Bulldogs mark a century of basketball

Butte High boys prominent in Montana's basketball history
2008-12-25T23:00:00Z Bulldogs mark a century of basketballBy Pat Kearney for The Montana Standard - 12/26/2008 Montana Standard

The sport of basketball had been around for awhile, but it was still a novelty for many people a hundred years ago. In fact, the first real basketball game in Montana was a competition between girls' team.

The Fort Shaw Indians' girls were so famous they had a book written about their accomplishments. The boys were too busy playing rough-and-tough sports like football.

All that changed in the winter of 1909 when the Butte High boys started to compete in basketball. The youngsters didn't even have a gym when they started practicing. The auditorium at the old Butte High School on the corner of Park and Idaho Streets was converted into a make-shift gym with a basketball floor.

Butte High's first game was against a squad from Centerville. They played in Centerville's gymnasium, which seated 500 fans. Butte High won the game easily, 37-5.

The Bulldogs won five of seven games that first season.

It began the first century of basketball for Butte High. The script for 100 years of Bulldogs' basketball has been like the roller coaster ride at Columbia Gardens. The fortunes were both golden, with many highs and numerous lows.

The Butte club struggled in the early years. The first successes came in 1916 when Butte High polished off Anaconda 24-15 to win the school's first-ever divisional tournament.

The next year, in 1917, the first real golden moment for Butte High took place. The Bulldogs, in a brand new gym in the old high school building, went all the way to win the state championship. Butte High edged Bozeman 21-10 in the finals played at the old Montana State College gymnasium in Bozeman.

The first championship club was led by Coach Van Cook. It featured three first-team all-tournament players — Cliff Crowley, Lawrence Myers and Wilbur Zundel.

It was tough maintaining consistency in basketball at Butte High in the early years — the Bulldogs went through eight different coaches in their first twelve seasons.

The rock of Butte High athletics arrived in the fall of 1922. Butte High graduate Harry "Swede' Dahlberg took over all the sports programs for the Bulldogs. His first 1923 basketball team played perhaps the most unusual game in the history of the school. Butte High battled Butte Central for the city title. The two schools fought to a 5-5 tie. They played two more overtimes, but neither squad could score. Officials from both sides felt the two clubs were too tired to continue. So, they called the game a tie and came back a few nights later to play a second game. Butte Central won that rematch 11-4 to gain its first victory ever over Butte High.

By his second season, Dahlberg never needed overtime to be successful. The Bulldogs beat Harlem 22-5 in a playoff game to qualify for the state tournament in Bozeman. Butte High rolled the table, winning four straight games to claim the state crown.

The key win was a 17-8 victory over Butte Central in the semifinals. The Maroons had beaten the Bulldogs twice during the regular season. Butte High whipped Helena 24-18 in the finals.

The Bulldogs were led to the state championship by Frank Worden, who was named the tournament's most valuable player. Worden was Butte High's first real star player and he proved that the next season, again being named the state tournament's most valuable player. Butte High again won the state tournament, beating Helena 20-18 in the championship match.

The most improbable state championship came a few years later. Butte High went 1-2 in divisional tournament play and was eliminated from the state tournament.

When Forsyth could not make it to the state tournament in Butte, Butte High was given a chance to make the tournament by playing Glendive. The Bulldogs belted the Red Devils 39-13 and advanced to the state tournament, which was held for the first time ever in Butte.

The Bulldogs rolled to wins over Dillon, 16-7, Great Falls, 28-24, and Billings, 24-19. Butte High met Butte Central in the finals at the Montana School of Mines gym, which was first opened for competition in 1925.

The Bulldogs had been beaten by the Maroons in two of three previous meetings earlier in the season. Butte High dominated the game and won 23-16. Two Bulldogs' players, Swan Johnson and James McNally, were named to the all-tournament team.

Dahlberg led the Bulldogs to a pair of state crowns in 1932 and 1933.

The 1932 club led by Frank Brown, who later played for Northwestern, and Dan Crowley beat Livingston 27-15 in the state finals.

The 1933 squad beat Anaconda 21-19 in overtime in the finals played at the School of Mines. It was the only time in school history Butte High won a state championship game in extra time.

The game of basketball made a dramatic change heading into the 1938 season. The jump center which took place after every made bucket was eliminated.

It was during this time that Dahlberg had one of his best players ever in Doug Brown. He played two years in the jump ball era and two years after its elimination. Brown scored 834 points in his career. In the school's first 50 years of competition, only Brown and Bob O'Billovich were able to crack the 800-career point mark. O'Billovich finished his career with 811 points.

Dahlberg achieved the sweet taste of tournament success again in 1941 when the Bulldogs beat defending state champion Havre 36-32 to capture the state title. The game was played in Havre. The Bulldogs' Bill Violet and Dan Yovetich both were named first team all-tournament with Gene Killoy and Matt Vucurovich being selected on the second team.

Two years later, in 1943, Dahlberg had a solid team that had a 17-5 record. Butte High went 13-1 in the Big 16 to win the league title. The Bulldogs beat Butte Central 30-23 in the last regular-season game of the year to capture the title by a half a game over the Maroons.

Due to World War II there was no state tournament held that year and the Bulldogs were called the "unofficial state champions." The 1943 season was the last real high mark for Dahlberg as head coach. Butte High struggled through seven losing season. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs were completely dominated by the cross-city rival Maroons. Butte Central won 10 straight games over the Bulldogs from 1944-1951. Butte High ended that streak with a 61-56 overtime win to end the 1951 regular season.

