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The New Mick: Ex-UM coach Mick Dennehy surfaces in Boulder, where the fishing's good and life is great
After 32 years of coaching football around the west, former Montana Grizzlies football coach Mick Dennehy has a new job as activities director at Jefferson High School in Boulder. Part of that job is making sure the locker rooms at the school have clean towels on game days.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER of the Missoulian

BOULDER - Jefferson High School, nestled between

Highway 69 and the Boulder River, is 157 miles from the University of Montana and a universe away from Utah State University.

Mick Dennehy, former head football coach at UM and USU, is wearing a purple golf shirt emblazoned with "Jefferson High Athletics."

He's heading down a hallway to the training room to make a cooler ready for that night's officials.

It's Thursday, and the Boulder Panthers have volleyball matches with Manhattan High, beginning at 4 p.m. Dennehy, hired as Boulder's activities director in May, fills the cooler with ice and retrieves two bottles of Diet Pepsi and one Pepsi regular from the pop machine.

"The Butte officials want beer," he cracks. "But I can't justify that."

Dennehy, born and raised in The Mining City, was a football coach for 32 years, starting at Colton High School in Washington in 1973. He was dismissed as Utah State's coach during the 2004 season, though he led the Aggies through their final two games.

Gone were the 16-hour days, the 100-hour work-weeks, the endless recruiting trips.

The thrill.

"No job I know of gives you that feeling, coming out of the tunnel on Friday night or Saturday afternoon," Dennehy says. "Maybe being an astronaut in the final few seconds before he takes off compares to that feeling. There's nothing so exciting as Saturday afternoon."

But the gig he has now isn't bad. Jefferson High has 260 students in grades 9-12, and strong athletic programs and traditions. Former Grizzly distance standout Sabrina Monro graduated from Boulder. Troy and Kirk Timmer went from the Panthers to stardom for Montana State in football, as did Adam Cordeiro.

The hours aren't as long, but they're long enough. Once the volleyball matches started, Dennehy was heading to Clancy, then to Montana City for separate school board meetings Thursday evening. Jefferson High draws students from each town.

"It's a different thing now," Dennehy said, sitting down at the local Mountain Good restaurant for lunch. "Being away from the high school setting as long as I was, I don't think you're really going to be prepared for it. You just have to jump into it."

When Dennehy was a Butte High student, he decided he liked a certain cross country runner, so he went to one of her meets. Almost 40 years later, on Aug. 25, Boulder hosted several cross country teams from around the state.

"That's the only other meet I'd ever been to," he says. "But it's like almost everything else - if you can get good people to work for you, you let 'em go and things kind of work themselves out.

"It's a real busy job," he adds. "The number of activities - there's all the cheerleaders, and that stuff I've never had to deal with before. It makes it that much more interesting."

Dennehy hasn't been through the college game day atmosphere in nearly two years since Utah State beat New Mexico State 34-25 to cap a 3-8 campaign in 2004.

Rather than look for another job, he took the $190,000 owed him for the final year of his contract and traveled the country with his wife, Sheila.

New York. Boston. He took in a Holy Cross game, where former defensive coordinator David Kotulski was coaching. He went elk hunting for the first time in 33 years.

"We had a blast," he says.

After a year or so, he began looking for something new. He was interested in the Northern Colorado job, but the Bears went with Steve Downing. Dennehy also looked at NFL Europe.

"For some reason, things just didn't work out," he said.

Meanwhile his mother, Jean, had fallen ill (she passed away on April 15). His father Larry is 80. Montana began to look like the best option, and Dennehy - between his time at Helena High, UM-Western and other stops - was around two years away from qualifying for retirement benefits from the state of Montana.

He looked at jobs in Corvallis and Whitehall, before the Boulder AD job came open. Dennehy has a house on Canyon Ferry reservoir, around 60 miles away.

"This thing just sounded like it'd be a lot more fun," he said.

Dennehy was offensive coordinator at the University of Montana from 1991-95, before taking over as head coach when Don Read retired after the 1995 national championship.

These were the salad days. In 1993, Montana began its record streak of I-AA playoff appearances, which now stands at 13. Dave Dickenson came to campus and Read's vision of an all-out passing attack became reality.

In 1994 Dickenson was hurt, and the Griz still made the I-AA semifinals, beating McNeese State 30-28 in a home quarterfinal game on Andy Larson's 37-yard field goal with eight seconds left.

That might be Dennehy's most memorable game, partly because Larson had missed two field goals earlier in the day.

