By Bill Lamberty
BOZEMAN A quarter-century later, Butch Damberger still remembers how the halfback pass that he caught from Don Ueland looked as it tumbled toward the end zone during the second quarter of the 1976 Pioneer Bowl in Wichita Falls, Tex.
"It wasn't the prettiest pass ever, by any means," Damberger laughs. "As I remember, it was wobbly, kind of an end-over-ender. I just stood there and waited for the ball, and when it finally got there I was able to catch it."
Sonny Holland, MSU's all-time winningest head coach who piloted that 76 championship run, has the same memory. "It wasn't a beautiful thing, except that it got there, and it did what it was designed to do."
The touchdown catch by Damberger, a Cut Bank native who has been an MSU assistant for the past nine years, gave MSU a 14-0 lead going into halftime of the NCAA Division II National Championship Game. "I remember that we were pretty confident going into the game, and with each play becoming more and more confident," said MSU cornerback Ron Muri, now a Billings businessman. "I remember that by halftime we knew that we could get this done."
Damberger's catch near the end of the first half, and Jeff Muri's field goal early in the third quarter, helped seal Montana State's second national crown.
One of the most memorable aspects of the 76 National Championship Game is that it was easier for the Bobcats to qualify for the game than it was for the team to get there. "We were at the airport waiting for the flight, when there was a problem with the charter," said Damberger. "So we turned around and went back to the Fieldhouse to practice."
"We had a series of problems with flights, starting with the Hawaii game (a 28-7 Bobcat win in the regular season finale), so going back to the Fieldhouse to practice was not a big thing," Holland said. "Those kids really didn't let anything shake them up. They knew that if they were on time for the kickoff nothing was a big thing."
Arnie Sgalio, Montana State's SID at the time and now an executive with ESPN Regional Television in Charlotte, N.C., said that attitude was a tribute to the coaching staff. "That team had travelled a lot that year, it had logged some miles," said Sgalio, who would serve as the Big Sky Conference Information Director for nearly two decades after leaving Bozeman. "That was a good team, it just didn't beat itself. But I really remember the coaches. That was a great coaching staff. Sonny Holland, of course, was the head coach, and Con Christensen and Sonny Lubick and Howard Ross and Cliff Hysell were the assistants. It was really a classy outfit. They had a very businesslike attitude. Nothing bothered them."
The Bobcats took control of that game early. Paul Dennehy threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Ron McCullough early in the second quarter, then Damberger's catch later in that period gave MSU a considerable amount of momentum.
"Then they made a run at us," Holland said. After Muri's field goal, Akron scored 13 straight points to narrow the margin to 17-13. "But I don't think their guys were as prepared for a championship game as ours were," Holland said. "They were going up to Division I, and they thought they had better personnel and better depth, and I'm not sure they didn't. But I don't think they were as prepared."
Muri has no doubt which group of players turned the game in MSU's direction. "Our offensive line was dominant," he said. "I believe, and I think Coach Holland would agree, that it was the best offensive line in Montana State history." Sgalio remembers an incident in the press box that tells the tale of that game. "Akron's SID was Ken McDonald, and he said to me at one point, I thought your running backs were slow.' And I said, Ken, we're killing you up front.' And that was true. Montana State was able to run the ball at will. Our running backs were good, but the holes were huge."
Rick Vancleeve, a defensive lineman on the 76 National Championship squad, remembers well MSU's domination in the trenches. "We didn't have nearly as much speed as them, but it came down to them not being as physical as us. Our offensive line basically won the game, and got to where they were overpowering their guys."
"Howard Ross coached those kids (in the offensive line)," Holland says, "and they were really well-schooled. They knew what their assignments were, they knew exactly what they were supposed to do, and they got to the point where they developed into a dominant offensive line. Plus, there was great senior leadership there."
A Bobcat offensive lineman, guard Lee Washburn from Bozeman, was involved in one of the game's most memorable moments. "Tommy Kostrba scored a touchdown that pretty much put it out of reach," Vancleeve recalled. "He handed the ball to Lee Washburn, and Washburn spiked the ball and took the penalty." "The most shocked people in the stadium were me and the coaches," Holland said. "They'd worked that out ahead of time, and knew that the game was out of hand. It just wasn't the kind of thing those kids would do, but looking back on it now we can laugh about it."
Another memorable incident happened after the game, when an ABC announcer interviewed defensive lineman Les Leininger, and All-America from Westby. The question was how his eight-man football background helped him prepare for a moment like he'd just experienced. "Well," Leininger replied, "they give you the ball and you run your ass off."
"He was being honest," Holland laughs.
One of the most memorable moments of the entire post-season came when the Bobcats stepped off the airplane at Gallatin Field. "My most vivid memory is Sonny stepping off that plane and holding up the trophy for all of our fans to see," Vancleeve said.
"The hair on the back of my neck still stands up when I think about that," Holland said. "That was a special moment."
And it's one that hasn't been forgotten, according to Muri. "The guys from that team are still so close," Muri said. "We get together each fall. That's why I look forward to football season so much, getting to see all of those guys at Bobcat games. It was a special thing."