Montana senior defensive tackle Craig Mettler has spent a lot of time observing big-time college football. A native of Walla Walla, Wash., he grew up following both Washington and Washington State, who have each reached the Rose Bowl as members of the Pac 10.
But a quick glance at this season’s Pac 10 standings finds that WSU finished 2-11 and the Huskies were 0-12.
The reason, says Mettler, isn’t only poor coaching.
“A lot of those guys (players) don’t have pride in their schools,” he said. “They didn’t grow up there. At least half the kids in Montana grow up dreaming of playing for the Griz. It makes a difference.”
As Montana prepares for its second NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) title game in five years as it prepares for Friday’s night’s showdown with Richmond inside Finley Stadium, Mettler’s point shouldn’t be taken lightly. Not in this game. Not in any game where an entire state’s emotional well-being can be tied to an athletic victory by Home State U.
“The neat thing about this program is its pride and tradition,” said Mettler. “When we came out against Montana State this year we wore the school’s old colors — copper and gold (instead of the current maroon and silver). There were a lot of tears in the stands. This program means so much to so many people.”
We see it every autumn in the South. From Knoxville, Tenn., to Tuscaloosa, Al., college football is king, filling stadiums to the rim and filling conversations from July through the Christmas holidays.
And because those schools are on TV every week we think incurable addiction to the sport is contained to the South. But Montana is proof that feverish football fans can be found anywhere at any level of the sport.
The Griz has averaged almost 23,000 at home games over the past three seasons, leading the FCS in attendance in both 2005 and 2006 while finishing second last year. This fall was more of the same, five crowds inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium topping 25,000, including a school record-setting 25,629 at the Montana State game.
“We’re pretty much the only game in town, and it shows,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said the last time he was in this town for the 2004 title game, which the Griz lost to James Madison. “Montana football is pretty special where we come from.”
It is special in ways tangible and intangible. Yes, the Griz win big, having reached the title game six of the past 13 seasons, having reached the playoffs 16 straight seasons, having reached them 19 times total, tying them with Eastern Kentucky for the most total playoff berths.
But the sweetest thing is that Montana wasn’t supposed to be here this time. They returned only 10 starters from last year’s 11-1 team. Their fate was so cloudy over the summer that Mettler told the Missoulian newspaper earlier this season, “All summer — and all spring — I heard all the nay-sayers ask, ‘How many victories are you going to get this year? Three? Four? I was like, ‘Hey, we’re still the Montana Grizzlies.”
And lest you think those fans can turn on their team as swiftly as many SEC crews, when the Griz went to halftime trailing Texas State in its opening playoff game, the home fans rose and gave them a standing ovation as they left the field.
Think that would have happened at Neyland Stadium, LSU or Auburn? Think this week’s sub-zero temperatures in Big Sky Country are the only reason Montana expects to bring as many as 4,000 folks to the Scenic City?
This isn’t to say they’ll win Friday night against Richmond. Despite having a better record this season (14-1 to 11-3), despite a much richer history, Montana will almost certainly be the underdog against the Spiders, who appear to have more speed and have endured an arguably tougher bracket by going on the road to knock off three-time defending champ Appalachian State and Northern Iowa.
But whether or not they’re the favorite of experts, they’re used to being the favorites back home in Missoula.
“The support digs deeper in our program than most,” said Mettler. “In Montana there are no (major) pro teams. One of the neat things about this program is that we’re the state’s pro team.”
Except, of course, that they never get booed.
E-mail Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...