This is the story of a cow femur. And some behemoths who like to eat worms. And a receiver who has trouble with high fives, a free safety named Pugsly and the rest of the Montana State football team, whose recent performance chart looks like a dangerous EKG report. The Bobcats were a dismal 1-10 in 1983, catapulted to 12-2 and a Division I-AA national championship in '84, then plummeted right back to earth with a 2-9 record last year for the widest consecutive swings of fortune in the history of the college game.
In 1983 the Montana State offense scored only nine touchdowns all season. "We'd get a turnover and give it right back," remembers free safety Doug Kimball (known as Pugsly because of his resemblance to a character on the old TV show The Addams Family). "One time I intercepted a pass on the opponent's 15. The offense came out on the field, lost yardage on a couple of plays, picked up a penalty or two and we ended up punting. We'd go back on the field laughing, it was such a joke."
Every week offensive coordinator Craig Clark tried something new, and each week his frustration grew. At one practice he simply stopped talking, crawled up onto the film tower and pouted. "I think he had a nervous breakdown, I really do," said defensive end Tex Sikora. "He got to the point where he didn't comb his hair. He didn't take a bath. He just gave up."
"The moving vans were circling my house like the Indians circled Custer," said Dave Arnold, then in his first season as head coach after two years as an assistant at Michigan State. "My eight-year-old started crying, 'I don't want to move again.' "
September 14, 1986
Local TV producer Rip Cook scraped together a "highlight" film—mostly jarring defensive plays—then couldn't resist assembling a more accurate version, which he set to the Beatles' Help!
So what happened the next season? "I'll never understand it," says defensive coordinator Mike Kramer, who is known as Psycho because of the look in his eyes when he talks about hitting. The team had pretty much the same personnel going into 1984, with the exception of a redshirt sophomore named Kelly Bradley, who took over at quarterback. On the coaching level, Arnold hired a new offensive coordinator, Bill Diedrick, a cheerful fellow who had designed the No. 1 offense in the NAIA the year before at Whitworth College in Spokane. Diedrick installed a frilly short-pass offense—tight ends in motion, backs becoming receivers, etc.—with a running attack the previous year's offense had lacked. But no one expected any miracles.
"We figured if we finished above .500 that would be an accomplishment," recalls Bradley, and the season started out pretty much that way. After a win over tiny Mesa (Colo.) College, the Bobcats dropped 17 passes and missed four field goals to lose 21-16 to Eastern Washington. They beat Idaho 34-28, but then lost 22-6 to Idaho State as Bradley threw four interceptions. "I thought, Here it goes again," says Kimball. Except that this time, even with the mistakes, the offense was averaging 417 yards a game.
Arnold told the team to relax and start believing in itself. For his part, Bradley took every play out of the playbook and drew it on paper, relearning each one (about 30 runs and 150 passes) inside out "so I'd know what I was doing."
Up to then, Bradley had been just another quarterback. He had come out of Zumbrota, Minn. (pop. 2,000), where he had spent his summers driving a peacutter for Libby's. He was good-sized (6'3", 195 pounds) and had a rocket arm but wasn't a sure starter after spring practice in '84. "I never thought of Kelly as the real thing," says receiver Tom White, who has probably had his own share of doubters. He's listed in the program as 5'10" and 155, and no one believes either stat.
But after the Idaho State loss, something started to click. The Bobcats beat Weber State 48-0 and then edged Nevada-Reno 44-41 in four overtimes. Next they walloped the Portland State Vikings 45-22. "As good an exhibition of quarterbacking as I've ever seen," said Viking coach Don Read, who had coached Dan Fouts at Oregon.
Bradley's crowning achievement came in the last game of the regular season, at Fresno State. Down 24-7 in the third quarter, he got the Cats close, 31-28, then with 1:06 left took them 73 yards for a score and a 35-31 victory.
In the playoffs they beat Arkansas State 31-14, Rhode Island 32-20 and, finally, Louisiana Tech 19-6 in the I-AA title game, as Bradley completed 32 of 57 passes for 334 yards against the division's No. 1-ranked pass defense. That had Tech coach A.L. Williams comparing him to Terry Bradshaw.
