"He was a father figure": Butte's Don and Dan Ueland reflect on winning national title with Sonny Holland

Sonny Holland Dan and Don Ueland
Posted at 1:58 PM, Dec 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-07 22:51:28-05

BUTTE — Don Ueland can still "vividly remember" that day in the early 1970s when then-Montana State head football coach Sonny Holland strolled up the steps at Butte Central High School to recruit him and his twin brother, Dan.

"Here comes this guy with this long trench coat on and galoshes up," said Don as he recalled being a starry-eyed kid looking up at this impressive figure. "We were like 'oh, that's Sonny Holland.' We were so impressed though that he was coming to talk to us."

"Sonny, was a big guy, compared to the last 10 to 15 years of his life," said Dan. "He was more or less intimidating. But he was so blue collar."

That imposing but working-class appearance helped convince both Ueland's to head for Bozeman and join their brother Ron, who was three years older than them, with the Bobcats.

With Holland passing away on Dec. 3, this past week has given both Uelands time to reflect on how fortunate they were to spend the entirety of their college careers being coached by "The Greatest Bobcat of Them All."

Don said that just about any superlative you could come up with would aptly apply to Holland.

"He was a father figure to us," Don said. "And the other thing about playing for him, you respected the guy but that respect didn't end at football. That went on afterward to, right up until the day he died."

Said Dan: "Once you got into the Bobcat program with Sonny Holland, he committed to you as much as you committed to him. And that carried on all through life. It didn't just stop after the playing days were over."

Don and Dan's time with Holland at MSU coincided with some of Montana State football's most formidable days. The Ueland twins would never know the sting of losing to arch-rival Montana as the Bobcats won six-straight against the Griz between 1972-77. And the 1976 season would conclude with the Bobcats seizing the Division II national championship.

"It was a tough game," Don recalled when reminiscing over the 24-13 win over No. 3 Akron. "We were ranked No. 1. So we were expected to win.

"Sonny had a saying that's real popular: 'There's a time and a place for everything. This is the time. This is the place.'"

Those words rang true as the Bobcats channeled their own Spirit of '76 to storm to their second national title and only at the Division II level.

Ask Dan, and he'll tell you that Holland didn't need to deliver fire and brimstone speeches to convey his message to his players.

"When he walked into a locker room, you could see it on his face, he had his game face on," Dan said. "And when you looked at him, you knew you better get yours on too. He didn't have to give that rah-rah speech all the time."

For the Ueland's, winning a championship alongside Holland was made even more meaningful considering they all hailed from The Mining City. Don estimates that there were nine players from Butte on that '76 team — including quarterback Paul Dennehy — and that two out of the five coaches were also Butte natives.

"We had a strong Butte camaraderie," Don said.

It's been 45 years since that milestone victory, and less than a week since Holland's lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease came to a close. There are countless people today who are thankful they had an opportunity to know — or even just meet — the larger-than-life figure that was Allyn "Sonny" Holland. The Uelands are no different.

"We were very fortunate to be able to play at the time we did and to play for Sonny Holland," Don said.