MISSOULA, Montana — Playoff football in Missoula, Montana was a way of life for the first half of Colin Bingham’s life. The University of Montana football team never missed the postseason, not one single time the first 13 of Bingham’s existence.
Success and Griz football went hand in hand after UM made an investment that changed the Big Sky Conference forever with the erection of Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1985 and the hiring of Don Read as its head coach in 1986.
Read won 10 straight games against bitter rival Montana State, sparking “The Streak”, a run of 16 consecutive rivalry game victories for the Grizzlies over the Bobcats.
Mick Dennehy took the reigns from Read after “Poppa Bear” led Montana to its first Division I-AA national title in 1995. Two years into Dennehy’s tenure, Griz Hall of Famer Guy Bingham and his wife, Sharon, welcomed Colin into the world.
Read handed a streak of three straight playoff appearances and five in the last eight seasons to Dennehy. From the time Colin was born in Missoula until the time he was about to enter eighth grade, the Griz made the post season every single year. The 17 straight berths set a NCAA record and was part of a run that saw Montana win 243 games in 23 years.
UM won 119 games between 2000 and 2009, including claiming the FCS national title in 2001 and finishing as the national runner-up in 2004, 2008 and 2009. Bingham, the son of a Griz legend and about to be local standout in his own right at Big Sky High only knew Montana as winners.
“I remember how dominate those team were, how much effort they played with, how tough they were, how fun they were to watch,” Bingham said before a practice leading up to UM’s game against Idaho earlier this month. “Those are some of the Griz teams I remember best.”
And Bingham was not the only current Montana fifth-year senior watching and cheering on the dominant Griz from afar. Jesse Sims, the defensive captain who has worn Montana’s storied No. 37 the last two seasons, remembers cheering on the Griz from his hometown of Stevensville. And Josh Sandry remembers admiring the Griz, particularly stellar safeties like Colt Anderson and current Griz safeties coach Shann Schillinger while growing up in Bigfork.
“This place has such a special culture and such a great winning tradition,” Sandry said. “With those early 2000s teams that Coach Hauck coached and Coach Shann played on, I grew up watching those guys play. It’s always been a dream of mine to come here and be as dominant as those guys were. It hasn’t happened but we have some pretty good things rolling right now.”
In the 2010 rivalry game against Montana State, All-American running back Chase Reynolds fumbled near the goal line late in the fourth quarter and MSU preserved a 21-16 victory. That win gave Montana State the first of three straight Big Sky Conference championships and denied a 7-4 Montana team in its first year under Robin Pflugrad a berth in the FCS playoffs.
The Griz bounced back to win the league in 2011, a title that was eventually vacated because of NCAA violations and a sexual assault scandal that gutted the entire university. In his first year at Big Sky, Bingham and many other promising and budding prospects from around the state of Montana watch the 2011 Griz gain steam and rip all the way to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.
UM has never been back to that level since. The firing of Pflugrad and athletic Jim O’Day proved to be cumbersome for an athletic department once considered among the top small school sports programs in the country.
Montana stumbled to a 5-6 record, the first losing mark for the Griz since 1985, in 2012. The Griz made the playoffs in 2013 only to lose their first playoff game, 42-35, to Coastal Carolina at home.
Montana beat San Diego in the first round in 2014 and South Dakota State in the first round of 2015. But first-round byes and deep playoff runs kept getting pushed farther into the past.
Bingham was a redshirt freshman on that 2015 season and the team’s Offensive Scout of the Year. But when he broke into the lineup as an “H” receiver — former head coach Bob Stitt eliminated the tight end position upon arrival — the Griz hit a historic dry spell.
Montana missed the playoffs in 2016, 2017 and 2018, each loss stinging even worse because Montana State effectively ended the Griz season each of the last three Novembers.
On Saturday, Bingham will be one of 17 Montana seniors who play in their final rivalry game against MSU, the 119th rendition of the historic rivalry overall. Ten of those seniors, including Bingham, are fifth-year seniors who redshirted in Stitt’s first season (UM’s last playoff year) and have been trying to help the Grizzlies attain their previous success again.
UM has a legitimate chance to take a huge step toward the ranks of the national elite. The Griz are already ranked No. 3 in the country. But a win over the Bobcats in Bobby Hauck’s second year back at the helm would snap a three-game rivalry losing streak, sew up a 10-win season and secure a first-round bye for the first time in six years.
“Coach Hauck’s mantra when we got here was ‘Return to Dominance’ and we are working toward it,” Bingham said. “It feels good to muscle out wins like we have been and look like some teams that I grew up watching. We have been a really physical team that wears teams out and win games in the fourth quarter.”
Montana enters Saturday’s rivalry game with a 9-2 record overall, including a 6-1 mark in Big Sky Conference play. The Griz could win their first official league title in a decade if they beat No. 8 Montana State for the first time since 2015, UC Davis beats Sacramento State and Idaho State beats Weber State. The third scenario is unlikely but the Griz could still share the league title with Sac and Weber while also tying up the rivalry series 5-5 in the final year of this decade.
