base of scenic Hellgate Canyon.

Read, along with his high-scoring, fan-friendly, pass-happy offense, brought instant success. The new stadium gave the Grizzlies a true home field advantage. The Grizzlies made the I-AA playoffs in 1988, and advanced to the semifinals in 1989. Dickenson emerged in 1993, and guided the Grizzlies to the playoffs three straight seasons. Montana’s 1994 season ended in the semifinals with a loss to Youngstown State with Dickenson sidelined with an ankle injury.

“Coming into the 1995 season, I stayed in Missoula that summer,” said Dickenson, who is now the offensive coordinator of the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League. “A lot of times I used to stay in Great Falls. A lot of the seniors stayed. I think we realized it was our final shot. We kind of came up with a plan, and made sure all of us were on board.”

The Grizzlies opened the season 2-1, beating lower-division opponents Eastern New Mexico and Minnesota-Duluth at home, and falling to Pac-10 Washington State 38-21 on the road.

A highly-anticipated homecoming date with Boise State on Sept. 23 served as Montana’s Big Sky Conference opener. Boise State, under Pokey Allen, had lost the 1994 National Championship game to Youngstown State. The Broncos also battered and injured Dickenson a year earlier in a 38-14 win on the blue turf in Boise.

“I knew Pokey a little bit,” Dickenson said. “He had warned us the year before that he was going to come after me. They beat us, took us down good. I saw him the next summer, and I told him, ‘I hope you are ready, I’m going to give you all I’ve got.’ Boise was a focal point. We had played three or four games before that, but we were focused on Boise.”

The Boise State game marked the first of an expanded Washington-Grizzly Stadium, which now featured seats instead of grass berms in the North and South end zones. A then-stadium record crowd of 18,505 watched Dickenson and the Grizzlies dismantle the Broncos 54-28.

Dickenson threw three touchdown passes in the first quarter, including a 90-yarder to Matt Wells that electrified the stadium. UM led 44-6 at the half, and Dickenson was able to spend most of the second half on the bench – as he did often that season. He finished the game 26-of-38 for 383 yards with six touchdown passes.

Dave Dickenson A

Montana Quarterback DaveDickenson

The 5-foot-11 Academic All-American enjoyed one of the finest seasons of any I-AA quarterback in history. In 11 regular season games, he completed .679 percent of his passes for 4,176 yards with 38 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He led I-AA in passing yards per game at 379.64, which remains a Big Sky single-season record.

Montana’s offense averaged 42.5 points, 408.2 passing yards, and 512.45 yards of total offense per game. The team averaged 45 pass attempts per game.

“I didn’t think our class had a lot of great players,” Dickenson said. “A few guys were special, and we were finding the right parts for the underclassman.”

The Grizzlies suffered their only conference loss at Idaho, which like Boise State was playing in the Big Sky for the final season. Idaho led 48-16 at the half, but Montana mounted a comeback in the 55-43 track meet. Dickenson enjoyed one of his most prolific games, completing 43 of 72 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns.

“We had beat them the previous two years,” Dickenson said. “We went over into a firestorm and got way behind. We scratched and clawed and made it a game. We had fighters in that group. We knew we would find a way to compete. Sometimes a loss has a way to refocus you as a group, and I think that Idaho game did that. We started practicing with an extra effort and extra focus.”

The Grizzlies won their final three regular-season games, including a 42-33 win over Montana State in Bozeman to cap a 9-2 regular season. Montana won the Big Sky title with a 6-1 record, ensuring a third straight trip to the playoffs.

A magical four-week run was about to begin. The Grizzlies dismantled Eastern Kentucky 48-0 in the first-round of the playoffs. UM’s underrated defense held Eastern Kentucky to just 131 yards of total offense. Dickenson threw for 441.

The next week, Montana pounded perennial I-AA powerhouse Georgia Southern 45-0 in front of a stadium-record 18,518. Georgia Southern’s vaunted option run game was held to just 70 yards on 42 carries. The Eagles managed just five first downs.

“In a lot of ways, the playoffs were easier than the regular season,” Read said. “The reason is that teams didn’t have enough time to really look at all of the things Dave Dickenson could do. They would get a broad prospective. A lot of the research was done on the telephone. In the conference season, the teams had seen him, had time to study him in the off-season. I don’t want to say we snuck up on people, but they weren’t prepared to handle us. That made a lot of difference in those games.”

Stephen F. Austin upset Appalachian State in the quarterfinals, allowing Montana to host a national semifinal for the first time in school history. SFA didn’t know what was about to hit them. The game started at 10 a.m. local time to accommodate television. The temperature hovered in the single digits. Montana dismantled the Lumberjacks 70-14.

For the second straight week, and the third time in the season, a record crowd was on hand. This time, 18,523 braved the elements to witness the program clinch its first trip to the I-AA national championship game.

Over a three-week period, Montana outscored three elite I-AA teams by a combined score of 163-14. The defense was coordinated by Jerome Souers, who recently completed his 16th season as the head coach at Northern Arizona.

“Our defense was good, but it hadn’t found its stride until the playoffs,” Dickenson said. “Offensively, we were playing good. The defense started to confuse people. I remember Jason Crebo being a right highlight. He came into his own. I felt like our defensive line were some no names that didn’t get a lot of credit, guys like Yohanse Manzanarez, Randy Riley, Brian Toone, and Corey Falls. They started getting after people. They were swarming people. All of a sudden we were the quicker team flying around, and we were unstoppable.”

