Class of 2016
The Greatest Bobcat Ever
He earned the designation as the greatest Bobcat of all time for many reasons, not the least of which the root for his other nickname: Sonny Holland is a Grizzly killer.
Holland made a living out of beating the University of Montana both as a player and a coach, a triumph that formed the foundation of a football career filled with storied success. As a freshman center and middle linebacker out of Butte High School, Holland starred on Montana State College’s 1956 national championship team. He went on to earn All-America honors three times and defeat Montana four consecutive times as a player.
Holland returned to his alma mater as the head coach in 1971. By 1977, he owned a national title as a coach and six more victories against the Grizzlies. All told, he posted 10 wins in 11 outings against UM, part of a career that included three total Big Sky Conference titles, two national championships and 78 total victories before he abruptly walked away from the profession at the age of 39.
“Beating the Grizzlies something I’ve always grown up with,” Holland said in a recent interview that spanned more than an hour worth of memories. “It’s always been part of my life. In high school and as an athlete at Montana State, as a coach, beating the Grizzlies, you just went to bed with it 365 days a year.”
The coaching tree he left behind only enhanced Holland’s greatness as a Bobcat. Sonny Lubick took over for Holland in 1978, leading the team to its first-ever No. 1 ranking that fall. In 1979, Lubick led the Bobcats to their seventh Big Sky Conference championship since 1963. He would go on to great fame as the defensive coordinator for Dennis Erickson’s national championship teams at Miami. Erickson and Cliff Hysell also coached on Holland’s staff; Erickson would go on to big-time college football and NFL notoriety while Hysell was MSU’s head coach from 1992 until 1999.
“The guys that played for him still refer to him as ‘Chief’,” Brad Daws, an All-America defensive end at Montana State in 1975, said in an interview in 2014. “He just has that aura. You can’t really describe it, but you know when you’re around him.”
Most followers of Montana State remember recent stars like Travis Lulay or even standouts from the previous generation like Mark Fellows. But Holland hasn’t played in a game for 57 years and hasn’t coached in a game for nearly 40. Yet his myth continues to grow.
“He set the foundation way back in his day and he’s been an influence on every great player and coach since he’s been here,” said MSU linebackers coach Kane Ioane, a four-time All-American as a player and the Bobcat Holland considers the finest player in MSU history. “That’s why Coach Holland is the greatest Bobcat of all time.”
Holland’s greatness resonated so profoundly, his No. 52 was retired immediately following his last game as a player in 1959. Holland was inducted into Montana State’s Hall of Fame 30 years ago. In 2011, Montana State performed an $11 million upgrade of Bobcat Stadium flush with a 7,200-seat south end-zone addition named after Holland.
In August of 2013, Holland was among the 13 inaugural inductees into the newly created Montana Football Hall of Fame.
Holland is a Butte native and his Mining City roots run deep. He grew up in a German-Irish family that valued hard work and respect of one’s elders. His father worked on Butte-Anaconda Pacific, running the ore train from Butte’s thriving copper mine to the smelters in Anaconda. The household was strict, something that stuck with Holland for the duration of his life.
“We were brought up that way,” Holland said. “We were brought up to be respectful, kids always had to be respectful. We had to work hard from a young age and we learned the value of a dollar quickly.”
Holland’s father played in an independent football team that featured six local teams. Holland remembers his father bringing home his gear, including a leather helmet with no facemask when Sonny was in the third grade. At that moment, he fell in love with the game and began playing tackle football as an eight-year-old.
Butte High still has the Montana record for state titles by a single school with 15 even though the Bulldogs have only claimed two Class AA state crowns (1991, 2012) in the last 35 years. Butte won 13 state titles between 1924 and 1981, the same number Great Falls C.M. Russell has won since its first its first title in 1975.
“Butte, it’s a fiber, a work ethic, a intrinsic fiber of the people that you aren’t going to put them down and keep them down forever because they will surprise you,” he said. “It’s a blue collar type of town. They’ve tried themselves in that. The game of football is something that Butte has hung its hat on.”
