There were at least two excused absences from the 2001 Montana Grizzlies that brought home the program’s second national championship, when the team was honored Sept. 15.
Defensive end Ciche Pitcher got married over in Washington, you see. And defensive tackle Jonny Varona officiated the ceremony.
But more than 50 of the players who took part in that 15-1 season were in Missoula to celebrate the team’s induction into the Grizzly Hall of Fame. Head coach Joe Glenn was on hand as well, as were some of his 2001 assistants.
They were honored before Montana’s 34-14 win over South Dakota at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
It’s been 11 years since the principles were on the field in Chattanooga, Tenn., putting away Furman 13-6 in a title game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
It was a season interrupted by the 9/11 attacks – the Grizzlies’ game with Idaho was postponed until after Cat-Griz – and highlighted by sterling defense and a power offense.
“I was blessed to be in an offense that spent so much time with the run,” said Yohance Humphery, who ran for 2,101 yards that season, counting the playoffs. “But it was really balanced I think. We had great receivers and a great quarterback as well.
“All of those things kind of worked together.”
All of those things. Counting four playoff games, senior receiver Etu Molden caught 102 passes that season, for 1,414 yards and 16 scores. Junior John Edwards threw for 2,728 yards and 14 touchdowns. And yet this Griz team seemed to have a little something extra besides talent.
“The thing that stood out for me was that we were on a mission from the get-go,” said Humphery, who lives in his native Alaska, working as a clinical therapist. “That game in Hawaii kind of set the tone. We kind of got that vacation out of the way. We got beat – we got our tails handed to us – and we knew we couldn’t go into the season thinking the way we did when we were in Hawaii.
“We were mission-focused when we got back into the season.”
It was the Tuesday after the Hawaii game, a 30-12 road loss, that the World Trade Center attacks took place. The Grizzlies didn’t play for another 12 days. Then they didn’t lose again for 24 games.
They started with a 30-0 home win over Division II Western Washington, and continued with a 29-26 overtime home win over Eastern Washington.
If any game made these Griz a team of destiny, that might have been it.
“Look at Eastern Washington,” said Edwards, a junior quarterback that year. “That was in overtime, and we got to keep a fumble that Yo had probably, actually fumbled.
“There’s no doubt about it – it takes a lot of luck to get there. Then you need to do the best with it.”
A 42-7 win over Sac State was next, and then the Griz returned home to beat St. Mary’s out of California 49-19 – a game notable for backup quarterback Brandon Neill’s five touchdown passes, and Molden firing the ROTC cannon after one of his three scores.
An expected showdown at Northern Arizona the next week fizzled; the No. 2-ranked Griz shot out to a 38-0 halftime lead behind three Edwards TD passes and won 38-27.
Other games were closer. Montana needed two fourth-quarter TDs to subdue Idaho State 32-28 and trailed the Bobcats early on in a 38-27 victory.
The Griz needed overtime again to get past Idaho in their rescheduled game, 33-27, and in their first playoff they trailed Northwestern State 13-0 at halftime. Each time, they found a way.
“Here’s the Irish in me,” said Glenn, who went 39-6 in three years as UM’s coach. “But there’s got to be something a little bit more than talent that wins it. I’d like to think it’s camaraderie, the love of the game, the love of your teammates that maybe carries them a little bit farther than a team that’s just as talented.”
From there, the Grizzlies cruised through the playoffs: 49-24 over Sam Houston State; 38-0 over Northern Iowa, a game in which defensive back Dave DeCoite was sucker-punched by the UNI’s best player; then the title game in which Furman avoided the shutout with a Hail Mary on the final snap.
The Griz had 15 sacks in the postseason, seven of them from Pitcher. Vince Huntsberger had a fumble recovery and a pick in the title game.
Tim Bush had 18 tackles for loss that season. Defensive tackle Curt Colter put together back-to-back-to-back tackles against Northern Iowa, pushing the Panthers from first-and-goal at the 2 back to the 8; they then missed a field goal to end their lone real chance at scoring.
Colter, No. 91 to Bush’s 90, was in town for the Hall of Fame induction but then suddenly died of heart failure in October. Bush died in a mining accident two summers ago.
Defense wins championships, but losses can also inspire. Many of the Griz think back to their 2000 title game defeat, 27-25 to Georgia Southern, as an impetus.
“At least for me, there was a very distinct thought that it was really an accomplishment to get there,” said Pitcher, who as a sophomore had 18 sacks in 2001.
“But once you got there, you had to win. We were more confident for the Furman game than we were any of our playoff games. We felt like we were going to win it, just by getting there.”
“I was a junior and we’d been there in 2000 and lost,” Edwards, now a lawyer in Billings, remembered. “I got to contribute a lot in 2000 but that was still Drew Miller’s team. But there was definitely a feeling on that 2001 team that, ‘Hey, we’ve been there, we’ve played in the game, we’ve been through the hoopla. This should be old hat going forward. Nothing should surprise us; let’s just go out and try to win games.’
“There was a little bit of calm over that year as opposed to your first run through the playoffs.”
Receiver T.J. Oelkers, who sells medical devices in Boise, ran into then-offensive coordinator Billy Cockhill a couple years after the title run.
“He said of all his years coaching, that 2001 team was like being on autopilot,” Oelkers said. “It was the easiest year he had. More than anything we were just accountable – we didn’t have a lot of prima donnas. Just a bunch of hard-hat guys who went out and did their job every day.”
Oelkers said some credit may go to the members of Mick Dennehy’s staff that stayed on when Glenn came on board in 2000: Lance Robinson, Cockhill and Chad Germer.
“If they hadn’t stayed, I wonder if we would’ve been in the same spot,” Oelkers said.
Edwards loved the camaraderie of the team, particularly those times when he struggled.
“I had a couple games where I was off and on and off and on,” he said. “The one thing I do have a very fond memory of is the support the seniors showed. They always picked you up when you were down.”
Edwards and Oelkers feel blessed, as do their teammates.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get back there, because it does take some lucky breaks,” Oelkers said. “To get back there and seal the deal, it was pretty special.”
“John (Edwards) and I talked about this,” added Rory Zikmund, another receiver who now helps run a construction company in Bozeman. “People don’t realize what we had to put into it. It’s not easy — we’ve been there (in the title game) so many times since ’01 and have not brought it home again.
“It’s hard to believe. You’re 10, 11 years out of school and it’s one of those things you’ll always have.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Fritz_Neighbor on Twitter.