That was one short retirement.

Mick Delaney, who announced his retirement from coaching in February, was named the Montana Grizzlies’ interim football coach Friday, replacing Robin Pflugrad.

UM President Royce Engstrom, who fired Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day on Thursday, also named senior associate athletic director Jean Gee to replace O’Day on an interim basis.

Delaney, 69, had been the Grizzlies’ running backs coach for the past four seasons, the last two under Pflugrad. He’s a 44-year coaching veteran who was an assistant at UM under Jack Swarthout from 1968-69, and at Montana State (1978-79) and Colorado State (1993-2007) under Sonny Lubick.

Delaney will rejoin the Griz just before they reconvene spring drills on April 9. He said President Engstrom asked him to be the coach Friday afternoon.

“He called and asked if I’d be interested in trying to help,” Delaney said from Butte. “And I just felt at this time it was the right thing to do. As difficult as things were yesterday, he asked if I’d be interested in trying to keep things together.”

Gee, who’s been employed in UM’s athletic department for 15 years, echoed Delaney in that restoring some calm to the situation was key.

“When the President offered it to me I accepted it without hesitation because I love this department, and almost more than that I love these student-athletes,” Gee said. “And the thing I want more than anything is to have them be the least-impacted as possible. That’s what motivated me to say yes.

“And I’m pretty darned excited about having Mick come back and bring that stability for the guys, too. That’s going to be huge for them.”

Delaney was as shocked as anyone by Thursday’s news.

“I was completely,” he said. “It’s been a hard, hard day, yesterday and today. I’m close to Robin and Jim both, and when something like this happens your heart goes out to them. They’re tremendous people and I respect them both.”

Delaney has been a head coach before: He coached his college alma mater, UM-Western, from 1991-92; he guided Great Falls High to the 1974 State AA football championship; and he was UM’s wrestling coach in 1968-69.

“He’s my coach,” Bob Beers, who coaches the Griz offensive linemen, said Friday. “He coached my son (at UM-Western); he’s coached me (in 1968). I’ve coached with him and we’re going to support him and be behind him.

“I think viewing the circumstances and the way they went, it’s probably a good pick for what’s going on right now. It solidifies the staff; it doesn’t fracture the staff. Our feelings are hurt, but there’s no resentment. He’s a good choice.”

Delaney returned to UM in 2008 following the firing of Lubick by CSU. He left on Feb. 9, and now he’s back with little idea on how long he’ll stay.

“I can’t answer that right now,” he said. “I just know where it’s at right now – that we’ll do what we have to do, which is finish spring ball on an up note, get the summer program going and get ready for a strong fall. I’m not thinking about the interim part at all. It’s always a one-day-at-time deal anyway.

“It’s about the kids, it’s not about me,” he added. “They’re a tremendous bunch of really, really good players that I’ve been close to since the day they walked in there. I’ll do everything I can to continue the tremendous success that they’ve had.”

Delaney said he spoke with Pflugrad Friday.

“I talked to him the first minute Royce Engstrom called me,” he said. “He has mixed emotions right now. It’s been a very hard experience for him. Right now he feels, I’m sure, that he should be the head coach. But he’s about the program and the kids, too. And he knows we’ll try to keep things going the way they should be going.”

Around 75 players have been taking part in spring drills and Delaney said he knew of no departures in the wake of Pflugrad’s firing. Pflugrad said Thursday he felt Jordan Johnson, who is under investigation for sexual assault and was rumored to be leaving, would stay with the Griz.

Pflugrad’s dismissal came on the heels of Johnson’s return to practice last Saturday amid positive comments from the former coach. That precipitated a rebuttal letter from the lawyer representing Johnson’s accuser.

Gee, a member of the Athlete Conduct Team that cleared Johnson’s return to the field, could not say if any one factor or several factors led to the dismissal.

“I’m not privy to President Engstrom’s reasons for his decision,” Gee said. “I won’t comment on that.

“It’s a tough time. I told people that I’m close to that we’re going through a mourning period. We’ve lost two close friends and so it is tough. I think it is a little helpful in both Mick’s and my case that people know who we are within in the department. It’ll help us with that transition and help us move forward.”

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

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