The second half of the 1980s helped the Montana Grizzlies emerge from hibernation, setting the stage for two decades of nearly unprecedented success at the Division I-AA and FCS level.
Don Read was hired in 1985. UM opened Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1986. Tim Hauck and the Grizzlies advanced to the semifinals of the Division I-AA playoffs for the first time in 1989. And by the time Read’s final season at the helm rolled around, the Griz were straight rolling.
Montana captured its first national title in 1995. UM would go on to make the playoffs 17 consecutive times, advancing to the national title game seven times and winning a second crown in 2001. Last decade, Montana’s dominance had no peer. The Grizzlies won 119 games between 2000 and 2009, the most in the history of Division I college football to that point.
Following a heartbreaking loss in the 2009 title game, UM’s fourth title game loss of the decade and third in six seasons under Bobby Hauck, the Griz have gone through seemingly endless turmoil on the field, among their coaching staffs and off the field in the court of public opinion.
A sexual assault scandal on the UM campus led to NCAA violations for the football team, a Department of Justice investigation, the firing of head coach Robin Pflugrad and UM athletic director and one infamous John Krakauer book.
Through it all, Montana still managed to make the playoffs five times over the previous decade despite four different head coaches. Mick Delaney helped right the ship for three seasons after Pflugrad’s abrupt and controversial dismissal. Three seasons of Bob Stitt never managed to fulfill expectations and, ultimately, led to Hauck’s equally controversial return to the Grizzlies.
Montana’s All-Decade team from 2010 through 2019 is still littered with some of the best talent the football program has produced, particularly defensively. We considered as many as 10 linebackers alone for this list, leaving off a collection of players that would likely make All-Decade teams at every other school in the Big Sky Conference, first-team all-league selections like J.P. Kanongata’a, Herbert Gamboa and Josh Buss along with hammering enforcers like Jeremiah Kose, Kendrick Van Ackeren and Connor Strahm.
Although Montana did make the playoffs five times, the Griz also missed the postseason five times, a previously unfathomable fall for a program that won 12 straight Big Sky titles and was a lock for football in November and December for an entire generation.
This list reveals some of the reasons why. Only two offensive linemen – offensive tackles Danny Kistler and David Reese – earned first-team All-Big Sky honors for a team that previously churned out All-American offensive linemen more prevalently than any program in the country.
The scholarship penalties because of the NCAA rulings is also reflected in the defensive secondary, where only Trumaine Johnson earned first-team all-conference honors this decade.
But 13 players (and likely at least one more when you include departing senior linebacker Dante Olson) earned shots with professional franchises. Eight forged true professional careers.
Players considered for these lists needed to only fit one rule: each athlete must have played two seasons this decade. Because of this, players like record-setting running back Chase Reynolds, NFL-caliber defensive back Jimmy Wilson, solid center Alex Verlanic, cerebral safety Erik Stoll and steady quarterback Andrew Selle, all members of that 2009 Griz team and seniors in 2010, were not selected to this list. Skyline Sports will be putting together an all-decade Griz team for the first 10 years of the 21st century soon as well.
Montana won 79 games over the last decade, finishing with a losing record just once, a 5-6 mark in 2012. This season, Hauck’s second back at the controls, the Griz advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs and won 10 games.
Here are the players most influential in a decade of success and turmoil for the Grizzlies.
MONTANA ALL-DECADE TEAM – DEFENSE
Defensive end – Zack Wagenmann
Wagenmann’s story of partial scholarship signee who developed into an all-time Griz great is a relatively common one over the last 25 years at Montana.
But Wagenmann, a better basketball player than football player during his time at Sentinel High, had a particularly special story as a Missoula native who went from long and lanky player with raw talent to the 2014 Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
Wagenmann was a part of the 2011 Griz team that was Montana’s best this decade. In 2012, Wagenmann blossomed individually on the first Griz team to finish with a losing record in a generation. That year, he piled up 50 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He also forced two fumbles. He earned All-American honors for the first time.