Montana headed to Huntington a confident bunch, but winning it all wasn’t going to be easy. The game was being played at Marshall’s home stadium. The Thundering Herd were a solid team featuring a true freshman future NFL player at quarterback in Chad Pennington. Marshall, winners of the 1992 title, was playing in its fourth championship game in five years.

“That was a difficult thing in many respects,” Read said. “We knew most of the people in the stands were going to be green. Over the years, Marshall had been unbelievable. We had to travel; all those things were stacked against us. But at the same time, we had a confidence in our players and coaches, too. To beat us, you were going to have to be better than us. I remember the night before the game talking to the Missoulian, and I said, ‘We didn’t come here to lose.’ We felt confident about our kids.”

A crowd of 32,106 – still a record for a I-AA/FCS national championship game – witnessed a hotly-contested game. Marshall’s defense hounded Dickenson, sacking him 10 times. He kept battling.

Dickenson connected with fellow senior Matt Wells on a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter to put the Grizzlies ahead 10-3 at the half. With the score tied 10-10 in the third quarter, Toone and Riley, both from Butte, Mont., sacked Pennington for a safety to put the Grizzlies up 12-10.

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Wells and Dickenson connected on a 1-yard pass to put UM ahead 19-10. Marshall battled back to take a 20-19 lead.

Dickenson and company still had time for one magical drive. With 3 minutes and 14 seconds left, the Grizzlies found themselves with a fourth-and-3 at midfield.

“I was probably saying some prayers about that time,” Guffey said.

Mike Erhardt, a 6-foot-4 junior wide receiver from Eugene, Ore., lined up to Dickenson’s right. Three receivers were to the left. All-American cornerback Melvin Cunningham lined up across from Erhardt, but backed off a bit from the coverage he played most of the game.

The Kick 1995

The Kick. AndyLarson.

Erhardt ran a short slant. Dickenson hit him in stride for the first down and a 20-yard gain. Griz nation breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“I threw the slants and ins very well,” Dickenson said. “I thought I could throw that any day of the week. We got the look and feel we wanted. There were no nerves as well. Mike gave a nice little wiggle on it. When he broke, I got the ball where it needed to go. We could have run that play 200 times, and hit it 199.”

“In critical situations, Dave was at his best,” Read said. “He knew it had to be thrown right there. Had it been two or three yards more down field, or a little later, we don’t make that play. It was right in the hole, down the seam. Dave made the right decision. He could have thrown it to a couple of different people.”

With 39 seconds left, Larson, a junior kicker who had made game-winning kicks against McNeese State in a 1994 playoff game, and against Northern Arizona on the road earlier in the season, lined up for the game-winning field goal from 25 yards out.

“We had a lot of confidence in Andy,” Read said. “My son Bruce was coaching him. One thing we didn’t do was we should have gotten him more in the middle. He kicked it from the right hash. That was my fault not lining him up at a better angle. We had monitored his kicking in practice, and his percentage from that place was so high. It’s never a shoe-in. You have to have protection. They knew the game was at stake. You worry about that. But, that kid was special, too.”

Manzanarez snapped the ball. Larry Tofanelli put the hold down. Larson snuck the kick through the goal posts to give Montana a 22-20 lead.

A desperation 63-yard field goal by Marshall fell well short as time expired. For the first in school history, Montana was the national champions in football.

‘It cemented Dave Dickenson’s legacy,” Guffey said. “One of the coolest things I ever got to do was tell Dave he won the Walter Payton Award on our way to the postgame press conference as we were walking there with him and Don. That put the finishing touches on everything.”

Days after returning to Missoula, Dickenson and the 1995 Grizzlies were honored in a rousing celebration at Dahlberg Arena. Dickenson was presented with the Walter Payton Award, and the school retired his No. 15.

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The NCAA does not recognize playoff statistics from his era, but it is certainly worth noting that Dickenson would still hold nearly every single-season Big Sky league record if his statistics from the four 2005 playoff games counted. In 15 games, he completed .691 percent of his passes (431 of 624) for 5,676 yards with 51 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.

“From 1993 to 1995, it was all about the “Magic Man” Dave Dickenson,” Guffey said. “To me, he is still the most incredible quarterback I’ve ever watched at our level.”

A few weeks later, Read stunned Missoula by announcing his retirement. In 10 seasons, he guided the Grizzlies to 85 victories and just 36 losses.

“I really thought 1996 was probably going to be the end for me,” Read said. “We had a broader talent situation with the exception of Dave in 1996. But I was worn out, tired. Had I probably sat back for a couple of more months, I probably would have held out because common sense pointed me toward 1996. I was really tired and I wanted to be fair to the program. They didn’t deserve a guy only hitting on three

cylinders.”

Montana elevated Mick Dennehy to head coach. In 1996, the Grizzlies went 14-0 before falling to Marshall in the national championship game. Montana enjoyed a reign of dominance at the Big Sky and national level from 1993-2009, earning a record 17 straight playoff appearances, 15 conference titles, seven national championship appearances, and national titles in 1995 and 2001.

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