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WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Mick Dennehy knew early that coaching would be his thing
By BILL SCHWANKE for GrizGameday.com
Mick Dennehy knew before he left elementary school that he wanted to be a coach someday.
“Sam Jankovich was at Butte High when I was growing up and I was a Bulldog fan even though I . . . was educated in a parochial school for my first eight years,” Dennehy explained. “When I figured out that you could make a living by being involved in sports, I just knew that’s what I wanted to do and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
The Butte native parlayed that decision into a 32-year career at the high school and college levels, ending in 2004 after a five-year stint at Utah State.
It started fresh out of college when another former Griz player and a friend of Dennehy, Dewey Allen, was leaving his coaching job at Colton High School in Washington. Allen moved west to Lacey, Washington, and Dennehy moved west to Colton, located about 14 miles south of Pullman.
With wife Sheila’s father ailing and her pregnant with their second child they moved back to Montana. Dennehy coached for three seasons in Helena, through 1979.
“Then (I) became a turncoat and went to Montana State,” Dennehy said. “Sonny Lubick was the head coach (at MSU) then and he was one of my high school coaches and one of my all-time favorite guys.”
After Lubick’s staff was fired in 1981 Dennehy moved to Gillette, Wyo., coaching for six years at Campbell County High School. Urged on by his outdoor-minded sons Jake and Mark, Dennehy took the heading coaching job at Western Montana College in Dillon.
While at WMC Dennehy spent a lot of time at UM watching Grizzly practices under coach Don Read. When Tommy Lee left UM in 1991, Dennehy accepted the job of offensive coordinator. He became Montana’s head coach in 1996 when Read retired after the Griz won the 1995 national championship. Looking to advance in the Division I ranks Dennehy took the Utah State job in 2000.
After he was let go by Utah State he cast about for another college coaching gig but found the pickings as slim as they had ever been and the process for hiring much different than he had experienced earlier.
“It (wasn’t) like the old days when people applied and they interviewed what they felt were the top candidates,” Dennehy noted, adding that schools now seem to have a prospect list before coaches are even let go or move on.
“I felt like let’s let the younger guys take over and I’m gonna go live the good life,” he said.
He and Sheila moved back to Montana, and he worked briefly as athletics director at Boulder High School between Helena and Butte. That helped him achieve the longevity he wanted in the Montana Teachers Retirement System.
The former University of Montana player and coach now enjoys a busy retirement, living with his wife of 41 years on Canyon Ferry Reservoir near Helena.
The Dennehys bought the land while Mick was head coach at Montana and developed it while he was running the Utah State program. Oldest son Jake and his family live on adjacent land.
“I like the peace and quiet,” Dennehy said recently. “I’m like a five-year-old. I try to go out and play as much as I can. I play a lot of golf. I try to fish as many days as I can, and I do some elk hunting and I pheasant hunt.
“It’s boring,” Dennehy said tongue in cheek, “but somebody’s gotta do it.”
Besides football, Dennehy competed in basketball and track at Butte High, and also played baseball during the summer. He won the 1968 state javelin championship for the Bulldogs, had a basketball scholarship offer at Nevada-Reno, and an opportunity to play baseball at Gonzaga.
But it all came down to football and choosing between Montana and Montana State, even though Butte had been a Bobcat town for years.
“I just really felt good about the coaches that were down there,” Dennehy said, adding that he maintains contact with assistant Bill Betcher and did for years with late assistant Jack Elway and head coach Jack Swarthout.
“If I had it to do all over again, I’d have done the same thing,” Dennehy added. “I just enjoyed it. It was a great place to be (and I) have many friends that I played with that we maintain contact with. It was just a great experience.”
Freshmen weren’t eligible back then. The Grizzlies, dominating people with the relatively new Wishbone offense, were undefeated in 1969 and 1970.
UM coaches recruited Dennehy to play safety, but All-American Karl Stein owned the free safety spot and he was moved to corner in 1970. When Montana’s junior college transfers, including Stein, were declared ineligible for post-season play, Dennehy started at safety in the 1969 Camellia Bowl Division II title game against North Dakota State.
A summer motorcycle accident ended his sophomore season in 1970 before it even began and he missed the return Camellia Bowl experience that season. Dennehy completed his career in 1971 and 1972.
Stein and Dennehy still rank first and second in career interceptions at Montana, Stein with 21 and Dennehy with 16.
Because the usually-zone Griz defense occasional played “man free,” it was a good time to be a defensive back at Montana.
“If you had any kind of sense or instincts at all, it was just a great position to play,” Dennehy said. “Karl had 11 one year and I had 10 one year.”
Dennehy remembers Swarthout as being “such a gentleman,” and said he dealt with players “in a straightforward, honest manner.” He also allowed his young assistants, because of their obvious talents, to coach their positions with limited interference from him. Dennehy said he also was well thought of in the public relations arena as anyone who ever coached at Montana.