As a junior, the athletic defensive end had a career-high 64 tackles, including 16.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.
Following that playoff season, fellow Missoula native Jordan Tripp moved on to the NFL. Before he did, he bestowed Wagenmann with Montana’s vaunted No. 37 jersey, a legacy number passed down by Griz greats over the last three-plus decades.
In his first and only season wearing UM’s “designated hitter” jersey, Wagenmann had 75 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. He earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American honors.
Wagenmann finished his career as Montana’s all-time leader in tackles for loss (53) and sacks. His 17.5 sacks as a senior were the third-most ever by a Griz and his six forced fumbles that season to tie Andy Petek’s single-season record.
In 2015, Wagenmann signed as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. Multiple foot injuries ultimately ended his NFL career before he was able to make an active roster.
Defensive end – Tyrone Holmes
Holmes rolled up four sacks as a true freshman against Idaho State, flashing his prowess as a pure pass rusher for the first time. But it took him a few years to harness that same level of devastation again.
Holmes entered his senior year with 16.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss, solid career numbers to be sure. He had 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss playing opposite of Wagenmann in 2014.
As a senior, Holmes had one of the great breakout seasons of all-time for a Griz or otherwise. He notched a sack in Montana’s memorable upset win over No. 1 North Dakota State and kept on rolling, amassing 18 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss on the way to earning FCS Defensive Player of the Year honors.
That season was the lone season that STATS FCS did not own the naming rights for its annual awards, the defensive one normally named the Buck Buchanan Award. Despite the award name confusion, Holmes’ historic season helped him rise up to the sixth round of the NFL Draft, where he was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Holmes’ production in 2015 also helped him finish second to Wagenmann in career sacks (34.5) and tackles for loss (49.5).
Holmes spent time with the Jaguards, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs before dabbling in the AAF with the San Antonio Commanders. When the startup league went belly up, Holmes had a chance on the practice squads for the Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins before officially retiring late in 2019.
Defenisve tackle – Caleb Kidder
One former University of Montana assistant who’s been affiliated with the Big Sky Conference for most of the last 20 years said that Kidder is no question the most physically gifted defensive tackle Montana or the Big SKy Conference has seen this century.
The 6-foot-5, 285-pounder was a menacing enforcer who’s true impact showed up watching him create havoc on the line of scrimmage more than in post-game stat sheets. Kidder’s attitude and mean streak combined with his sheer power on the interior was a key to helping Wagenmann, Holmes and others put up the numbers they did.
Kidder himself earned first-team All-Big Sky as a junior in 2015 after piling up 82 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks.
The following year, following the departure of long-time defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, Stitt, new DC Jason Semore and the UM staff moved Kidder to defensive end as much to garner headlines as to stop opposing ball carriers.
In his second year wearing No. 37, Kidder shed about 25 pounds and thrived in his own right despite playing out of position. He earned second-team All-Big Sky honors by totaling 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. But many were left wondering what could’ve been had he stayed on the inside.
Kidder still managed to get a shot in the NFL, playing first for the Minnesota Vikings and then for the New England Patriots. But he never caught on with an active roster spot.
Kidder’s 31.5 career tackles for loss rank 10th in school history and his 16 career sacks rank in the top 13.
Defensive tackle – Tonga Takai
Takai’s performance in the 2014 Cat-Griz game in Missoula was a microcosm of his strength and versatility as a player. Early in the 34-7 beat down, Takai showed his nimble feet by dropping into coverage on a zone blitz and snaring an interception.
Throughout the rest of the game, Takai blasted Montana State’s All-Big Sky interior offensive linemen relentlessly, collapsing the pocket and helping the Griz keep MSU quarterback Jake Bleskin under constant duress. Bleskin ended up throwing five interceptions as the Grizzlies danced into the playoffs.
The 6-foot-2, 315-pound menace in the middle earned All-Big Sky honors three times, including second-team all-league recognition as a junior in 2013 and first-team all-conference nod as a senior in 2014.
