Cat-Griz Football

THE MATCHUPS: Vigen vs. The Rivalry


Between Sonny Holland’s last season leading the Bobcats in 1977 and Jeff Choate’s departure the most recent off-season, almost every Montana State coach have one thing in common: with the exception of Doug Graber’s one season at the helm in 1982, each of the other six Bobcat head coaches were relieved of their positions.   

And an enormous factor in almost every coaching change (save Dave Arnold, ironically) in Bozeman over the last four-plus decades has been Montana State’s ability to beat (or not) rival Montana.

On Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Brent Vigen will become the latest ‘Cat coach to be immersed in the fiercest rivalry in the West. Montana State is gunning for a fifth straight rivalry win over Montana, including a fifth win in its last six trips to Missoula.

“Looking forward to this week,” Vigen said on Monday. “Our guys are really excited, and it’s good that we’re within this week. There’s no looking ahead, there’s no looking back. We’re in this week here with a lot to play for.”

Montana State is the No. 3 team in the country in Vigen’s first season. MSU has won nine in a row overall this fall behind one of the top defenses in the country. They take on a suddenly surging Griz team that is on a four-game winning streak and back into the hunt for a playoff seed.

“This rivalry runs deep not only with our Montana kids but with our team,” Vigen said. “And that’s what you want. You want to be at programs that have rivalries like this. I would suspect that it’s right up there with any rivalry in the country. There is great rivalries at all levels and this is one of the top ones in the country, there’s no doubt about it.”

During the beginning of the Big Sky Conference era from 1963, the Bobcats won 12 of 15 games against the Griz. In 1978, Sonny Lubick led Montana State to the No. 1 ranking in the newly-formed Division I-AA level for the first tie only to lose tow weekends later to Montana, 24-8, in Bozeman.

By 1981, a 27-17 loss to Montana was part of a 3-7 season that ended in Lubick’s termination. Graber led MSU for one year before bolting to the NFL.

Dave Arnold led Montana State to the 1984 national championship, including a 34-24 over Montana. The season before, MSU went 1-10, the lone victory a 28-8 win over the Griz in Bozeman. In 1985, MSU went 2-9 but one win was a 41-18 win over the Griz in Bozeman. That marks the last time the Cats would beat the Griz for 16 years.

Graber’s final season, the ‘Cats went 3-8 including a 59-28 loss at the newly built Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Thus commenced the streak.

Montana State never beat the Grizzlies in Earle Solmonson’s five seasons or Cliff Hysell’s seven seasons leading up to the turn of the 21st century.

Former Montana State head coach Rob Ash in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

Mike Kramer, the man known as the Big Human, helped a Bobcat squad that went 0-11 in his first season in 2000 end “The Streak” with a 10-7 win over Montana in Missoula behind the bold play of true freshman quarterback Travis Lulay.

By the time Lulay graduated in 2005, Montana State had defeated the Grizzlies three times in four years, sharing Big Sky Conference titles thanks to two of those victories.

But Kramer was relieved of his duties in the spring of 2006 as controversy stemming from a drug ring connected to several MSU athletes and an eventual murder rocked the Gallatin Valley.

Enter Rob Ash. The squeaky clean, cerebral coach led Montana State to 65 victories between 2007 and 2015, including a run of three straight Big Sky titles from 2010 until 2015. The Bobcats made the playoffs four times between in five years. But a 2-7 record against the Griz that included a 36-10 beat down at the hands of the Griz at Bobcat Stadium when MSU was ranked No.  1 in the nation and sealed by a 54-35 home loss to Montana in 2015.

Choate went 28-22 at Montana State, including consecutive losing seasons to begin his tenure. He teams played smash mouth football but struggled to find any consistency passing the ball, in quarterbacks or coaches or coordinators.

Yet Choate is among the most revered coaches in Montana State history. Part of that resounding praise comes from leading MSU on a six-game winning streak in November and December of 2019 that included a 48-14 beat down of Montana in Bozeman and culminated in MSU’s first trip to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs in 1984.

