MISSOULA — Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula is a magical place. That’s no secret.
But when the sun goes down and the lights go on, or in the Montana Grizzlies’ case, go up, the dynamic that is Montana football seems to reach even higher levels.
Known as one of the loudest football stadiums in all of college football, regardless of its size, the atmosphere at Wash-Griz has never been called into question. It’s a one-of-kind, unique situation where the fans are rabid, the games are intense, and the setting is something that should be on a postcard or even on a postage stamp for that matter.
But for all things special about the stadium, about Griz Nation and about the success of the UM football program, one thing that has always been noticeably absent is stadium lights.
As a student at UM in the early 1990’s I always wondered what some of the more memorable games I attended back then would have been like had they been played at night. The 1995 S.F. Austin 1-AA semifinal game, a homecoming game against hated Boise State that same year or even the Griz-Cat games of that era, as special as all those games were, I always thought to myself how much more fun I would have had if even one of them would have been at night.
And it took a while to get the answer to that question, but now all of us in Griz Nation know — Night games in Missoula absolutely rock.
Last Friday’s 48-10 win over the Northern Iowa Panthers under the lights, in the FCS quarterfinals, in front of a nationally-televised, prime time ESPN audience spoke loud and clear. As great and as special as Wash-Griz is, and has always been, it becomes almost mythical when the sun goes down.
The Grizzlies’ first official night game was played in December of 2006 in the FCS semifinals against UMass. It was, at the time, the loudest game I’ve ever heard in the stadium and I’ve been to enough games to say that without hesitation. The atmosphere was almost transcendent that night and the only thing missing was a Griz win. The night started out thunderous but ended very somber, but it was still unforgettable.
The first time lights were seen at the stadium was two years earlier, when the Griz thumped New Hampshire in the FCS quarterfinals, but that was a 2 p.m. start and it wasn’t dark until the game was almost over.
And while there was nothing like the day Montana beat Appalachian State in 2009 in the FCS semifinals (the third time lights were brought in), that too was actually a 2 p.m. start, not a true night game. Still, with the lights shining down, and almost 2 million viewers tuned in on ESPN, that day in Missoula was unlike anything any Griz fan has ever seen.
There is just something magical about lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium and last Friday night should have cemented that fact. It didn’t hurt that the Griz are playing their best football in almost two years and it didn’t hurt that they romped past the No. 2 team in the country. But I was in the stadium a good half hour before kickoff and the crowd was already as electrified as the lights themselves and it didn’t stop rocking until the last of a fireworks display that put the Fourth of July to shame, ended at almost 9:30 p.m.
The University of Montana as a whole and all of Griz Nation put its best foot forward on Friday night, for all of the country to see, and it’s no coincidence the fact that it was only the second true night game ever played at Wash-Griz had a little more than something to do with that.
Montana has, for years been reluctant to add permanent lights at Wash-Griz, while Griz fans have been reluctant to embrace night games because of travel issues and other logistics. But those days are changing. Permanent lights will be installed in Wash-Griz this summer, just as they are being done at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman as we speak. MSU already had four light towers in before the Nov. 19 Griz-Cat game.
And while night games may not have been the main reason for either school to decide to do so, the lights are going up either way. And in my opinion, it’s a about time. Night games are a long-standing tradition in college football. Programs don’t need to play them every week, and I like day games just as much. But when the stakes are raised, as they were Friday in Missoula, there’s just something special about a kickoff after the sun has already fallen.
I’m rarely at a loss for adjectives, but the simple fact is, I can’t describe Grizzly night games as anything else but electric. It was electric in Missoula last Friday night and something tells me, there’s plenty more electricity to come.