He finished his career with 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks but set up many, many more plays in the backfield for others.
Linebacker – Caleb McSurdy
In the 2000s, Montana produced a seemingly endless string of all-conference linebackers. McSurdy ushered in a new decade of not just prolific players at the Big Sky level but a stretch that saw Montana produce an unbelievable string of some of the best linebackers in the country.
McSurdy set the pace, using his enforcing, imposing style to earn Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2011. That year, he rolled up 123 tackles, including 9.5 behind the line of scrimmage. He also notched four sacks and intercepted a pair of passes.
A particularly memorable highlight came when he hit Montana State All-American wide receiver Elvis Akpla when the former Oregon Ducks track star caught a pass over the middle. That smack set the tone for Montana’s 36-10 demolition of the No. 1-ranked Bobcats as part of a streak that saw the Griz surge into the semifinals of the playoffs.
McSurdy also surpassed 100 tackles as a junior, racking up 112 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss to earn second-team All-Big Sky honors.
In 2008 and 2009, McSurdy also stood out for the UM track team, qualifying for the Big Sky championship meet in the discus and the shot put both years.
McSurdy was selected in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He spent a year with the practice squad after blowing his Achilles and sitting on injured reserve. In 2013, he joined the practice squad with the St. Louis Rams late in the year before a week-long stint with the Cleveland Browns. He retired in 2014.
Linebacker – Jordan Tripp
Tripp is certainly one of the favorite sons of the Garden City, a third-generation Grizzly who went from solid high school player with unbelievable upside to two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection to NFL Draft pick during his time playing in his hometown.
Tripp had a growth spurt before his freshman year of college and broke into the rotation as a rookie in 2009 sooner than expected. In 2010, he had 99 tackles, and nine tackles for loss, earning honorable mention All-Big Sky honors.
In 2011, he tore his shoulder against Eastern Washington and ended up redshirting. In 2012, he came back with a vengeance, amassing 95 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks to earn first-team All-Big Sky and All-American honors for the first time.
In 2013, he wore No. 37 for the second season after having it passed down to him by former defensive end Ryan Featherston. In his senior year, Tripp earned first-team All-Big Sky and All-American honors again, leading the Griz back to the playoffs in the process. He posted 100 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
At the NFL Combine the next spring, Tripp opened eyes across the country with an unbelievable performance. The 6-foot-4, 236-pounder set a linebacker record in the 20-yard short shuttle by breaking four seconds (3.96 to be exact). He also had a 37.5-inch vertical, a 10-foot broad jump, ran a 4.67 seconds in the 40-yard sprint and pumped out 22 reps on the bench press. That helped him get selected in the fifth round by the Miami Dolphins.
Tripp managed to make an injury-riddled NFL career still last for four seasons. He played for the Dolphins, Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.
Linebacker– Brock Coyle
Kanongata’a and Gamboa each earned first-team All-Big Sky honors. Coyle did not. But anyone that watched the 2013 Grizzlies or followed the Bozeman native’s career after UM knows the talent, the play-making ability and the heart Coyle brought to the Griz defense.
During his senior year in 2013, Coyle was part of a linebacker unit that all earned all-league recognition. Kanongata’a and Tripp each earned first-team honors. Justifiably, Sac State inside linebacker Todd Davis, still a starter for the Denver Broncos, earned first-team all-conference honors over Coyle. Questionalby, so did Southern Utah sophomore Zak Browning.
Down the stretch of his senior year, Coyle was one of the best playmakers in the Big Sky and the FCS. He had double-digit tackles in his final seven games as a Griz, including an epic 14-tackle performance against Montana State that included 13 solo stops, two tackles for loss, a sack and forcing two fumbles.
That afternoon in Coyle’s hometown, he punched the ball out two different times from MSU legendary running back Cody Kirk, a player that rarely ever fumbled during his Hall of Fame career. Coyle’s Griz won 28-14 that day, ensuring the three-time defending Big Sky champions from MSU stayed home for the FCS playoffs.
