History was made Friday by a group of high school football coaches who are accustomed to doing just that.
Nine of Montana’s 11 winningest coaches — only Nos. 4 and 5 were missing — gathered in the same room for the first time, at Billings’ Big Horn Resort & Conference Center. Their dual missions: To honor Sonny Holland, one of the state’s most admired football players and coaches at any level, and to voice their support for restoring football to Montana State University Billings after a 36-year absence.
Rick Halmes, who played at the school when it was known as Eastern Montana College and today is the primary driver behind jump-starting football as creator of a group called Big Huddle, did the math.
“There’s 2,500 wins sitting there,” Halmes announced, giving pause even to the coaches who orchestrated them.
Said Drummond’s Jim Oberweiser, ranked ninth with 215 victories, of being on the same stage with such a heady group: “It’s pretty humbling.”
Added Frenchtown’s Tim Racicot, No. 3 with 258 wins in 32 years: “It’s awesome.”
Agreed Mike Gear of Sidney, No. 5 at 222: “It’s very humbling, but it’s also very enjoyable because we don’t get to see each other very often. It’s a great experience.”
Missing were Bob Cleverley of Ennis (223-68-1 in 35 years) and Harry “Swede” Dahlberg of Butte (222 victories in 33 years), both deceased. Members of Cleverley’s family attended Friday’s Big Huddle event; none could be located for Dahlberg, who retired in 1955.
The others came to honor Holland, a three-time All-American at Montana State in the late 1950s who was once voted the greatest Bobcat athlete of the 20th century. Holland coached at both Great Falls high schools and later led the Bobcats to the NCAA Division II national championship in 1976 before retiring a year later.
Holland lives in Bozeman, where he plays golf regularly and laments not having enough time to fish. He also still travels to Bobcat football games as a guest of the program.
Holland drew the loudest applause with his response to a question about restoring football to MSU Billings, which competes at the NCAA Division II level in its 17 intercollegiate sports.
“Football was here and people have never given up hope,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of meeting and greeting and pounding the pavement. You’re looking at a challenge bigger than maybe any of us realize.
“But Billings has an opportunity. Whether you’re up to it, I don’t know. It can’t be just a dream. You’ve got to be packing your lunch bucket every day. But I think the sky’s the limit.”
Holland had plenty of partisan support from his nine fellow coaches seated side by side at a long table in a room dressed in MSU Billings blue and gold for later dinner and revelry. Eastern Montana high school coaches in particular like the idea of their athletes remaining in state and not leaving for North Dakota simply because its colleges are closer.
“It’s amazing the people who get in the conversation (about MSU Billings football),” said Miles City’s Ed Rohloff, No. 7 on the victory list at 217 and an assistant coach at Eastern Montana College in 1970. “There’s a lot of support.”
As high school coaches looking for optimum player opportunities, some supported MSU Billings initially joining the Frontier Conference for football. They’d also like to see Yellowjacket rivalries rebuilt with Montana-Western, Carroll, Montana Tech and, especially, Rocky Mountain College.
“One of the biggest rivalries was Western-Eastern,” recalled Terry Thomas of Dillon, No. 10 on the list with 211 wins. “People in Dillon have fond memories of that.”
Everyone on the panel was aware that MSU Billings has embarked on a feasibility study in an effort to produce a strategic plan for its athletic department. Likely to be included is where football might or might not fit.
Jack Johnson of Great Falls C.M. Russell, No. 1 in victories with 340, had a succinct opinion on the prospect of MSU Billings making football history:
“Go for it.”