From football to FBI: a bigger rush for Renning

2009-09-14T16:00:00Z From football to FBI: a bigger rush for RenningBy BILL SCHWANKE of
September 14, 2009 4:00 pm  • 

Stan Renning loved playing linebacker for the Montana Grizzlies in the 1950s, and he was good at it.

Playing for a Skyline Conference team that won only three games and lost 26 from 1956 to 1958, "the Ram," as he was called back then, averaged more than 17 tackles per game and was named lineman of the game in 18 of the 22 contests for which votes were taken.

He was team most valuable player all three seasons, was all conference three times (first team in 1957 and 1958), and was named to multiple All-American teams as a junior and senior.

Renning, who also was a standout offensive guard, capped his career by being selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game. Unfortunately, an injury kept him from playing in it.

Renning still lives in Portland, Ore., where he moved in 1971 during the first and only transfer of his long career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Following mandatory retirement in 1994, Renning did corporate investigative work on a contract basis for former agents who had private firms for several years.

Coming out of what was then Montana State University, Renning had signed to play Canadian pro football in Edmonton. At that time the Canadian Football League only allowed 12 U.S. players on each team.

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By the time he got there the entire coaching staff had changed. On top of that Renning quickly figured out that his odds of making the team weren't very good, so he gave up playing football and returned to Missoula to get his teaching certificate.

During his teaching and coaching days in Columbia Falls, the Great Falls native said he had "some fair success over the years" and was lucky to coach with Ralph Johnson, at that time a legendary basketball coach.

Those were the days of the Big 32 when the smaller schools competed with the larger ones, and Johnson's Columbia Falls teams "beat 'em all," Renning recalled.

After about seven years of that, and facing one of those seasons when the talent cupboard would be bare again, Renning - at the urging of his wife, Bonnie - applied to the FBI.

Until Congress passed an omnibus crime bill in 1967, you pretty much had to have a law or accounting degree or be proficient in some foreign language to be considered for the Bureau.

But once the bill passed the FBI was free to hire 1,000 new agents. With the Viet Nam War winding down military officers became available, but Renning said teachers and coaches also became prime candidates.

Turns out he had befriended an FBI agent in Kalispell with nothing much to do besides recruit new agents - he was required to come up with a certain number - so Renning took the plunge.

In 1969 Renning was off to Washington, D.C. to begin training. He wasn't sure at the time he would make it a career because he had no family or personal connection to law enforcement.

"So I was going in there blind, but it turned out to be the right choice for me," Renning noted.

What faced Renning was about six months of basic training in two places - at the Washington, D.C. field office for the book learning part and at the Quantico, Va., marine facility for firearms and self defense training and the like.

In those days the FBI placed new agents at their first office for just a year before beginning what could be a series of transfers. But for Renning it was San Diego for the first year and Portland for the rest of his career, and that was just fine with him.

That, also, was a timing thing, because agents who joined the FBI after October, 1969, at some point had to take assignment to one of the 10 large field offices.

"It was very dicey," Renning said, "because most of the agents had families, had kids, (and) they had moved in, made a house payment, and then, bam, they were off to New York or wherever.

"The money did not quite match it so there were some hardships," Renning said, noting that agents were paid based on the size of the city where they were stationed. "A few people decided that they didn't want to do it."

As a rookie agent in San Diego Renning had three primary types of investigations to take care of. He went after military deserters, those who did not register for Selective Service, and bail jumpers.

For his first year in Portland it was pretty much the same with a bank robbery thrown in "here and there."

Finally Renning was assigned to what was called a reactive squad, and that really opened things up for him.

"During the whole course of my Bureau career there was just hardly anything criminal that I was not involved in," Renning said. "And for some reason, Oregon just had its share of everything, whether it was robbers, the worst kind of people, the most violent - kidnappings, murders - and then the white terrorists like the Aryan Nation later on."

Originally the Bureau based all of its hostage rescue personnel in Washington, D.C., but in the mid 1970s special weapons teams were established in each field office. Renning said he was lucky enough, at a relatively young age, to be selected for the one in Portland.

"Basically anything that had a propensity towards violence I was usually lucky enough to be around it," Renning said. "For me, personally, the whole thing was a rush. I just really enjoyed the whole experience and I worked with some great people."

For about a 10-year span the Portland office was the third most active in terms of the number of bank robberies it had to investigate. It worked out to between 250 and 300 bank robberies per year.