The Bulldogs lost two of three games in the divisional tournament and Dahlberg was forced to resign as head coach of the Butte High basketball program following the season.

Dahlberg was head coach of the Butte High basketball team for 29 seasons. He compiled a record of 407-298-1. His clubs won eight state titles and three divisional tournament crowns.

Dahlberg's longtime assistant, Bill Hawke, took over the reins of the Butte High program in 1952. Hawke led the Bulldogs to the Southern Divisional tournament title in his first season. Butte High beat Billings 53-50 in the tournament finals to win the school's first divisional title in seven years. The Bulldogs were led by first-team All-State player Bill Salonen.

Hawke served as Butte High's basketball coach for three seasons. After Hawke's club went 4-17 in 1954 a switch was made. In 1955, Butte High hired Bob Rae to try and turn the fortunes of Bulldogs' basketball around. Rae came from Belfry where he had led the school to three straight Class C state titles.

It took some time but Rae completely changed the image for Butte High basketball. Led by one of the school's best players ever, O'Billovich, the Bulldogs won the state championship in 1957 and 1958.

Butte High soundly beat Great Falls 64-42 to win the state crown in 1957 at the Butte Civic Center. The next season, in 1958, the Bulldogs beat Missoula 57-51 in the finals in the first state tournament held at the new Montana State Fieldhouse in Bozeman.

O'Billovich, who was named Butte High's best player of the 20th century, was named first team all-tournament in both seasons.

Tragedy hit Butte High before the next season. Bob Rae was paralyzed after a fall.

He missed the 1959 season. His assistant coach, Forrest Wilson, led Butte High to the state finals where they lost to Missoula 52-49.

Rae was back on the bench in 1960, but the magic to win the state tournament that he provided for the program was gone. The Bulldogs never again reached the finals under Rae who left the program following the 1966 season.

Butte High struggled mightily after Rae. In the next 15 seasons, Butte High went through four head coaches — Dean Gerke, Fraser MacDonald, Bob Stephens and Larry Ferguson . The Bulldogs had 10 losing seasons and played in only two divisional tournament finals — in 1967 and 1976,losing both times.

Despite the lack of success, Butte High had a number of outstanding players during that time. The best was John Dawson who scored 1,022 career points and today remains the only Bulldogs' player ever to surpass 1,000 points in his career.

Pat Foley took over the program in 1983. By his second season, Foley had turned Butte High into a winner. The Bulldogs beat Great Falls 53-50 in the state tournament finals in Missoula to win the school's first state championship in 26 years.

Butte High won the state finals on St. Patrick's Day. The team was led by Chris Rasmussen and Mickey Tuttle, who were both named to the first team all-tournament.

The luck of the Irish that Foley provided the Bulldogs ran out after that championship season. The next year, Butte High was upset by Missoula Big Sky on a last second shot in overtime 66-63 at the state tournament.

The bad luck continued in 1986 when Butte High fell to Havre 68-67 in the first round of the state finals. The Bulldogs, led by sharpshooters Henry Klobucar, Scott Ferguson and Bart Black, came back to beat Havre in the consolation finals 77-62.

The ultimate bad-luck charm took place in 1989 when Butte High was led by Gary Kane and Todd Ericson. Butte High went into the state finals with a 21-0 record. It played Kalispell, a team it had beaten three times during the season. The Braves topped the Bulldogs in the finals 53-50 and Butte High finished an incredible season with a 21-1 record.

Another heart-breaker was added the next season when Butte High fell to Missoula Hellgate 57-51 in the state finals played at the Civic Center. The Bulldogs finished the season with a 21-2 record.

Foley remained as head coach at Butte High through the 1994 season. His club never again reached the state tournament. He had a 161-109 record in 11 season as the head coach at Butte High. If lady luck had been more kind, he could have led the Bulldogs to four more state titles — in 1985, '86, '89 and '90. However, the program had been snake-bitten when it came to winning the big one.

The post Foley-era at Butte High was not pretty. The Bulldogs went through three coaches in six years and did not even come close to sporting a winning record.

John Thatcher, a former coach at Butte Central, took over the program in 2001. It took Thatcher four tough years to return Butte High to the state tournament. The Bulldogs, led by Casey Briggs, made it all the way to the finals in 2004 before falling to defending champion C.M. Russell 53-45 in Missoula.

Thatcher made Butte High a consistent winner, but like Pat Foley before him, Thatcher ran into bad luck in the state tournament.

His 2006 club was leading Great Falls in a first-round game at the state tournament when one of the Bulldogs' key players, Tyler Gilder, got hurt. The momentum of the game changed and Great Falls won 54-49. The Bison went on to win the state crown while Butte High finished third.

In 2007, Thatcher had his club in the finals for the second time in four years. Once again fate was not on Butte High's side as it fell to Billings West 45-37 in the championship match.

Now, as we begin the 2009 season, Butte High celebrates its 100th year of basketball. The fortunes of Butte High basketball have encountered many twists and turns in its first 100 years of competition. There have been many great moments and great teams.

Most of all, it has provided the community with lots of entertainment and plenty of golden memories.

— Pat Kearney is a Butte historian who has authored several books about The Mining City.

Copyright 2015 Montana Standard. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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