After earning three letters each in football, basketball and track at Butte High, Holland decided to bring his talents to Bozeman despite the fact that MSU had only one winning season in its last nine and were on the wrong end of an eight-game losing streak to the Grizzlies.
As a Bobcat, Holland’s Butte toughness shined through. As a true freshman captain, he led MSU to its first national title, a run that included MSC’s first win in Missoula since 1902. Holland saw 15 straight wins before he suffered a loss in a Bobcat uniform.
Holland’s first coaching position came from a Butte native when he assisted Tom LeProwse during the 1960 season at Bozeman High, helping the Hawks to their first state title game appearance since 1912. After spending time on active duty in Fort Carson, Colorado — Holland graduated as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army along with earning an industrial arts degree — Holland took his first college coaching position on Jim Sweeney’s staff in 1962 while he earned his master’s degree. He also spent the next 12 years in the U.S. National Guard.
Holland assisted Gene Carlson on Great Falls High’s 1964 state title team, then led the Bison to back to back state championship games as the head coach, claiming the 1966 state crown. One member of that State Title team had his life changed forever because of coach Holland. Rick Halmes was a football player at Belt Valley High School, 20 minutes East of Great Falls. Holland suggested he should play his senior year at Great Falls High for the Bison which Halmes did. The next spring, because of Holland's mentoring, Halmes received a Great Falls Quarterbacks club scholarship of $250. "That was the first time I ever even thought I could go to college, that check could have been $25,000 and would not have had a bigger impact" says Halmes who went on to play football for 4 years at Eastern Montana College. Halmes added, "I know there are other young men who had their lives impacted in a special way by Coach Holland.
After a school district-mandated one season as the head coach at Great Falls C.M.R., Holland joined up with Sweeney again, this time as offensive line coach at Washington State. In 1969, he took the head coaching at Montana Western, winninghis first collegiate conference crown as a head coach.
In 1970, he returned to his alma mater to serve on Tom Parac’s staff. In 1971, he lost to the Grizzlies for the last time, in 1972 he led the Bobcats to his first Big Sky banner as a coach and in 1976, he led MSU to the Division II national championship.
“Coach Holland was a player’s coach who demanded excellence and hard work at all times,” said Leon Potkay, a first-team All-Big Sky offensive guard as an MSU senior in 1973. “When Coach said be at the meeting at 8 a.m. everyone was there at 7:45. Ron Ueland and myself would be at practice and on the field 25 minutes early for fear of being late.
“We all love him as ex-players, every one of us. He is still ‘Coach’ to us and he is the best ever.”
As the 1978 season approached, Holland realized he had only seen his daughter, at the time a senior in high school, cheerlead one time. He and his four-man coaching staff enduring the same workload heaped upon a staff of 10 with a collection of helpers in today’s game. He was earning just $14,000. He elected to walk away.
Holland worked in the MSU alumni office until 1992. He worked three more years with the MSU Foundation, helping establish an endowment for each of the members of the 1956 team. Each time a member of Montana State’s first national title team passes away, Holland sends out a letter garnering donations in their name.
In 2008, Holland lost his high school sweetheart and wife of more than 50 years, Deana (Carpino), herself a Butte native. He now lives alone in an area that used to be “so far out of town” in the Bozeman of Holland’s youth. He still attends every Bobcat game, although traveling with the team has slowed down as he’s reached his late 70s. Despite a national discussion about the safety of the game and the impact head injuries will have on its future, Holland believes football is bright light. Coach hopes it can help carry on the joys and enrichment it has brought him during his 78 years on earth.
“There’s a discipline to it that is so critical to the upbringing to young people,” Holland said. “The demands of a team, playing a team sport is extremely important. It’s important that everyone has an experience as a member of a team and be able to work within that framework. To be a part of a successful group and a successful season is a very big thing in a young man’s life. I think it teaches a person to be a man, no question about it. It did in my life. It changed my life.”
By COLTER NUANEZ