BILLINGS — Like so many things in Montana, Montana State Bobcat football always seems to lead back to Butte.
It started with the greatest Cat of all-time, Butte native Sonny Holland. Now, a freshman quarterback from the Mining City has led MSU to its first national championship game in almost 40 years. But in between, there was another.
"There’s some Butte pride," Paul Dennehy said with a hearty chuckle.
Butte pride runs deep in Dennehy’s veins, but it took him a while to bleed blue and gold. When he was in high school at Butte Central, the family had Montana Griz roots.
"My cousin Mick played for the Grizzlies. But all it took for us to change was when Coach (Sonny) Holland came to our house," Dennehy said.
By his sophomore year in 1976, Dennehy found himself as the Cats starting quarterback. There were eight other Butte natives on what turned out to be a very good team. MSU won the Big Sky Conference and entered the NCAA Division II playoffs at 9-1. After beating New Hampshire in the opening round, North Dakota State awaited in the semis.
"Earlier in the season, we had beaten NDSU 34-6," Dennehy said. "But we go back and it’s bitter cold, the wind was blowing hard, so there was not a lot of offense going on."
Dennehy’s pass to the back corner of the end zone in the 3rd quarter was the only touchdown of the game — a 10-3 Cats win. It’s the last time MSU has beaten NDSU in the playoffs.
The win sent the Cats to the national championship game in Wichita Falls, Texas against Akron.
"I remember when we ran onto the field and they introduced us," he said. "When we ran back off the field, I turned to our running back and said, ‘Oh my god, here we go.' But once we took a snap, I was fine."
The left-handed QB found Ron McCullough who made a slick one-handed catch in the end zone for the game’s opening score. The Cats led 17-0 at half and went on to win the school’s first ever NCAA national title, 24-13.
In what many would call fate, Dennehy will turn 65 on Saturday when the Cats play NDSU at 10 a.m. Mountain time for the FCS national title. He’ll celebrate with a couple thousand new friends at the game in Frisco, Texas, hoping for his best birthday present from his new favorite quarterback.
"Two of my favorite Montana State QB’s ever are Kelly Bradley and Travis Lulay," he said. "But Tommy's definitely etched in there now, so now I have three favorites instead of two.
"People are trying to compare him to me, but there’s no comparison. He’s just a phenomenal athlete."
It takes one to know one.