Choate ended his entertaining, passionate tenure as Bobcat head coach with a perfect 4-0 record against Montana. Not even Sonny Holland can claim he never lost to the Grizzlies one time.

“I have absolutely no regrets about my time in Bozeman, Montana,” Choate said when he announced he was leaving for Texas. “It’s been a helluva ride. This place has embraced our family and it’s been awesome. And no matter where I go, what I do, I will always be able to say I never lost to Montana.”

Now Vigen has to navigate the expectations that come with the rivalry game, fair or not.

Montana head coach Bobby Hauck embraces former Montana State defensive coordinator Kane Ioane in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s the first thing they want to mention and I get it,” Vigen said. “There are many communities that want to be on the right side of that matchup every year. As a competitor this is a game you want to be a part of.”

Montana head coach Bobby Hauck has been immersed in the rivalry since he was a kid growing up in Missoula and Big Timber. He first got into the college coaching world as a graduate assistant on Don Read’s staff in the last 1980s before returning to UM for his first stint as head coach in 2003, a position he held for seven seasons and then returned to again before the 2018 season.

“Our perspective is about us and I don’t remember the first time I coached in this,” Hauck said. “I think it was 1988.

“The thing that stands out is that both sides are passionate about it, people care about the outcome and that’s what makes it what it is. People care here in Missoula and across Montana about how the Griz play every weekend but it’s probably magnified in this one.”

Hauck lost two of his first three games against Lulay and the Bobcats. But from 2006 until 2009, Montana ripped Montana State pretty handily in all four matchups with Hauck drumming up vitriol from around the state with his brash comments and take no prisoners attitude.

“We dropped the last two to these guys so we need a win and that’s what it is,” Hauck said. “I think they are good up front on both sides of the ball on both sides of the ball. That’s where it starts. It should be a heck of a game.”

Choate built a roster flush with veteran talent that has made this season’s success seem easy. When Vigen was first hired, he had to endure a vetting process from a hiring committee that included several Bobcat football players, including the team’s current team captains.

Senior offensive tackle Lewis Kidd was originally committed to Montana before flipping to the Bobcats. He’s in his fourth year as a starter on the offensive line and looking to move to 5-0 against Montana during his five seasons and six years on the MSU campus.

In other words, he is much more versed in the rivalry than most of his coaches, including new offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright and first-year wide receivers coach Justin Udy. But the rest of the Bobcat offensive staff, from running backs coach Jimmy Beal who played at Montana State to fifth-year offensive line coach Brian Armstrong to third-year tight ends coach Nate Potter have some experience in the game.

Montana State head coach Brent Vigen in 2021/by Garrett Becker – MSU Creative Services

Defensively, coordinator Freddie Banks has never coached in the game nor has defensive line coach Shawn Howe. But linebackers coach Bobby Daly was an all-time great player for the Cats and has been on staff since 2019. And Kyle Risinger has been in Bozeman since Choate first took the job.

“All these coaches are great coaches and they understand rivalries,” Kidd said. “They understand football and they understand how intense it it. And they feed off our intensity. And them just staying consistent like they have all season, this is a big game for us and they know that.”

When Vigen was first hired, he proclaimed one of his goals was to lead Montana State to its first national championship since 1984. The first response he got on social media? Well, what about beating the Griz?

It’s neat when you talk to different coaches from different eras and you study the history of the rivalry, when the Bobcats have had the upper hand, when the Griz have had the upper hand, why that’s come about, where it’s at right now, that’s what is so neat,” Vigen said. “There is so much history to it. And I’ve probably just scratched the surface as far as what I’ve learned.”

Amandre Wililams, a senior captain defensive end, transferred to Montana State from Washington before the 2019 season. Last year’s beat down of the Grizzlies in Bozeman was his first rivalry game experience. But it’s not tough to quickly get acclimated to the omnipresent rivalry once you step foot in the Treasure State.

“If you come anywhere near Bozeman or anywhere Missoula for that fact, you will know how big of a game it is,” Williams said. “You really don’t have to spend too much time describing to the guys, the guys on this team. The coaches will do a great job preparing and we understand how much this game means to us.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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