GREAT FALLS — On Dec. 16, 2020, University of Montana fans celebrated the 25th anniversary of the greatest accomplishment in the history of the football program.
On that date in 1995, the Grizzlies upset Marshall University on the Thundering Herd’s own gridiron in West Virginia to capture UM’s first national championship.
For many observers outside the UM program, the drive to the NCAA Division I-AA title game probably looked ridiculously easy, since the Grizzlies won their first three playoff games by huge margins over traditional Southern powerhouses – 48-0 over Eastern Kentucky, 45-0 over Georgia Southern and 70-14 over Stephen F. Austin. But those lopsided scores were neither predictable nor expected, according to the player most responsible for those outcomes – senior quarterback Dave Dickenson of Great Falls.
“Going into the playoffs, our team was actually still grinding,” Dickenson said in an email.
“There wasn’t any overconfidence, as we had just been humbled by Idaho, 55-43 … we also had a hard-fought win over the Cats in Bozeman heading into our first-round playoff match with Eastern Kentucky.”
Dickenson said veteran Griz coach Don Read was wary of highly skilled, fast opponents, and tried to turn environmental factors into UM’s favor.
“Our leader (Read) always let the grass grow long when we played teams with lots of speed, and we knew even in November and December our playing surface was an advantage for our team,” Dickenson said.
Truth be told, there wasn’t much grass of any kind available in Missoula 25 years ago. The turf had turned mostly to mud and the much slower Grizzly players didn’t seem to mind at all.
In the first-round romp over Eastern Kentucky, UM scored all 48 points before halftime, as Dickenson threw for 441 yards and two TDs, then turned the game over to backups.
In the quarterfinals against Georgia Southern, it was much of the same story. The visiting Eagles, one of the most dominant I-AA programs of all-time, were stifled on offense and couldn’t contain Dickenson’s razor-sharp passing attack. He completed four TD passes the first half and didn’t even play the final quarter.
“Another mauling, this time vs. Georgia Southern 45-0,” Dickenson said. “Our defense had grown up. (Linebacker) Jason Crebo from Helena Capital was making plays wearing No. 37 and I could feel the confidence growing … our defensive line was controlling the line of scrimmage, led by the Manzanarez boys (Yohanse and Eric of Great Falls).”
The following week, Dickenson said, the schedule-maker helped the Grizzlies’ cause.
“Then we caught a break, a break that is rarely mentioned in our run for a national title,” he said. “Appalachian State, the No. 2 seed, got upset by Stephen F. Austin which allowed us to have another home game instead of going on the road.”
The Grizzlies took advantage of that break, crushing the Texas team 70-14. Dickenson threw five TD passes in the first 32 minutes, and then rested on the bench.
“We felt almost invincible at Washington-Grizzly Stadium and we played flawlessly. It was a cold December day but we were on fire. I’m not sure I remember another game where everything clicked like it did that day.”
That was the final home game for Dickenson and more than a dozen other UM seniors, who greatly appreciated the support of the Missoula crowds. It would also be the final Missoula contest for Read, who retired two months after the championship game as the winningest coach in school history.
“The crowds at our home games took their game to the next level as well,” said the most decorated quarterback in UM history. “The noise was deafening. Wow, what an advantage.”
Then the Grizzlies may have caught another break in the matchup for the national championship.
“We were expecting a rematch with the No. 1 team in the country, McNeese State, in the finals. We beat McNeese the previous year in a snowstorm on a late field goal, and McNeese wanted another shot at us. Unfortunately for them, they forgot to beat Marshall to warrant the rematch.
“I remember thinking we caught another break by playing a lower-ranked team, but then it dawned on me that Marshall was hosting the national championship game (in Huntington, West Virginia). And we were going to have to win it in hostile territory.”
There was nothing easy about the victory over Marshall, achieved before more than 30,000 fans, although an estimated 3,000 had flown all the way from Montana for the occasion.
Dickenson had injury issues that week, but knew he had to stay strong for his teammates.
“I was battling an AC separation in my right shoulder heading into that game,” he said. “I knew I could throw and heard the saying, ‘No pain, no gain,’ my entire life. So I had confidence my body could hold up.”
Even with a sore arm, Dickenson completed 29 of 48 throws for 281 yards and two touchdowns, both to tiny wide receiver Matt Wells, his roommate. The Grizzlies trailed in the final minute when Dickenson connected on a key pass to Mike Erhardt to set up Andy Larson’s game-winning field goal.
That was the first of five national-championship appearances for UM over the next 11 years, and the Griz would earn a second title in 2001 under coach Joe Glenn. But the first victory boosted Montana’s national profile and led to a surge in interest and attendance in the Treasure State.
“Looking back, I believe we helped build the juggernaut that has been labeled Griz Nation in upcoming years,” Dickenson said.
“We didn’t win with great skill, we won with toughness, grit, heart and a selflessness attitude that all great teams have. I believe we were a reflection of our great state and the people that call themselves Montanans.”
It would be the final organized football game for the vast majority of the Grizzlies, although a few athletes went on to play professionally.
Freshman punter Dallas Neil of Great Falls spent three years in the NFL and so did junior safety Blaine McElmurry of Troy. Senior wide receiver Joe Douglass, a transfer from Oregon State, played two years in the Arena League.
Dickenson, of course, has enjoyed a successful professional career in the Canadian Football League, first as a player and currently as the head coach of the Calgary Stampeders. He has been part of five Grey Cup champions, four as a player and one as a coach. At 48, he’s hopeful of winning many more titles.
But he’ll never forget his first national championship.
“We knew we would be part of history,” Dickenson said from Calgary. “We just didn’t know which side of history we would be on.”