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Harley Lewis

Class of 2017

 
 

FOR LACK OF VISION MY PEOPLE PERISH

 

Harley Lewis had a vision!

With an off-campus aging stadium with wooden bleachers and a waning football program, an expansive football stadium on the University of Montana campus was but a Harley Lewis dream.

But the Butte native shepherded a facility from the dream stage to infancy and reality that now has become on a half dozen fall Saturdays a facility housing a population representing the seventh largest city in the state.

Now with a listed capacity of 25, 217 – double the original size - yet often exceeding 26,000, for the third consecutive season Washington Grizzly Stadium led the other 44 FCS schools in attendance.

Named the Athletic Director in 1966 after an undergrad track career and head track coach UM tenure, Lewis led an on and off campus effort to relocate football to campus and construct which at the time was the crown jewel of Big Sky Conference stadiums.

There was a sense at the time that the school’s traditions were disappearing, he said, with Homecoming activities like the Ringing of the Bell, the Lighting of the “M, ’’ the singing on the steps were fading and even the Marching Band had been eliminated.

And the success of the football team, which twice played for the division’s national championship in 1969-70, also had diminished to where a winning season (just three from 1971 to 1985) was a rarity.

With the backing of President Neil Bucklew, the solid support of head coach Larry Donovan, a $1m gift from Dennis Washington and hordes of in-kind donations and construction participation, football became that on-campus reality in Oct, 1986.

“He realized the (possible) impact,” said Lewis about Bucklew.

To say and the rest is history is not too far fetched since with Lewis’ hiring of the venerable Don Read before the 1986 season, continued expansion of the facility and future successes of the team including perennial playoff participation and a pair of National Championship, days of Dornblaser Stadium are so far removed that most Griz faithful don’t hardly remember it was a football facility.

“You have to sit back and smile,” said Lewis, recognizing the number of people involved in some phase and the belief it could actually happen. “All of us had a hope.”

He hired Read knowing his brand of wide-open, pass-oriented football would be popular and in addition to his recruiting prowess possessed impressive organizational skills.

Of course the eventual $3.2m project required creativity like a novel and unprecedented fund-raising credit mechanism of moving the project out of state hands to the UM Foundation then donating it back when it was completed.

Built with ideas of expansion and even with thoughts of a second deck, the decision also was made to dig the field down, thus using the dirt for the berms on the side as a cost-savings mechanism.

It even was built with a second deck and possibly a dome in mind and concourse suites, which were novel, were included.

“You look forward a whole bunch when you dream,” said Lewis, who feeling he had accomplished his goals left for an NCAA position in 1988. 

His influence and legacy was felt long after he departed, over the years, 100 plus student athletes have gone from Grizzly football to the NFL or CFL.  No era has been more prolific in promoting Grizzly players to the elite level since that time when Lewis directed the creation of Washington/Grizzly Stadium. Tuff Harris and Dave Dickensen were inducted into the MTFHOF last year. Trumain Johnson, recently signing one to the highest paying contracts for an NFL corner, then on and on…Brock Coyle, Colt Anderson, Dan Carpenter, Chase Reynolds, Jordan Tripp, Kory Bierman, Marc Mariani, and Tyrone Holmes, just to name the last few, have all benefited from the investment in Grizzly leadership of Lewis.

In addition to the hiring of Read, who won 85 games and the ’95 National title, Lewis also selected, Mike Montgomery, Jim Brandenberg, Stew Morrill and Robin Selvig and most of the athletic department’s support personnel, the majority of whom recently retired after 30-plus year careers.

In 94 he left the NCAA for a fund raising position with the University of Arkansas, eventually serving as the Associate Vice Chancellor until retiring in 2009. Lewis still lives in the Ozark Mountains area of Arkansas.