MISSOULA — If you are around track and field in Montana, whether the high school or college level, chances are you have walked past or chatted with Doug Darko.
The former Montana track and field standout who still holds the Dornblaser Field record in the steeplechase at 8:48.44 — he set the record back in 1975 (Dean Erhard has the program record set in 1977 at 8:40.64) — has helped put together a gathering that has been, well, decades in the making.
About 25 years ago, Darko, who coached his hometown runners at Great Falls CMR for 25 years, gave his old team captain Alan Joscelyn a call. The 1972 Big Sky Conference title-winning team — which came in Boise, Idaho, during Darko's freshman season — had passed its silver anniversary of winning the program's first and only league title. A reunion was held then, with the help of Darko, Bill Zins and Joscelyn cold-calling just about every person from the team they could think of to join in on the celebration and remembrance.
Sure, some were in town for the 2019 Big Sky Conference title meet when it was Montana's turn to host or in 2013 when the team was inducted into the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame, but this time around is different as the group hits the 50th anniversary.
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Now, another 25 years since the quarter-century celebration, about 20 members of the '72 men's team are expected to attend Saturday's Tom Gage Invitational in Missoula to honor the title-winning team and cheer on the current crop of Grizzlies at Dornblaser Field, where they all once competed.
Darko faced a major medical issue that forced him to be air-lifted to Seattle because of a brain hemorrhage. He had to stop coaching and teaching, and in his words, work to find out what he is supposed to do in his life from there on.
Connecting with current and former track and field athletes of all levels has been the push along the path of life as he has faced the grips of his mortality and of those around the old trackster.
"I'm at the point where I am trying to figure out what life is all about," Darko said during a Wednesday phone interview with the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com. "Track is there and I will just keep doing that. ... I think that just keeps me motivated.
"I was probably the most jacked up person in the country when I saw that Joel Mendez ran 8:42. I knew he had it in him and I watched the Al Manuel and I said 'You got a great water jump' and he said 'Yeah but my hurdling stinks.' I think he kinda straightened it out."
While getting the chance to be with his old teammates — reminiscing, telling stories and mourning those who couldn't make the trip due to ailments or who have passed away — will be a wonderful experience for Darko, he has a love and admiration for the current Grizzlies that he continues to let shine through. Darko is a regular at major events, from the Big Sky Conference title meet that was in Missoula in 2019, to the annual Al Manuel Invite, to high school meets when he moonlights as an official from time to time.
Or, just hiking down Mount Sentinel.
"I've always been really active with track," Darko said. " ... I was hiking the M and I came down and I ran into two guys who looked like track guys jogging in — it was AJ Eckman and Joel Mendez, who has ran a really good steeplechase this year. So we started developing a really good friendship and I was interested in track and it was divine intervention I ran into him down by the fieldhouse after my hike."
Darko has followed them closely, particularly Mendez, given the shared event with the steeplechase — aka the grueling 3,000-meter race with a barrier and trough of water just after the final curve each lap.
Mendez's PR in the event rose to 8:42.22 at the Bryan Clay Invite this season, a mark that is just seconds off Darko's Dornblaser record. A saying was shared to Darko as he gets a chance to watch another upstart steeplechase runner gun for a field record.
"It's kinda a pay-it-forward thing, but the first thing I did when Mendez ran the 8:42 I texted a good friend of mine, George Cook, who was a great hurdler and I kinda learned hurdling from because I was a clumsy dummy when I started. So, I called him and he said 'Records are made to be broken.'"
"And I go 'Yeah, they are.'"
Revisiting the title team
Montana came close to breaking through for men's titles in the 1960s and early '70s with a runner-up finish in 1965 in the Big Sky's second year of existence, but once it did, the team didn't know just what it would mean at the time.
Winning a title in any sport is a feat.
It isn't easy, despite what the insane run that Northern Arizona cross country has put together the majority of the last decade would show you. The UM men's program has gone 50 years without a league title.
"We had no idea, at the time, what it meant," Joscelyn said to UM Athletics in a news release about the upcoming anniversary. "We were just excited to win. As the years have passed, it's become clearer just how special that team was."
"There hasn't been a champion in 50 years," Zins said in the UM release. "I don't say that to fault any other team but to show how much goes into winning a championship. In '73, they had a couple injuries, and an event or two that didn't go their way. In order to win a championship, everything has to go in your favor, and for us, after all of those years coming just short, we finally did it."
Montana boasted just two seniors that season, Joscelyn and Zins, who tallied a combined one point out of Montana's 147. But then came the freshman who came up with the key marks to add needed depth.
Ric Brown won the 440 yard and went second in the 220 yards. Darko was third in the 3-mile and the steeplechase. Craig Stiles won the javelin with a toss of 242-9, which still stands as a school record (it is worth noting that the javelin has been altered since then). In all, UM won four individual titles, with Glenn Chaffey (triple jump) and Cook (steeplechase) joining Brown and Stiles atop the podium.
After winning the title, Darko said, a celebration that he has remembered clear as day ensued.
"We go in the locker room and I ran the 3-mile so the three of us that were in were out after cooling down and we came back and everything was soaked," he said. "They were pouring champagne over everything and the athletic director was there and he was not happy. One of my best friends, he goes, 'Here, you gotta have some of this,' and I just got through running three miles, it was warm and I took a sip and spit it out and go, 'That's terrible.' That's one of the fondest memories I can remember.
"Putting the banner on the bus and having to stop too many times on the way home because everybody drank too much champagne, that was one found memory."
Members of the '72 team expected to be in attendance Saturday are Ric Brown, Jim Casey (assistant coach), Bill Codd, Boyd Collins, George Cook, Doug Darko, Tom Feeley, Howie Johnson, Alan Joscelyn, Rick Kendall, Harley Lewis (head coach), Dick Miller, Bob Morigeau, Tim O'Hare, Wes Priestly, Tom Roberts, Allen Stockdale, Lee Urbaniak, Jim Vanmansart and Bill Zins.