MISSOULA — It was a send-off fit for a king, and the crown is exactly what hundreds of Grizzly fans lining the streets of Missoula on Tuesday hope the University of Montana football team will bring home when they return from Tennessee.
Fans in business suits and hard hats, kids in Griz gear and adults holding maroon and silver pompoms cheered from Missoula’s slushy streets for four buses carrying the players and coaches to Missoula International Airport.
Monte led the two-block-long procession aboard a Missoula city fire engine. Police directed traffic for the mini-parade. The UM spirit squad hung out of maroon-colored vehicles and coach Bobby Hauck sat in the front of the first bus wearing a huge smile, waving to the hordes of people who broke away from work or made a special trip downtown to show their support for the team before the Griz boarded a plane for Chattanooga, Tenn.
There, they’ll play Villanova on Friday at 6 p.m. MST in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision national title game.
The weather was slightly warmer than a year ago when Missoula sent the team off to the national championship game in similar grandiose fashion. The fanfare didn’t produce a win in 2008; this year, fans are confident a victory is destined.
"Their record is better (than last year)," said Suzanne Williams, who joined her husband Roy on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Broadway to cheer on the Griz. "The team seems to be peaking right now."
The players, dressed in black warm-up uniforms, boarded the buses at the south entrance of Washington-Grizzly Stadium around 1:30 p.m. Dozens of university faculty, staff and community members were there, as well as the UM Marching Band, which played the fight song and Montana’s state song.
Valves on the instruments have a tendency to freeze in the cold, said band Director Kevin Griggs. On Saturday dur-ing the semifinal game against Appalachian State, band members used hand warmers to keep their instruments work-ing and sounding properly, he said.
Then, as though they were sitting inside the stadium watching an actual game, the crowd, who stood on one side of the team, exchanged chants of "Montana" and "Grizzlies" with the band members standing on the other side.
The team departed the university parking lot, traveled down Campus Drive, across the Madison Street Bridge, and took a left onto Broadway, which they followed all the way to the airport.
Ryan Watson should’ve been sleeping Tuesday afternoon, having come off the graveyard shift at a local nursing home. Instead, the 26-year-old Griz fan decided to sacrifice sleep to cheer on her team.
Last weekend’s playoff game against Appalachian State was "the best game I’ve ever seen in my life," she said while standing on a snowy corner downtown. "The stadium was magical."
Auto dealerships along West Broadway flashed the lights of cars on their lots and electronic readerboards flashed "Go Griz" and "There’s no nation like Griz Nation." All along West Broadway, cars pulled over to wave signs. One driver headed eastbound even held a Griz flag out the window as he passed by the team, completely neglecting the steering wheel.
On the corner of Broadway and Mullan Road, Garden City Funeral Home displayed a coffin with a stuffed cat inside. A 10-foot sign in the shape of a gravestone read: "Go Griz! Bury the Wildcats."
The funeral home has set up the display for every Griz sendoff event since 1996. Last year, a stuffed spider lay in the coffin.
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the way out to the airport.
Before boarding the flight east, wide receiver and fan favorite Marc Mariani left the bus and walked over to a young woman sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a Griz sweatshirt and gave her a hug. He posed with fans for pictures, wav-ing his finger No. 1, and high-fived the airport crowd.
Among them was Tom Donofrio of Stevensville, who held a homemade sign that read "See you at the game" and sported a picture of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Maroon and silver balloons floated up from the sign.
Donofrio, a local real estate broker, pulled a black permanent marker from his jacket, and Hauck provided the first autograph. A dozen players followed suit. It won’t be Donofrio’s first trip to Chattanooga to cheer on the Griz, but he’s confident it’ll be the first time he’ll have made the trip to witness a win, he said. The last time he went was 2004, when the Griz lost to James Madison.
As for the sign, well, after he returns, Donofrio said he’ll write the winning score on it and hang it where the team is sure to see it.