"My biggest objective was to get Andy Larson off the field," Dennehy remembered. But Larson made it, vanquishing a team that included future NFL players Kavika Pittman, Kerry Joseph, Zach Bronson and Terry Irving.

"They were incredibly loaded," Dennehy said of the Cowboys. "When they come off the bus, UCLA wasn't any better looking than that team was. That was a great win."

The wins continued in 1995, when a healthy Dickenson led UM to the championship over Marshall, and in '96, Dennehy's first year as coach. The Griz were unbeaten until the title game that year.

Marshall won that rematch 49-24 behind Randy Moss.

"Without Moss, it's probably a game like we had the year before," Dennehy said. "He was that good of a player. Best I ever saw."

Dennehy was 39-12 in four seasons at UM. But the Grizzlies faltered in the first round of the playoffs each of the next three years, including a 30-27 home loss to Youngstown State in 1999.

The next week after the Youngstown loss, Dennehy was headed to Utah State.

Dennehy's tenure as UM's head coach fits snugly between the Grizzlies' two national titles. Given that the Griz played for the 2000 I-AA championship and won the 2001 crown, you would think he'd have regrets.

"I always wanted to coach at the I-A level," he said. "We were in the beginning stages of some budget issues (at UM), and there was somewhat the feeling that one way to cure the budget woes was to do what Boise State and Nevada had done, and jumped to I-A.

"I just didn't feel like that was the answer to our problems."

The football tradition in Logan, Utah, was spotty at best.

"I knew it was going to be a tough job going in," Dennehy said. "It became a much tougher job than even I thought. We had the worst facilities in the league. The lowest salaries. We could never take a recruit into our training room."

The Aggies twice went 4-7 under Dennehy. Those were the high points. Along the way he fired Kraig Paulson as his defensive coordinator.

"If you look back it, he probably would've left anyway," Dennehy said of Paulson, who has since regained his old job as Montana's DC. "Are we good friends because of it? Probably not. But Kraig's a good man - I'm happy for him and the opportunity he has now."

When Dennehy left, USU had gone 19-37 in five seasons. He doesn't blame USU athletic director Randy Spetman for the firing.

"I just think he had trouble raising money because we'd been there five years, and weren't winning," he said. "I think he wanted to keep us. I wasn't a babe in the woods. I don't know many guys in the coaching business who haven't been fired. You always end up better and fine because of it.

"Now, knowing the end result? I'd probably do the same thing again."

At one point Thursday Dennehy said, "I expected to be working for another six, seven years. Ten, maybe. But funny things happen in the college coaching game."

It wasn't all bad. Utah State visited Iowa, and played before 90,000 fans at Louisiana State.

"Everybody ought to have a chance to play Nebraska," said Dennehy, whose Aggies lost 44-13 to the Huskers in 2002. "When the home team has the ball, you can hear a pin drop."

These days Dennehy seems content to simply watch college football on TV, and fish with former MSU coach Cliff Hysell or former Bozeman sheriff John Onstad.

His salary is a comfortable $60,000. Dennehy's wife has made a business out of redecorating houses. His son Jake, who played safety at UM from 1994-97, is now a project manager for a Seattle-area construction company. Youngest son Mark is close to finishing his degree and working at the Montana State Hospital in Galen.

It's been on odyssey that stretched from Colton to Gillette, Wyo., with a stop in Dillon to restart the UM-Western football program in 1988.

"My favorite job might've been Western," he said. "I washed the socks and the jocks and the T-shirts. It was a great job. It was something you could put your hands into.

"And there were no expectations to win in the community. They just wanted football back."

Western went 10-13 in his three seasons, capped by a 5-3 mark in 1990. That led him to UM. The rest is not-so-ancient history.

"As good as athletes as we had, they were better kids," he says of the UM days. "Unselfish. We played many teams with a lot more talent. That's the common thread - the University of Montana has got lot of kids that didn't care about personal statistics.

"It's not very complicated, but pretty successful."

Dennehy chuckles about current Griz coach Bobby Hauck's struggles to keep the lid on UM's aches and pains. He allowed that he played similar games in the media from time to time.

"We're all paranoid to some degree," he said.

Someone asked about the 1999 Northern Arizona game, before which Dennehy repeatedly said quarterback Brian Ah Yat wouldn't play, only to see the junior go 33-for-50 for 347 yards.

"He was hurt," Dennehy said. "But then he made a gawd-dammed miraculous recovery."

His eyes twinkled; he loved the memory.

Enough, maybe, to give college Saturdays another go.

Dennehy pauses.

"That'd be a tough decision," he said. "Because my wife and I are enjoying ourselves. We're enjoying this time of our lives."

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