Editor’s Note: Skyline Sports‘ senior writer Colter Nuanez is on the board of directors for the Montana Football Hall of Fame and is a writer of inductee bios. Former Montana star Brian Salonen was one of the inaugural inductees to the Hall of Fame in 2016.
Before Brian Salonen could live a dream wearing the star of America’s team, he helped the Montana Grizzlies turn the tide and lay a foundation for a generation of success.
Between 1986 and 2016, Montana dominated its fierce rivalry with Montana State, posting 25 wins over the Bobcats in 30 contests (the Bobcats have not lost since, earning the advantage in the last decade and making the docket since the ‘Cats snapped a 16-game losing streak in 2002 at nine wins for each side).
Since 1993, Montana has won 15 Big Sky Conference titles, played for seven FCS national titles and claimed two national championships (1995, 2001).
But when Salonen, a versatile star out of Great Falls High and one of the state’s top prospects, was making his college decision back in 1980, the climate was entirely different.
“The Bobcats were good and Sonny Holland had created a program there where it seemed like every kid out of Montana was going to play for the ‘Cats,” Salonen said 36 years later. “Holland passed that on to Sonny Lubick. I remember Larry Donovan sitting in my house and saying, ‘Hey, make a difference. You come here and there will be guys who follow. Let’s turn this thing around.’”
Donovan had just been hired to replace Gene Carlson, who resigned after a 3-7 campaign that included a 38-21 loss to the Bobcats in 1979. UM’s loss in Bozeman was the seventh in eight seasons to the Grizzlies while the Bobcats won the Big Sky title that season.
Under Holland between 1971 and 1977, Montana State won three Big Sky championships, the 1976 Division II national championship and lost to the rival Griz just once (1971). Lubick, who would go on to fame as the defensive coordinator under Dennis Erickson at Miami and then the longtime head coach at Colorado State, continued the domination, defeating Montana in two of his first three seasons and leading MSU to the Big Sky crown in his second season.
With Salonen waiting in the wings, it seemed Montana State had an opportunity to only get stronger. Bill Salonen, Brian’s father, was a two-time All-Rocky Mountain Conference selection in basketball and a member of MSU’s sports Hall of Fame during his time playing hoops at Montana State. It seemed Brian was a surefire Bobcat.
“I had been a Bobcat for my entire life,” Brian Salonen said. “I was a Bobcat at heart until Larry Donovan and Bob Lowry came to Great Falls. They sold me a vision.”
Salonen shocked the Treasure State and picked the Grizzlies. The decision sparked a domino effect that culminated in back-to-back wins over UM and the 1982 Big Sky title, Montana’s first league crown since 1970 and just the third in program history.
“Everyone in the state back then thought Brian was for sure going to the Bobcats,” said Mike Van Diest, Donovan’s defensive line coach who is now the head coach at Carroll College in Helena. “The Bobcats have Sonny Lubick on the tails of Sonny Holland; that’s two of the greatest coaches in the history of the Big Sky Conference. Those two guys had the state on stronghold. Great Falls, Helena, Butte were all Bobcat Land. To get somebody like Brian Salonen, a kid who’s dad was in the Hall of Fame at Montana State, it turned the heads of everybody.”
Salonen went on to become one of the greatest pass-catching tight ends the Big Sky has ever seen. His 150 catches and 1,882 yards are still the most ever by a Grizzly tight end and each total ranks in the top 18 in school history overall. After his senior season, he earned an invite to the East-West Shrine game before being drafted in the 10th round of the 1984 NFL Draft. He spent four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, accomplishing the rare feat of playing both sides of the ball professionally.
Salonen has since been inducted into the UM Hall of Fame and has been named to various lists as one of the top 100 athletes in the state’s history, including a nod from Sports Illustrated in 1999. In August of 2016, Salonen was among the first 13 legends inducted into the newly created Montana Football Hall of Fame.
The 6-foot-3, 229-pounder broke into the lineup right away as a true freshman in 1980. By 1981, Montana had its first winning record in six seasons, including a 27-17 win over Montana State. By 1982, the Griz had a winning streak over the Bobcats and a Big Sky banner to hang.
“Back then, winning a Big Sky Conference title was huge,” Salonen said. “Nowadays, everyone in Missoula has expectations that you are going to go win a national title. That certainly wasn’t the case when I played. To win a Big Sky championship was pretty darn neat. I certainly think that helped to change things at Montana.”
In Salonen’s senior season in 1983, Montana started 4-0 before starting quarterback Marty Mornhinweg and his backup each were lost for the season against Idaho. UM lost six straight down the stretch to miss the playoffs. But Salonen was a primary security blanket for the offense, putting up prolific numbers unmatched by a UM tight end even 33 years later.
As a senior, Salonen caught 68 passes for 832 yards, each single-season UM records at the time. UM’s sprint-draw offense catered to Salonen, a smooth runner blessed with soft hands who’s 1983 catch total is still among the top 10 in Griz annals. The prolific season helped Salonen get a call from Tom Landry to play for one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.
“That opportunity is never going to happen if I don’t have the coaching staff and players around me at the University of Montana,” Salonen said. “I’m just an average white guy out of Great Falls, Montana. I’m not exceptionally fast or quick. I’m not exceptionally strong. I was blessed with great hands and I worked really, really hard on footwork, speed and strength.
“If I don’t catch 68 passes my senior year, I don’t think I go anywhere.”
When Salonen joined the Cowboys in 1984, Dallas was in the midst of a run that included 17 playoff appearances in 18 seasons. Dallas had won the NFC five times since 1970, including claiming Super Bowl titles in 1971 and 1977. Even with the prestige of the franchise combined with the pressure of beating out at least 80 other rookies, Salonen managed to make the active roster.
“I remember being on the practice field and someone telling us that Brian Salonen made the cut and it was unbelievable,” Van Diest said. “I remember the exact hash I was standing on at Dornblaser. It was just awesome, a great feather in the University of Montana’s cap.”
Salonen had very little chance to show his skills as a tight end in Dallas. In 1985, Landry moved him to outside linebacker. He was able to carve out a niche as a special teams player for the next three seasons before a shoulder injury forced him to retire in May of 1988.
“I’m not sure how many guys can say they had a chance to play on both sides of the ball in the NFL,” Salonen said. “And to play for the Cowboys? The marketing and promotion of that star is one of the greatest things America has ever seen. I don’t know if they did it on purpose, but from the America’s team to the cheerleaders to Tom Landry to the wins to the respect and discipline they embodied, there’s nothing like it.”
These days, Salonen works as a financial advisor in Missoula. He attends Griz games as often as he can and is awestruck by the majesty of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, a 26,000-seat palace. One of the crown jewels of small school football is a venue Salonen helped build the foundation for.
“Brian was that bell cow,” Van Diest said. “When people saw he was coming to UM, it was a domino effect for the other players in the state. It’s a decision that still has an impact to this day.”
Photos courtesy of Salonen family. All Rights Reserved.