"Some of them were very sophisticated," Renning explained. "We had one group that would take a (bank) manager and his family hostage, hold them overnight, and then take them to the bank the next morning and make him open up the vault."

Renning was born and raised in Great Falls. He doesn't remember anything in particular that drew him to athletics and football but said it was just a progression from junior high tackle football into high school.

"When I was a senior we had a very good team (at Great Falls High)," Renning recalled. "We won the state championship (and) went undefeated.

The Grizzly coach at the time was Ed Chinske, but he resigned after the 1954 season. Also at about that time the school's alumni had become very active in trying to get Montana players to play in Missoula.

As it turned out, one of the more active alumni groups was in Great Falls.

Renning visited the universities of Washington and Colorado (where future UM coach Ray Jenkins was line coach) and also had a Mike Mansfield appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. But he would have needed at least a year of prep school to qualify academically for the academy.

Meanwhile MSU hired head coach Jerry Williams and assistants Bob Zimny and Laurie Niemi, all with pro football backgrounds. They lasted through Renning's junior season with the Grizzlies, and that's when Jenkins came on board.

Renning preferred defense to offense, noting that defensive schemes were not as complicated in those days as they are now. Playing both ways, especially during his first two years, it wasn't uncommon for him to lose 10 to 15 pounds during a season.

"I got beat up pretty bad sometimes," Renning said. "(But) I was lucky to play against some of the greats of that time."

Those greats included Jerry Kramer and Wayne Walker of Idaho and quarterback Lee Grosscup of Utah.

Renning said the Grizzlies had a lot players weighing from 170 to 180 pounds. There were no weightlifting programs back then, so players with size came by it naturally. He also said there were a lot of Korean War veterans playing college football in his day as well.

Despite the 3-26 record during his career Renning said that he never felt the Grizzlies were outsized that often and that they could compete with many of the Skyline teams, especially Utah State, Denver, BYU and New Mexico. Margins of defeat rarely were more than 20 points. The three wins during his time were 21-13 over BYU in 1956 and 35-25 over Utah State and 21-6 over New Mexico in 1957, back to back.

Renning felt the Grizzlies competed well and never laid down for any opponent despite the long odds. Grizzly teams in those days sported a lot of junior college transfers - many from California - and a great deal of player turnover from year to year due to academic problems.

"There were not the Montana kids (on the team) that you see now," Renning said. "They have some real talent there that wasn't there when I was in high school."

The only teammate Renning has stayed in touch with a lot - and even that's been somewhat off and on - is Montana Bockman, a Missoula product who now lives in Ronan.

"He was actually my best friend," Renning said. "'Tana and I basically coached together in high school in the same conference for a couple or three years."

By chance Renning, in Billings to do some FBI work during the 70s, ran into Bockman's wife on the street and asked with her husband was.

"She said, 'he's in the hospital. He's had a heart attack,'" Bockman recalled. "I got to see him in the hospital."

Contact between the two tapered off after that, but a couple of years ago Renning - again in Billings doing contract work - took a side trip to visit his old friend, who had lost a leg.

"It was very good," Renning said of the visit. "He and his wife, that's all they can talk about is Grizzly football."

Renning didn't have time to pay much attention to Grizzly football for the eight years he was coaching high school sports. For the bulk of his years with the FBI, however, he has seen almost every Griz game played at Portland State.

"For the first 10 years . . . we'd go and watch the people perform, not the players," Renning joked, "because the Montana people, at that time their traveling (contingent) was very demonstrative.

"They were very loyal, which was not the case when I was there."

Renning is impressed with the Grizzly product of recent years.

"The last time I saw them was two years ago and it was a heckuva game," Renning said. "Very impressive. The coaches, the players, the fans. They really have something going there."

Renning was part of the inaugural induction class for the new Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, but was unable to attend because he was involved in a trial. Nevertheless, it meant a great deal to him, as did his time playing football and attending school in Missoula.

"Obviously I could not go to college," Renning said. "My dad was a cement finisher, and in those days we didn't work so I could not go . . . were it not for an athletic scholarship."

He also looks back on his coaching days more fondly now than he did at the time he was doing it.

"How I got to where I got, I don't know," Renning reflected. "I don't know how, why or whatever, but it was just meant to be and it was a great time for me."

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