Mick Delaney isn’t the first football coach at the University of Montana whose roots reach back to the mines of Butte, the city that lends the state its rugged and peculiar soul.
But he is the first to have presided over the Vu Villa, a consummate and revered Butte joint. And you’d have to think there are moments – last Saturday comes to mind – when a post at the beer tap seems like a happy alternative to taking second place in a football game in front of a demanding, occasionally caustic throng that regards finishing first as a birthright.
“Never,” Delaney insisted with a laugh. “Never ever.”
“Oh, that’s way harder,” he said. “Coaching is something you love, even during the tough times. Slinging pizzas and beer behind the bar, that’s work.”
Tough times are a relative concept at Montana, of course, where Saturdays are a spectacle and the jewel box stadium teems with throaty expectation.
But in times any less grim, Mick Delaney would be enjoying his retirement in the bleachers.
The Grizzlies come to Cheney on Saturday for the always anticipated showdown – and show – with Eastern Washington, where the stops for this game always seem to be pulled out in one fashion or another, whether it’s the splash of red turf or a grand new scoreboard or tickets jacked to Cristal prices.
There is a different buzz this time. The Eagles seem to be coming in with all the rhythm – a higher ranking and an intriguing two-quarterback look just for starters – and Montana with the blues, the latest a rare pasting at home from Northern Arizona.
Which, yes, is the least of it.
The university and Missoula community are in the throes of an ugly crisis over the handling of sexual assault allegations, some involving football players. Everyone from the NCAA to the Department of Education to the Justice Department has been nosing around, and the incumbent quarterback, Jordan Johnson, was finally charged with rape on the eve of the season after a protracted investigation.
The image, accurate or not, is of a community and campus too infatuated with football to properly police the players. The mysterious April dismissals of coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day further muddied perceptions.
UM president Royce C. Engstrom has refused to explain those firings beyond the ubiquitous search for “a new direction.” That he replaced them with men who served with the two he axed suggests he is more adept at misdirection than new ones.
Delaney wasn’t promoted, however. Running backs coach under Pflugrad, he’d retired in February with his 70th birthday approaching. He’d barely dusted off his golf clubs when Engstrom sent out an SOS for an interim caretaker and gave Delaney a half hour to decide.
A coach for 40 years, Delaney’s first college experience came on Jack Swarthout’s staff at UM – Jack Elway was the top assistant – in the late 1960s. His wife and children all attended the school, so he regarded it as “a special place for me.”
“I just thought this was the right thing to do,” said Delaney, who has since been given a two-year contract.
His first phone call while Engstrom’s clock was ticking was to Pflugrad.
“I knew he wouldn’t be happy about whoever took the job, and maybe he had some doubts about me doing it,” Delaney admitted. “That’s the way it is when something tragic happens – you lose faith and trust in everybody.
“I don’t take it personally. Something very important to him was taken away.”
Delaney has plenty of challenges to occupy him on the football end. The Grizzlies started 10 seniors on defense last year, and Johnson’s suspension leaves the quarterback job to a redshirt freshman, Trent McKinney, who’s being tutored by former Washington State QB and assistant Timm Rosenbach. But obviously, there’s more to this job now.
“What’s been going on here is certainly disturbing to everybody,” Delaney said, “though there are very few people who have the facts. But there’s a lot of angry people, for a number of reasons. Part of my job is to get people to trust the program again. I don’t know if that’s a burden, but it is a responsibility.”
And that starts, of course, with player behavior and discipline. No football coach can guarantee a roster full of Boy Scouts, but Delaney has emphasized to his team that “we simply have to do the right thing.”
“But a lot of the things we’re demanding from them are things they want demanded,” he said.
So just what was Delaney going to do in the retirement he postponed?
“Golf,” he said. “Follow grandkids around to football games and volleyball matches. I have five in high school now. I hope they’re not too disappointed, but young people are very resilient.”
Old guys from Butte, too, it seems.