Coyle finished his senior season with his second straight 100-tackle season. He rolled up 125 tackles as a senior, including 60 solo tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions and five forced fumbles.
Despite his first-team all-conference snub, Coyle had the last laugh.
On his pro day, Coyle blew the doors off his workout. He ran a 4.58 and 4.60 seconds in the 40-yard dash, notched a 37-inch vertical, broad jumped 9-foot-7 and did 25 reps on the bench press.
He signed with the Seattle Seahawks right after the NFL draft, then stood out in the preseason. He started his first NFL regular-season game in place of Bobby Wagner in November of 2014. He ended up starting five games and was a consistent standout on special teams during his time in Seattle, notching 33 tackles and a sack.
In the spring of 2017, he signed with the San Francisco 49ers. The following year, he signed a three-year contract and was slated to start at middle linebacker. Early in the 2018 season, Coyle suffered what ended up being a career-ending head/neck injury.
Coyle ended his Griz career with 293 tackles, tied with McSurdy for the 12th-most ever.
Linebacker –Dante Olson
Perhaps the best praise you could give Olson as a player is that his production on the field the last two years made Griz followers wonder if Olson was better than the three other linebackers on this list. In fact, when it comes to individual production, Olson has an argument as the most prolific and even the most talented linebacker in the history of Montana football.
Olson was the program’s special teams player of the year two years in a row but played spot snaps defensively as a sophomore in 2017. That year, he rotated in the linebacker crew and covered kicks on the way to 38 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
When Hauck first took over, he identified Olson immediately as one of if not his most talented player. Over the last two seasons, defensive coordinator Kent Baer, Hauck and the Griz staff built Montana’s unorthodox defensive scheme around Olson’s ability to defend multiple gaps at once and violently tackle ball carriers both at the point of attack and in space.
The result? Two consecutive seasons of the most prolific individual playmaking in the history of Griz football.
Olson shattered Van Ackeren’s single-season record of 130 tackles by rolling up 151 tackles last season to lead all of college football. He also had 11 tackles for loss, six sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles on the way to finishing runner-up for the Buck Buchanan Award.
This season, Olson did the unthinkable: He upped his production once again. He finished his senior season with 179 tackles, the most in the history of the Big Sky Conference. He added 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a pick and a pair of forced fumbles.
The Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year will soon find out if he is the Buck Buchanan Award winner. His combine-style testing will be a huge point of interest around the league, the FCS and the NFL. He could play his way into the fourth or fifth round of the NFL Draft if he tests well.
Olson finished his career as Montana’s all-time leading tackler with 397 stops. And all those accomplishments don’t even acknowledge Olson’s academic all-leauge and All-American status, his candidacy for the Campbell Trophy and his membership on the All-State Good Works team.
Like the other linebackers on this list, Olson’s legacy will likely become fortified after the next few years.
Cornerback – Trumaine Johnson
Johnson is the most no-doubt selection to any list in Griz or, arguably, FCS history. The native of Stockton, California is perhaps the most naturally gifted player to ever play for Montana.
He came to UM to play offense. Because of a need, he was thrown to the fire at cornerback as a true freshman in 2008. He picked off four passes as a largely foreign position. He earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors for a team that went undefeated until the national title game.
The next three seasons, Johnson had no peer on the Grizzlies, in the Big Sky or in the FCS. He became one of 39 players to earn first-team All-Big Sky honors three years in a row.
Johnson earned All-American honors three years in a row and finished his career with 15 interceptions. He also rolled up more than 200 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in his career.
Following his senior year, Johnson got an invite to the NFL Combine. He ran 4.5 in the 40, ripped off a 4.15-seconds in the short shuttle, lept 35.5 inches in the vertical and 10-foot-2 in the broad jump and pounded out 19 reps on the bench. He was the No. 65 selection in the draft, the highest any Griz has been selected since Scott Gragg in 1995.