For Montana State, it was the second-greatest Jekyll-and-Hyde act in NCAA history, behind only Northern Michigan's 0-10 and 13-1 finishes of 1974-75. Bradley passed for 4.477 yards and 38 touchdowns—five of them to White, who was immortalized in the highlight film as he missed a high five in the end zone—jumping up, coming down, then slapping. "Bad timing," he explains.
The spiritual center of the successful turnaround was the offensive line. Its outlook on life was forged during the difficult '83 season, which is to say that while their coaches sank into depression, they took things with a smile. Insects, for example. Tackle Bruce Brockmann once found a grasshopper in a motel room and bit its head off. "Since then," he explains, "any time we see an insect or bug, we just put it in our mouths."
Says Bradley, "One day in the huddle Bruce says, 'Hey, Kelly, want, to see a worm?' And he holds up a worm and puts it on his tongue. Then two plays later he comes back and takes it off his tongue."
When things started going better in '84, the linemen began paying homage to the Monolith, a large cow femur Brockmann found while hunting. Despite its odor, they took it on road trips and wrote the scores of their wins on it.
With the benefit of the mystical femur and 13 returning starters, things looked promising for 1985. "I thought we'd either do it again or at least win the Big Sky," says linebacker Kirk Timmer. "We lost some key people, but we had some key people back, too."
Some of the toughest games were on the road, but the major problem was bad breaks. They started early and just kept happening. Before the season one key defensive tackle was declared academically ineligible. Another simply didn't show up—"One of the mysteries of my life," says Kramer. Guard Bruce Randall, who had made honorable mention All-America in '84, decided to concentrate on his engineering studies. In the opener Portland State surprised the Cats 46-28, and Kimball injured his shoulder.
"We thought, O.K., that was a fluke," says Timmer, and, indeed, things looked fine in an 86-0 Bobcat romp over tiny Eastern Oregon State as Bradley threw four TDs in 1½ quarters, and two backup runners had over 100 yards each. However, another defensive tackle, Greg Gammon, was lost for the season.
Next up was Eastern Washington. Bradley brought the Cats back from a 28-3 hole but fell short, 28-23. And injuries knocked out Brockmann and nose-guard Tom Jacobs. The next week Bradley threw four interceptions in a 58-21 loss to Boise State, which was followed by a 50-36 loss to Weber State.
The unkindest cut came against the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona. First, Bradley was put out with a badly dislocated elbow. But despite two Lumberjack interception returns of 47 and 72 yards for TDs, the game was tied 24-24 in the final two minutes. Then Montana State's backup quarterback, Greg Andal, fumbled a snap, which gave Northern Arizona the football. A Northern Arizona running back fumbled, kicked the ball 15 yards upfield, and a Lumberjack receiver fell on it for a first down. That led to the winning field goal.
The Bobcats dropped the next game to Idaho State 50-9 before ending their five-game losing streak by knocking off Montana 41-18.
But then the Nevada-Reno Wolf Pack mauled them 61-14, knocking out Timmer, the team's leading tackier. After that was a 34-0 debacle in subfreezing temperatures against Idaho. By the final game at Washington State, the Bobcats had only three linebackers. One got a concussion on the opening kickoff; the other two were dinged in the fourth quarter and replaced by a noseguard and a defensive back.
The final score was 64-14, Washington State. "We couldn't stop a good high school team at the end," says Kramer. For the season his defense made 26 sacks (versus 72 the year before) and blocked only one punt (versus 6 in '84).
"It was exactly the inverse of 1984," says Kramer. "Everything that could go wrong did, but each year the attitudes were exactly the same. There was no finger-pointing, no name-calling." No one came down on Arnold, and the moving vans didn't pull up to his driveway. Attendance at the games was fine.
And this season? Kimball is now a student assistant coach, and Brockmann will be a spectator as he completes his degree in mechanical engineering. Kramer put in a new attacking, blitzing defense, and spring practices were upbeat. Bradley's elbow has healed, and he is throwing well. Says Timmer, "Some people expect us to turn around and be really good this year. It's amazing how many people believe that—coaches, fans. Come to think of it, I sort of believe it myself."