Secondary coach Jack Elway was a whole different thing.
“He was really hard on his players,” Dennehy recalled. “He was a hard guy to play for. He would dress you down, but the one thing I learned from him was that, if he got on you in practice he got on you for a reason, and it wasn’t because he didn’t care for you.
“It was that he wanted to make you better, and God knows he got on me enough,” Dennehy added. “But I don’t think there was ever a time, before I left the locker room, that (he) didn’t put his arm around me and explain why.”
It was something that Dennehy tried to carry with him during his own coaching career.
Elway had left UM to be an assistant to Jim Sweeney at Washington State. When Sweeney moved on Elway didn’t get the head job at WSU, and took the lead position at Cal State-Northridge.
He offered Dennehy a job as his first assistant, but his former player declined because of his commitment to Colton High School and the players he had there. He also had no desire to move to the Los Angeles area.
Dennehy said he didn’t know that much about the so-called work study scandal when the university was taken on by the federal government for the way it used the work-for-financial-aid program to supplement athletics scholarships.
Dennehy saw another reason that might have contributed to a back slide in Grizzly football in the early 70s.
“I think the whole university, and maybe the public in general, was fairly apathetic,” Dennehy said. “The Viet Nam War was at its height, and Missoula was probably as liberal a place as there was in the state of Montana.
“I think those liberal kinds of things really showed,” he went on. “There was a helluva lot more student energy protesting the war than there was supporting the athletics program.”
In spite of everything Dennehy thought the university had “some awfully good players.
“The one thing that didn’t change was that the more you won, the more butts you got in the seats,” Dennehy pointed out. “In ’69 and ’70 the support was great, and it would have been great to continue the momentum that they had built.”
The Grizzlies followed the two undefeated regular seasons with marks of 6-5 in 1971 and 3-8 in 1972.
As head coach at Montana Dennehy coached four teams to 39 wins and 12 wins, including a 14-1 mark with Brian Ah Yat at quarterback in 1996. Some say the 1996 team had more talent than the 1995 national champion team, but the ‘95 team had Dave Dickenson at quarterback.
He gave the 1995 team a slight edge, with a qualifier for the 1996 bunch.
“If Marshall University didn’t have a guy named Randy Moss,” Dennehy pointed out, “I think that would have been a helluva football game, and I think the University of Montana would have won back to back.
“Those were a couple of awfully good years,” Dennehy understated, adding that there was a bit of a drop off after ’96 because of the number of high-quality players that graduated.
Dennehy still is amazed by the 20-plus-years run of outstanding Grizzly football teams.
“It’s really difficult playing every game with a target on your chest,” he said. “You’re everybody’s biggest game, and you’re marked on their calendar, and our kids have done such an unbelievable job of tending to business week in and week out, not looking down the road, just paying attention to the details.
“It’s tough to go undefeated,” Dennehy continued, “It’s tough to win games and have the kind of years back to back that these kids have had.”
The move to Utah State was part of Dennehy’s desire to try coaching at a higher level. Promises were made in terms of facilities and conference affiliation that never materialized, and it didn’t work out. The Aggies actually played as an independent for two of the years he was there, and traveled more than 30,000 miles for road games in 2001, playing seven teams that wound up in bowl games that season including teams ranked No. 2 and 6 in the nation.
A move to the Sun Belt Conference for his last two years leveled the playing field a bit, but not the travel distances. All trips included a bus trip from Logan to Salt Lake City at the beginning and most a multiple-hour bus trip to and from the towns they played in at the other end.
The community involvement for Mick and Sheila centers on the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Development Council. Sheila works for the executive director of the council and Mick pitches in where he can, focusing more this year on fundraising than on organization.
On one day every May Helena-area businesses and individuals volunteer through Spirit of Service to help with spring cleaning and home maintenance for home owners that can’t do it themselves because of age, disability or other factors.
“I suspect (in 2013) we’ll probably have 550 volunteers do 75 houses,” Dennehy boasted. “Last year we painted 25 houses, and we did it all in one day. There’s no cost to the home owners.”
No matter where he’s been Dennehy has kept track of what’s going on in Grizzly athletics.
“I’m really not involved other than trying to be as supportive as I can and as big a fan as I can,” Dennehy said. “I don’t like to sit in the stands. There’s just too much B.S. The people in the stands appear to think they’re a helluva lot smarter than the coaches are, and it just drives me nuts.
“I’m more comfortable watching on the sidelines.”
Dennehy recalled that, after he and Sheila returned to Montana, he watched Bobby Hauck’s teams play three times during one season, and they lost all three games. This year he was at Washington-Grizzly Stadium when the Griz fell to a Jerome Souers-coached Northern Arizona team for the first time ever. So he prefers to watch on television.
“I love the Griz, always have, always will,” Dennehy said. “We have a lot to be thankful for in terms of what they’ve given me, and that’ll never change.”