Johnson played six seasons with the Rams, leading the NFL in interceptions in 2015 with seven picks. The following two seasons, the Rams put the “franchise tag” on Johnson, making him the highest paid cornerback in the NFL.
In March of 2018, Johnson signed a five-year, $72.5 million contract with $34 in guaranteed money. He has notched five of his 23 NFL interceptions since signing the monster deal.
Cornerback – Nate Harris
Montana’s struggles have been accentuated at cornerback more than any other defensive position over the last four years. Several players, particularly 2017 senior Ryan McKinley, have stood out as bright spots. But UM has played the last two campaigns with converted wide receivers playing on the outside of its defense.
Harris is the last hyper-competitive player the Griz have had on the outside and, in our eyes, the best among a group of other solid candidates from earlier in the decade like Anthony “Chief” Goodwin, Hoston Roots, Josh DeNard, J.R. Nelson and McKinley.
Harris earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors as a sophomore and a junior. He was a third-team All-Big Sky selection as a senior, which is on par with his other contenders for this spot.
He finished his career with 185 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and eight interceptions.
Safety – Matt Hermanson
Other than Johnson, Hermanson is the most decorated secondary player of the last 10 years at Montana.
The native of Sioux Falls, South Dakota earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a junior and first-team all-conference honors as a senior.
He had three consecutive 100-tackle seasons, including 107 tackles as a junior and 109 as a senior. His final year at UM, he had six interceptions, the top total in the Big Sky. He had half of those picks against Bleskin and the Bobcats in one of the most lopsided Cat-Griz results of the century.
Safety – Mike McCord
McCord, recruited to Montana from Phoenix as a cornerback, was a rotation player his first three years with the Griz. His final season in 2011, he played his best.
McCord had 53 tackles and three interceptions to earn second-team All-Big Sky honors for a team that won a conference crown that was eventually negated.
He finished his Griz career with 139 tackles and those three picks.
Punt returner – Jerry Louie-McGee — Mr. Electricity. The nickname says it all.
The diminutive slot receiver arrived at Montana as a walk-on who spent his final prep season playing in Coeur d’Alene but who grew up in Worley, Idaho. He finished his Griz career with more receptions (230) than anyone in school history and with a reputation as one of the most explosive punt returners the Big Sky Conference has seen.
The four-time honorable mention All-Big Sky wide receiver also tied Griz legends LeVander Segars and Marc Mariani for most punt returns for touchdowns in a career as a Griz. He took a punt 81 yards for a score against Northern Iowa in 2016. He took a punt 48 yards for a score against Northern Arizona in 2017. He took a punt 74 yards to the house against North Alabama in 2019.
Louie-McGee averaged 11.4 yards per punt return for his career, returning 68 punts for 772 yards in his career. He earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a junior and unanimous first-team All-Big Sky recognition as a senior returner.
Punter– Eric Williams
The Missoula Loyola native walked a completely unorthodox path to becoming Montana’s punter from 2016-2018. He began his career at Division III Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
There, he finished tied for second in his respective league in punting average. He transferred back home and sat out the 2015 season.
Williams averaged more than 40 yards per punt for three years straight for the Griz. He had a long of 61 yards as a senior and finished his career seventh in school history with a career average of 40.9 yards per punt.
He totaled 12 touchbacks, pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 50 times and had 19 punts of more than 50 yards.
He was also one of the most accomplished students in the Griz athletic department during his career.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez, Jason Bacaj, Blake Hempstead or provided by UM athletics.
Honorable mention: DT Bryan Waldhauser, DT Jesse Sims, DE Tucker Schye, LB J.P. Kanongata’a, LB Herbert Gamboa, LB Kendrick Van Ackeren, LB Jeremiah Kose, LB Josh Buss, LB Connor Strahm, CB Anthony Goodwin, CB Houston Roots, CB Ryan McKinley, CB Josh Denard, CB J.R Nelson, S Justin Strong.