Michael Francis Delaney is 72 years old and figures, as the boxes pile up in his office at the University of Montana, there’s only been 6-7 years since 1964 when he didn’t coach.
“But four of them I was athletic director at (Montana) Tech,” he adds.
That was in the 1980s, after Sonny Lubick was let go at Montana State University in 1981 and before Delaney became head coach and athletic director at Montana-Western in 1991.
He holds Western in high esteem, having played football for the Bulldogs from 1961-64. They had some excellent teams – the 1963 team was recently inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame – and he had a great time both times he settled there.
“I was completely happy at Western,” he said. “I liked Dillon, went to school there, had an aunt and uncle there. I could have been very content to stay in Dillon until now. Or whenever I retired.”
Fate intervened. Lubick, fresh off a couple national championships as defensive coordinator at Miami, was hired as Colorado State’s head coach in 1993. The Rams hadn’t been good, but Lubick endeavored to hire good assistants and recruit well enough to change the program’s image.
One of the first guys Lubick called was Mick Delaney.
Time flies, doesn’t it. It’s been two decades and if Delaney didn’t imagine landing in Fort Collins, Colorado from Dillon, he couldn’t have predicted what has happened since.
Delaney has been back at Montana for seven seasons, the last three as head coach after a short-lived – five weeks, give or take – retirement in 2012.
A couple Saturdays ago it all ended, with the Grizzlies’ 37-20 loss on the red turf at Eastern Washington.
Delaney’s first college coaching job had been in Missoula, when he became UM’s wrestling coach in 1968, and now the circle was complete.
“To have it end the way it did, by coming back here and being the head coach – it was not even supposed to happen,” he said. “And it did. I’m so blessed and so fortunate that God put me in a place to spend three years with this group of seniors. Four and five years for some of them.”
Delaney came back to Missoula after CSU let Lubick go after the 2007 season, but had no plan on coaching until he came to the funeral for Bob Hauck, Sr., in March of 2008.
“I was possibly going to scout for the Texans,” Delaney said. “It was about the same time Tim (Hauck) was leaving, and Bobby had talked to a couple people and for whatever reason, those two people couldn’t take the running backs job.
“He told me he couldn’t pay me much more than nothing. I said, ‘I’d need a little more than nothing – enough to play a little golf and make my house payment.’
“It was good. Those two years with Bobby were excellent. I was happy to be able to work with him and the guys that worked with him. They’re still my dear friends.”
The friends add up over seven decades. Delaney, who grew up a couple houses from Hauck, Sr., on Butte’s Westside, took his first job at Butte Central, and assisted then-Maroons’ coach Bob Petrino.
He was at UM during the Jack Swarthout era and hoped to land a full-time job as a football assistant with the Griz. When that didn’t get approved, Swarthout helped Delaney get a job teaching English and coaching wrestling at Great Falls High, where Bill Swarthout was superintendent.
Delaney joined Gene Carlson’s football staff, and took over the Bison when Carlson left after the 1973 season. Delaney’s Bison won the State AA title in 1974; his wrestling team won a title as well, in 1972.
“Great Falls was very good for me,” he said.
Delaney moved to MSU in 1978 to join Lubick’s first staff as a head coach. When Lubick was fired, Delaney was on the verge of becoming head coach at Bozeman High. He’d started a weight program and figured he’d have a teaching job when a mill levy passed.
When it failed, twice, Delaney moved back to Butte work sold insurance and helped his brother Charlie run the Vu Villa Bar.
It was a tough time. Delaney’s first wife was losing a battle with cancer, and the idea of pursuing another, possibly distant coaching job wasn’t reasonable.
After his wife passed, he had another problem.
“Drinking’s a funny deal,” Delaney says now. “You got to the point where you drank when you won and then you drank when you lost. So you drank all the time.”
Working in a bar didn’t help. Living in Butte didn’t help either.
“The culture in Butte, unfortunately – there was a lot of alcohol involved, a lot of cigarettes and chewing tobacco, from a very young age,” he said. “There was a point where I said, ‘I’ve got three kids to take care of, I’m still in partnership with my brother at the bar, so I’d better try to do something.’ ”
Delaney went to treatment and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s been sober since the spring of 1985.
“I was never arrested, I never got in trouble with the law,” he said. “I never lost everything, although I could have.
“It’s not going to happen until you decide to do it yourself. I decided to get help, and thank God I did.”
The Montana Tech athletic director job tided Delaney over until Mick Dennehy, who’d restarted UM-Western’s football program in 1989, left to be offensive coordinator under Don Read with the Griz after two years.
Off to Dillon Delaney went. And when Lubick called in 1993, off he went to Fort Collins.
“(Lubick) gave me an opportunity for one more shot at FBS football,” Delaney said. “My kids were mostly grown – one was still in college and a junior. It was real easy to be able to leave. And Cheri and I had been married by then about 5-6 years.”
Delaney doesn’t remember or offer many details of his first date with Cheri; he just knew she had pal’d around with a second cousin, and hung around the VuVilla some.
“We just started to run together a little bit,” he said. “She was a competitive racquetball player.”
The ensuing 15 years were a high point. Fort Collins became a football town as Lubick won more and more games, 108 in all.
It’s no wonder Delaney feels blessed. His arrival back at UM synced with Chase Reynolds’ emergence at running back and back-to-back FCS title game appearances by the Grizzlies.
Then Bobby Hauck left for UNLV after the 2009 season.
“I’d decided that was probably good,” Delaney remembered. “I’d go back to Butte because I had a home there. Then Robin Pflugrad said, ‘Would you stay help me for a year,’ and so I stayed and helped him for two.
“Then I went home and the other stuff happened and I came back.”
Pflugrad’s departure came with Jordan Johnson and other unnamed Grizzlies under investigation for sexual assaults. It was the most trying time in the program’s history, and Delaney answered the call.
“I remember coming in, and we had the team meeting,” defensive end Zack Wagenmann said. “He kind of explained what happened – how everything went down and why he was there, and why he decided to come out of retirement.
“And that was just because he felt so strongly about the program. He wanted to help out any way that he could at that time.”
Whether discipline problems were perceived or real within the program, Delaney gave it stability and no-nonsense leadership.
Along the way he jettisoned some holdover assistants that Pflugrad brought in.
"That staff came back to work for Robin and not for me," he said. "None of them for the most part wanted to work for me. Beersy (Bob Beers) went back to the NFL and I had to convince 3-4 others that they should maybe be doing something different.
"The last three years have been great. I haven't lost a guy other than Rosie (Timm Rosenbach)."
Delaney was putting his stamp on things.
“I was biased,” Wagenmann, an All-America who set the Grizzlies’ career marks for sacks, tackles for loss and fumbles forced. “I was recruited by him.
“I thought he was perfect for the situation we were going into – that old-school mantra of, ‘This is how we are going to do things. There won’t be any other way.’ ”
Montana won 24 games and went 1-2 in the playoffs under Delaney, but that can’t be his true measure. The man just wanted to coach football, but he ended more than a career assistant.
“I’m lost,” he admitted this week. “I’m having a hard time letting go. I’m not used to not telling someone what to do.”
Yet Delaney is firmly confident that this is the time. When he announced his first retirement in 2010, he wasn’t sure. But the past three years coaching the Griz put a surprising postscript on a career he never imagined.
He worries about the assistants that won’t keep jobs under new coach Bob Stitt, since it’s nearly Christmas, but another trip to The Masters beckons. Stitt and his staff take over a program that could’ve gone south in 2012, but kept its edge with a simple approach.
“We’re going to work hard,” Wagenmann remembered. “We’ll play when we get to play, but we’re going to work hard and do things right.”