Cyndi Lauper and the Oak Ridge Boys were in the tape decks as a cavalcade of cars converged on Missoula.
It was the last Saturday of October 1986, one remembered by most sports fans as the night the baseball bounced between Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the World Series.
Not in Montana.
Here the Bobcats and Grizzlies were playing football for the 86th time, and the first in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Griz under new head coach Don Read had christened the arena one week earlier with a dramatic 38-31 win over Idaho State.
License plates with 1's, 2's, 5's, but mostly the 6's of Gallatin County were drawn like magnets to the Garden City.
The initial view that emerged from Hellgate Canyon as Missoula rounded into sight, even more than the unfinished concrete monolith of a stadium, was a giant Pizza Hut hot-air balloon strapped to its moorings by the Adams Fieldhouse annex.
A college student waiting for the light to turn green on East Broadway jumped out of her car, ran to one behind her, hugged the man at the wheel and ran back.
A herd of college-age students held up traffic at the next intersection, unhurriedly crossing the street sloshing cups of beer. They'd be in their 50s today.
Ninety minutes before kickoff, tailgate parties and barbecues were in full swing at both ends of the stadium. A carnival atmosphere prevailed on the crisp and sunny late morning.
The first of a record 13,362 fans – 19 more than attended the 1982 intrastate game at old Dornblaser Field across town – filtered into the stadium when the gates opened at noon.
Most of them cheered when seven Silvertip Skydivers plopped safely down on the new grass field. There was some irony later in the day when actor Michael Sergio parachuted into Shea Stadium in New York during Game 6 of the World Series wearing a sign that said “Let’s Go Mets.” He was immediately arrested, but the Mets beat the Boston Red Sox anyway after Buckner’s infamous error, then went on to win Game 7.
Back in Missoula, they cheered again when Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, the ex-All Pro for the Los Angeles Rams and current Lite Beer commercial all-star, administered the coin toss.
Game time snuck up and passed unnoticed by many outside the stadium, where alcohol was allowed.
The Bobcats were two years off a Division I-AA national championship and owned three consecutive victories over the Grizzlies under Coach Dave Arnold. The 1986 game matched teams with losing records and was rated a tossup – until UM quarterback Brent Pease started tossing the ball.
The Grizzlies scored on three of their first four possessions enroute to a 31-0 halftime lead and a 59-28 victory. It seemed fitting that the afternoon shadows enveloped the west side of the stands where Bobcat fans were seated.
High on the top row, perched on a folding chair, Don Benner of Missoula ("everybody calls me Sarge") goodnaturedly ribbed MSU fans. Tattooed and mustachioed, Benner reveled in the 63-degree afternoon and the college football game below him.
His was as good as any seat in the 14,000-seat stadium, Benner said. But it was the noise that enthralled him most, amplified by proximity to the field that had been dug down rather than built up.
"You couldn't even hear the crowd in that other field," Brenner told a Helena reporter, referring to the Grizzlies' old home at Dornblaser on South Higgins. That breezy, makeshift and supposedly temporary field, which had a 10-lane track between playing surface and sideline bleachers, had hosted UM games since the late '60s.
Kevin Bartsch, a sophomore linebacker for UM, remembered the noise level 30 years later.
"I'm 2 1/2 yards from (MSU quarterback) Kelly Bradley and I see his mouth moving, but all I hear is this deafening whine in my ears from the crowd," said Bartsch, today a claims manager in Helena. "I'd love to be down on the field with 25-26,000 people now because that was only about 15,000.”
Montana State's 14-member cheer squad, ranked third in the nation, seemed impressed with the new digs too, though sophomore Bonnie Geier of Helena didn't like the looks of the aluminum bleachers.
“Those benches are so cold and hard," she said.
Geier, a budding power lifting champion, wished too that there was more room to maneuver between sideline and concrete wall. It was a sentiment others shared in the early days of the stadium.
“I thought it would be a problem at first, too," Griz running back Renard Coleman said after the game. "But it's turned out OK."
The new $3.2 million stadium, built with a $1 million donation by construction magnate Dennis Washington, had much unfinished landscaping, and the private boxes on the west side weren't ready for occupancy.
Piles of dirt from the excavation sat outside the north fence, which offered decent viewing for those without a ticket.
“I just wish we could get it finished,” sighed Harley Lewis like a proud but nervous papa.
The UM athletic director had led the charge for a new stadium since he took over in 1975.
Completed or not, Lewis said, “It’s the best football stadium in the (Big Sky) conference.”
The game lasted a monstrous 3 hours, 46 minutes as Griz fans began getting used to the pass-happy, high-scoring, clock-stopping Air Read era.
Senior Bobcat linebacker and co-captain Kirk Timmer of Boulder was the face of dejection at the end, his hopes dashed for a fourth straight win over UM.
“It would have been nice to say I never lost to the Grizzlies,” Timmer said. “The worst part of it is to lose to them in my senior year. I can’t come back and redeem myself.”
Thirty years later, no Bobcat senior has come so close to a four-peat.
The revelry in Missoula that night was off the charts. The Montana Kaimin reported that more than 300 people were arrested over the weekend, 161 on Saturday night alone. Most were cited with open-container violations or disorderly conduct. A municipal judge was called into court early Saturday morning so people could be bailed out of jail to make room for more.
Something besides footballs was in the air that day. With brief respites, the Bobcats had dominated their in-state rivals since the two schools helped form the Big Sky Conference in 1963.
In Read’s 10 years at the helm, culminating in the 1995 Division I-AA championship, he never lost to Montana State, at home or away. Successors extended “The Streak” to 16 before Mike Kramer’s Bobcats broke through in 2002, in a complete and much larger Washington-Griz.
The Cats followed up with another ‘W’ in Bozeman the following season, still their only consecutive wins in the series since 1983-85 .
The ’86 Bobcats finished with a 3-8 record on the heels of 2-9 in 1985. The October loss in Missoula hastened the demise of the popular Arnold in Bozeman. His successor, Earle Solomonson, was fresh off two Division II national championships at North Dakota State but could wring only 15 wins out of the next five Bobcat teams.
The Grizzlies won three more games in 1986 to finish at 6-4, their first winning record in four years. They haven’t had a losing season since, though due to NCAA infractions they were forced to vacate their last five victories of 2011, including one in Bozeman.
UM has played in six more national championship games since 1995, winning a second title in 2001 under Joe Glenn.
They’re coming to town again, all those Montanans pouring in from Bozeman, Butte, Billings, Helena, Great Falls and Kalispell and so many smaller towns between and beyond.
Cyndi Lauper turned 63 this year, and the Pizza Hut balloon is long gone. The dominant view from Hellgate Canyon is that of the five-story Missoula College that’s expected to be finished by February.
There’s a humongous new scoreboard on the south end of the stadium. Behind it is – you guessed it – another large pile of dirt. Construction is underway on the Champions Center, which will feature an expansive football locker room and an even larger strength and conditioning center. It’s made possible by a “kick start” of $7 million donated by Kyle and Kevin Washington, son of the man who built the stadium 30 years ago.
These days they call the game the Brawl of the Wild, and since 2001 they play for the Great Divide Trophy. More than 26,000 will crowd in Saturday to watch and party, and there’s still not a bad seat in the place. Some will be chanting either “Poor Grizzlies” or “Poor Bobcats” at the end or, as was the case in ’86, long before.
“It feels unbelievable,” said Bartsch, the last player to leave the field after the first Brawl in Washington-Grizzly Stadium 30 years ago. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. We’re starting to reap the benefits.”