Don Read and his staff had been in place for the better part of two seasons when the Montana team bus rolled into Bozeman for the 1987 Cat-Griz showdown, later dubbed the Brawl of the Wild.
Football fans crowded the streets along Montana State's Sales Stadium, soon the home of a then-record 17,027 occupants. They jeered the visitors, nomads of hardly 200 miles, yet sworn enemies for this Saturday and beyond dating back to the first intrastate battle in 1897.
As the bus drew closer to the stadium, assistant coach Robin Pflugrad, a migrant from Read's old institution at Portland State, spotted something dangling from the ramparts. Were those nooses? And stuffed bear heads?
"Man, this is intense," Pflugrad recalled thinking. "I thought I would understand, but I didn't. During warmups, it was unbelievable what people would say. Talk about learning some new language. I learned a lot in Bozeman."
The Brawl of the Wild rivalry series, a football slugfest and traveling circus that alternately visits Missoula and Bozeman biennially, is now reaching its 115th iteration. Thousands of players and hundreds of coaches, many Montana residents and even more instant converts, have added their names to the series' untamed history.
Dozens more will be baptized into the Treasure State tradition this November, into one of the longest running college football rivalries in America. Chief among them: Griz first-year head coach Bob Stitt, the first Montana head man with no prior ties to the program since Read's hire three decades ago.
As Pflugrad discovered back then, 23 years before he'd become Montana's 34th head coach, and as Stitt and his holdovers from the Nebraska native's days at Colorado School of Mines will soon see, this is no ordinary rivalry.
"We won the game (in 1983) and it was the only game we won and it felt like we won the national championship," said former Bobcats coach Mike Kramer (2000-06), now the head coach at Idaho State, of his first taste of the Brawl as an assistant (1983-86). "That rivalry eclipses almost any other type of game you'd play. It morphs into something that's its own fabric."
Sports rivalries exist at every level of competition, from pee-wees to pros, but few are as distinctly without distraction as Montana's feature involving its only two NCAA Division I programs.
There are no pro teams in Montana, no other major draws to dilute the distaste with a melee rather than a brawl. At the highest level of competition, former Griz coach Mick Delaney said, there are only the Bobcats and the Grizzlies.
"The whole state is involved in that," said Delaney, a retired Griz assistant (1968, 2008-09) and head coach (2012-14), as well as a one-time MSU assistant (1978-80).
"Whether you went to Western or Carroll or Tech or wherever, that weekend you're either a Grizzly or a Cat and there's no fence riders, no in-betweens."
When the Bobcats hired Rob Ash to oversee their program, the Iowa native quickly realized the extent of the fanaticism covered much more than one weekend a year. Year 1 of his tenure, the murmurs about those from beyond the Divide followed his team throughout the season.
"It's all year long. It's all season. It never goes away," said Ash (2007-present). "The rivalry exists and permeates everything you do. It's 365 days a year."
That's an intensity -- and corresponding pressure -- that creates as much excitement as it does occasional uneasiness in a coach's stomach.
Pflugrad (head coach 2010-11, assistant 1986-94) learned that in the fire of the moment in the mid-80s. Even after returning to the school the better part of two decades later, this time with stops around the Pac-12 on his résumé, there was just something about the Brawl.
The Civil War (Oregon-Oregon State) was great, sure, and you can't forget the Apple Cup (Washington-Washington State) or the Duel in the Desert (Arizona-Arizona State), but Montana left an impression, he said.
It felt like Auburn vs. Alabama -- and losing an Iron Bowl is like losing a limb.
"I'm Don Read's disciple right? Shoot, Don never lost to 'em, I'm not going to," Pflugrad said of his first intrastate matchup as head man in 2010. "Not to be arrogant at all, but it was a mindset. You just don't lose to the Bobcats."
Two Grizzly fumbles at the goal line in Missoula that year helped Montana State argue otherwise, a hurt Pflugrad said may never heal.
"When we lost the Rose Bowl to Ohio State (in 1997) when I was with Arizona State, and had we won that we would have been national champions, it's right there with that loss," said Pflugrad, now the operator of Pflugrad Athletic Consulting in the Phoenix area.
One hundred and eighteen years after the "Varsity" from Missoula defeated State College of Bozeman, 18-6, "intense" is among the first words offered by a half dozen former and current coaches to describe the game. The severe descriptor comes from each side of the rivalry, which is led officially 71-37-5 by Montana.
Sometimes both from one coach.
Like his fellow Butte native Delaney, Mick Dennehy had stops with both sides' staffs. Unlike Delaney, Dennehy also played in a few Brawls (1969, 1971-72).
"You caught a little bit of it, probably caught more grief from people in Missoula and Grizzly fans than the other way around," said Dennehy of becoming a Bobcat assistant (1980-81) years before taking over Montana's offensive coordinator (1991-95) and head coaching (1996-99) jobs. "There were some barbs thrown."
The ferocity of the rivalry -- both among the players and the hundreds of thousands cheering their respective sides around the nation's fourth-largest state -- didn't feel much different from either side, Dennehy said. And heck, it was just as important to win that one game a year in the 60s as it is today.
"The uniforms get fancier, the recruiting bases get farther and farther away from home, the stadiums evolve, but in spite of all those things, I don't think we went on to the field in 1969 any less fired up to kick the Bobcats' asses than we did when we were coaching in 1999," said Dennehy, retired now as well and living at Canyon Ferry.
"It was big then and it's big now. The only thing that changes are the faces."
Occasionally, the stakes of the game grow based on sheer legend alone. A rumor causes further fissures and adds to the history, arguments break out over the validity of Cat-Griz vs. Griz-Cat and whispers become facts.
Take Montana's decade-long ritual involving a certain hotel in Livingston, a half hour to Bozeman's east. Since the days of head coach Bobby Hauck (2003-09), the Griz have stayed there, just because they hate Bozeman and the Cats that much, right?
"The reality of it was Livingston was a great place to hide out," said Hauck, who grew up in nearby Big Timber and now coaches special teams at San Diego State. "There were zero distractions. It was quiet, just us. The people at the hotel there did a nice job and our guys were able to focus in. Consequently we played pretty well down there."
Hauck can chuckle now at what the myth became, though he had no intention of dispelling it any earlier.
"We could tell our players, 'Yeah, we ain't stayin' there'. ... We can fuel the fire any way we wanted, but the truth comes out 6, 7 years later."
The Brawl of the Wild can be a pleasure -- "It's still fun to watch it from afar," coach Kramer said. "I know everybody gets caught up in it, but God do I sure enjoy it" -- but also a pain.
Everyone's an expert that week, coach Ash said, and the advice is never ending. Sifting through the armchair quarterback counsel to find the gems of value can be as arduous as dissecting a stout Grizzly defense.
"I got a lot of help, as I recall, from a lot of people," Ash said of his first Brawl. "That's kinda how it goes around here."
Pflugrad's best advice for a first-year coach wading into the heart of the heat? Find as much information as possible on experiences and successes of former players and coaches. The Grizzlies' coach Stitt has plenty of outlets for information in that regard, a half dozen of his assistants having coached and/or played in one of the 114 previous Brawls.
"Learn about it, come to understand it, embrace it, but don't downplay it," coach Dennehy added. "Because it's pretty friggin' important."