“I’ve been other places and the rivalries aren’t as great as this one,” Sneed said. “It’s a big game. Everybody in the community is involved and knows how big of a game it is. We are excited to compete.”
Sneed, a two-year starter who is in search of his first win against the ‘Cats, transferred to UM from Fort Scott Community College. He was originally recruited out of Horizon High in Scottsdale, Arizona to UNLV by Hauck. Of the 17 seniors playing in Saturday’s game, Sneed is one of five (punter Adam Wilson, cornerbacks Keynan Foster and Kadeem Hemphill, edge rusher Ryder Rice) who joined the program after Hauck took over in December of 2017.
Offensive linemen Dylan Eickmeyer and Esai Longoria are the only fourth-year seniors on the Griz roster. Players like cornerbacks Justin Calhoun and Kobey Eaton (recruited as wide receivers), defensive end Vika Fa’atuiese (recruited as a linebacker) and center Cy Sirmon (recruited as a linebacker) have changed positions at least once if not multiple times during the last five years.
“No matter where we came from, we came here to win,” Sirmon, a native of Wenatchee, Washington who has played linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, offensive guard and now center, said following practice last week. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s the point of playing football.
“Everyone here is a competitive person by nature. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here. That’s why we come in here every day. That’s why we are getting some results this year because honestly last year sucked. That was not fun. All off-season, you get that fire burning because you want to make sure that never happens again, to make sure we make the most out of this season.”
Even though Sandry still plays safety, his rover position is distinctly different than the strong safety position the Bigfork native started at for the 2017 Griz. All-American inside linebacker Dante Olson toiled in no-mans land as a third down edge rusher the last two of Stitt’s three seasons. Jesse Sims played various versions of defensive end until finally setting in at nose tackle this season.
“I think our senior group is pretty special,” Sandry said earlier this month. “Talk about a bunch of guys who have been through so many highs and so many lows together. We have been through different coaching staffs and big wins, big loses. You can see it right now, all the hard work over the years is finally coming together. We are enjoying the end of this ride.”
Even Jerry Louie-McGee, one of the Big Sky’s most electric players and the school’s all-time leader in receptions, had to morph from catching 10 to 12 bubble screens a game to playing a much more traditional version of slot receiver.
“The atmosphere, the standards this place holds and the people, that’s what has kept us going and even with the struggles, they treated us so well,” Louie-McGee said in an interview in October. “The legacy this place holds is unique and special. I just hope we can leave something as well.”
Sirmon and left guard Angel Villanueva are part of a reinvented Griz offensive line trying to capture a long-gone reputation. For years and years, Montana had the best offensive line in the league. Offensive line coach Chad Germer played on a few in the early 1990s and started coaching at his alma mater more than 20 years ago, serving on the staffs of Dennehy, Joe Glenn, Hauck for one year at UM in 2009 and the next five years at UNLV before returning to his alma mater to join Stitt’s staff in 2015.
Hauck did not split hairs about UM’s offensive line struggles last season. But the move of Sirmon to the unit, then to the center of the starting front combined with the development of sophomore right tackle Colton Keintz, the surprising emergence of former Frontier Conference quarterback Dylan Cook as a contributor at tackle, the improved health and condition of Villanueva, the sudden durability of junior left tackle Conlan Beaver and the addition of junior college mauler Moses Mallory have helped reshape the unit into a solid front.
“Every season has its challenges so it’s not necessarily one challenge that stands out for us,” Villanueva said. “It’s a sum of challenges we have all experienced as a team. I think our attitude and our pursuit has got us going in the right direction.
“This program is about winning, bringing guys to the next level, a championship mindset, not even just on the field but in the class room, in life. Upholding that standard is a great honor. It’s a privilege to wear this jersey. It’s not a right. I think that’s the most important thing that a lot of us understand. We approach every day with the attitude to honor the tradition and the past and hopefully it sets you up for the future.”
The Griz are certainly into the playoffs for the first time since Stitt’s first season. Depending on what happens around the country, a win over the surging Bobcats could give the Griz a Top 3 playoff seed and homefield advantage until the semifinals of the playoffs.
The renewed respect for tradition and the expectation of excellence instilled by Hauck is apparent and very real. These Griz play hard and these Griz play relentlessly. For the ones who stuck it out in an effort to be a part of something they grew up loving, it’s been one hell of a ride.
“It goes by so fast and this experience has taught us so much,” Sims said during the week leading up to UM’s game at Portland State. “I remember seniors telling me that my freshman year and I didn’t know there was five years ahead of me. But it’s flown by. I’m just trying to make the most of it and I know the rest of the team is going to do the same thing.
“I think the only thing that is going to hold us back is us. We have the talent to make a big impact this year so we just have to keep working the way we are. The future is really bright the rest of the season.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.