I remember the chaos vividly. The athletic director and head football coach at the University of Montana had just been let go, victims of a sucker-punch that no one saw coming. The community was outraged. Things were uncertain. Inside the office of Sports Information Director Dave Guffey both Bob Beers and Scott Gragg, two men rumored to possibly be named the interim head coach, admitted to us they had no idea who would receive the appointment. It was all a whirlwind, it felt like maybe the wheels were starting to fall off. But then came news that Mick Delaney would come out of retirement and graciously take over as the interim head football coach at the University of Montana. Finally, some stability.
That first practice with Mick at the helm was unlike any practice I had ever attended during my employment with Griz Athletics. The atmosphere was charged. Besides the regular beat reporters on hand you also had sports media from across the state present. Mark Holyoak, the face of KPAX News at the time, had come out from behind the anchor desk to cover the spectacle in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Staff members from inside the athletic department stood on the sideline to support Coach Delaney. It wasn’t just a practice that day, it was a major event in the historical fabric of Grizzly Athletics.
That day with all the microphones pushed in his face, Coach Delaney said he would do all he could to give the media, the athletic department, and the community everything he had. It is now some 32 months later and he never waivered on that pledge. Ask any media member about working with Mick, they will all say he was accommodating and kind. Quiz any athletic department staffer on whether Coach Delaney was a team player who held his players/staff accountable while supporting the other programs and they will nod yes in a heartbeat. Ask Mick’s wife Cheri about the long list of community causes he aided and she will rattle off an endless list. Pretty good for someone who was yanked out of retirement and placed in the most scrutinized position in the state, right?
It definitely wasn’t a walk in the park for Mick. He had to deal with the crippling repercussions from the President’s decision, the unfair suspension and trial of his star player, and unrealistic expectations/unfair criticisms from fans. During his inaugural season, I served on the travel advance team for Grizzly football. On those road trips I could literally see the stress hanging on his shoulders during that challenging 2012 campaign. I watched him smoke a lot of cigars on those trips, his only chance to provide himself with a little relief. However, even with the stress and setbacks, Mick always kept his integrity and always came out a winner.
I debated going about it this way because I didn’t want to turn this post into a list. However, I feel it is the best way to highlight his character. I want to quickly offer my five favorite personal Mick Delaney moments that really illustrate the leader and special person that he is (listed in no particular order):
Mick Sacrifices Time for Small Marketing Event – In 2013, Monte had earned yet another spot on the Capital One All-American Mascot Team. The competition to crown the Mascot of the Year that season depended partly on fans photographing or videoing themselves completing weekly challenges and posting the content to social media. One particular week the challenge was to capture the celebration you thought your mascot would do if he scored a touchdown.
I planned an event in Washington-Grizzly Stadium where fans could run around on the field, catch a touchdown pass, and then celebrate with Monte. I didn’t even bother asking Coach Delaney to come out because it was right in the middle of the week and the team was traveling the next day. But lo and behold, when I escorted the participants through the Adams Center and out the tunnel into the stadium there was Mick standing at mid-field. On a cold Montana day with plenty of wind and sleet, Mick did his own touchdown celebration with Monte. He then stuck around and took photos with the fans who showed up, many who never had the opportunity to watch a game inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium because of the ticket availability and cost. I was so humbled that he would show up to something that I didn’t even know was on his radar. For him to then go the extra mile and make sure everyone else had a memorable experience made it that much sweeter.
Mick Surprises 102-year-old Lady – Toward the end of last football season, Mick made the day of one hardcore Griz fan by paying a surprise visit. However, this University of Montana supporter wasn’t a testosterone-driven message board poster covered in maroon and silver body paint. Instead it was a sweet old lady named Emma Lommasson, a 102-year-old Griz diehard who once served as the Assistant Registrar at Montana.
When Coach Delaney walked into the lobby of Emma’s retirement home her eyes lit up and her mouth dropped open. The two held hands and had a lively conversation for about 30 minutes. This wasn’t a photo op or a publicity stunt (only our storied play-by-play guy and myself were present), this was just Mick being Mick. They would have talked all day long but Coach had to hustle back to campus to start practice.
A Hand-Written/Hand-Delivered Thank You Note – When the head coach of a major program brings you a card with a personal, thoughtful message you know you are dealing with a man who is truly down-to-earth and humble. Just a couple days before offices in the athletic department started to clear out for the holidays, Mick walked around to members of the support staff and handed out Christmas cards and boxes of chocolates. When I read what he wrote, I could undeniably say that I felt truly valued and appreciated by one of the most well-known and recognized men in the state.
Road Trip – In August of 2013, a year-long sponsored rivalry competition was introduced to spotlight the Griz-Cat series across all sports. The press conference was held in Butte (a location in the middle of Missoula and Bozeman). I had the opportunity to make the drive with our athletic director, our associate athletic director, and Mick Delaney. During the drive there and the drive back, I just relaxed and listened as Mick talked about football. He discussed players, coaches, FBS, FCS, conferences, past games, war stories, and more. It was a totally uncensored look into a 50-year vault of pig skin richness, also known as Mick’s brain. I ate up every bit of it and even managed to have some of my questions answered.
Pre-Game Speech: Before the Appalachian State game in 2013, Mick Delaney addressed his players while our video guys caught it on camera. This video was created for an in-stadium feature and when we played it at the second home game of the season it was extremely powerful. It wasn’t a “yell at the top of your lungs” rant or a psychological, well-planned lecture. Rather, it was just Mick speaking from his heart. Those last 30 seconds represent everything he tried to instill during his three seasons as head coach at the University of Montana. That is the Delaney Gospel right there, and the best way possible to end this list.
As he preached in the speech I just highlighted, Mick Delaney did things the right way. At times, critics complained. But you know what, who cares? Coach Delaney made a selfless decision to step in when things were toxic. He oversaw the program for three seasons, ran a clean ship, and won more games than he lost. He will pass the torch to a new coach who will inherit a solid program with a strong incoming recruiting class. Thank you Mick Delaney for your amazing leadership. You will be forever remembered for what you did to help Griz Nation when it needed help the most. Don’t Blink.