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From the Fringe … The ending didn't matter. The Griz had a season for the ages

That’s right, I said it. Whether or not the Montana Grizzlies beat the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the FCS national championship game was, in so many ways, irrelevant.

Don’t misunderstand me, though, all of us who play or coach or just love to compete, we all think second sucks, and I’m certain, getting that far and coming up short, it hurts really bad. I’m sure, for the Griz players and coaches, the hurt was immense that day in Frisco, Texas.

I get that. We all get that.

But, that hurt doesn’t overshadow what the Griz accomplished in just four months. Because where the program was in August, and where it is now, it’s barely even recognizable.

Go back just four years. The Griz had lost the Cat-Griz game in Bobby Hauck’s return to Missoula in horrible fashion. A fumble on the goal-line in what should have been a game-winning touchdown.

That game seemed to be the shining example of just where the Montana program was at. Coming off NCAA probation, publicity scandals and AD and coaching changes, so much turmoil outside the lines, it had just felt like the Griz were never going to get back. And then, even when Hauck returned, tosses to Montana State and shortcomings in the playoffs, it just felt like the Griz had once and for all slipped into mediocrity.

Hauck, however, remained confident. And as the recruiting wars waged, Montana had moments of a glorious return. Big wins over the likes off the Cats and rival Eastern Washington, coupled with exciting playoff wins gave us hope.

And while Montana struggled out of the gate offensively, and lost a game at Northern Arizona, which had more than just a few fans scratching their heads, things turned quickly and almost overnight. Everything bad that had happened to the Griz’ program, self-inflicted or otherwise was finally appearing to be further and further in the past,

Things really changed, though, when the Griz won back-to-back Top 10 road matchups in which they were underdogs. Those were games just a year earlier the Griz lost and as a result, missed out on a national seed because of.

But, by the time Montana returned home for a night-game showdown with Big Sky power Sacramento State, another team that had been giving the Griz fits, everything the Griz hoped for was on the line, and what do you know? Montana thumped the Hornets, and two weeks later, those wins would set up the greatest showdown in Cat-Griz history.

Yes, Nov. 18, 2023, will come to live in infamy in the rivalry and for the Grizzlies. And for somewhat different reasons.

As for the rivalry, it was a matchup of Top 5 squads, with the outright Big Sky title and the No. 2 national seed on the line. That hadn’t even come close to happening in a decade, so, it was a huge, huge Cat-Griz game.

For the Griz, though, it was all those things and, when they won 37-7, it became even more significant.

Simply put, beating the Cats that day, and earning all the spoils that came with that win, brought the Griz back to national relevance. Yes, the season was remarkable, but that one win, that really changed the course of Montana’s program. It appeared, at least on that foggy day in Missoula, the Griz were back.

And while they say time will tell, and Rome wasn’t built in a day, the fact that Montana would go on to defeat Delaware, Furman and the ultimate FCS dynasty North Dakota State, in thrilling and dramatic, nationally televised playoff games, showed even more that after all that time, all that hurt and struggle Montana was back.

Montana was back on the national stage, playing in an FCS championship game, and while all of us were hoping for a win that day, the fact that it wasn’t meant to be won’t matter long-term.

And the reason why is that a run like the Griz had this season does wonders for the momentum of a program. And while some fans outside the program will disagree, they’ll have to ask themselves, what did that very same run do for their team in 2022?

That’s right. Just look at what a surprise run to the national championship game has done for the momentum of Montana State’s program. And a beatdown by NDSU did absolutely nothing to deter Montana State’s growth since. The Cats are an FCS powerhouse and they’re not going away.

And this time, neither will the Griz. That’s because excitement is again ramped up, donations will be up, facility upgrades are happening and, when you win like the Griz did, recruiting will take a huge step forward.

That’s how it works and that’s how it will work for Montana.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Montana will be going to Frisco next year or winning 10 Big Sky titles in a row. What I am saying is, a run like the Griz just had will ensure that, for the foreseeable future, Montana will remain an FCS powerhouse and, at the very least, be in an enviable position to compete for championships. That’s what this season has done for that program.

And that’s where I’ll leave it. I’ll say congrats and thank you to the 2023 Montana Grizzlies. Whether you were a senior, a freshman, Bobby Hauck or a grad assistant and everyone in between, you did more for to move this program forward than you will ever know. 

You, the 2023 Montana Grizzlies had a season for the ages, and at the end of it all, you brought the Griz back.

That’s right, thanks to all of you. The Griz are back.


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