What's in a name? 25 years ago, "Brawl of the Wild" quietly debuted. Now it's everywhere — and here to stay

Photo Gallery: 120th Brawl of the Wild
Posted at 4:10 PM, Nov 16, 2022

BILLINGS — The phrase “Brawl of the Wild” first appeared in the Nov. 16, 1997 editions of the Missoulian, the day after the Montana football team whipped Weber State and six days before the Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats would tangle in what turned out to be one of the most thrilling games in the history of the rivalry.

Three paragraphs into his game story chronicling UM’s 38-13 win over the Wildcats in Missoula, sportswriter Kim Briggeman noted: “Only Montana State stands in the way of Montana’s fifth straight trip to the (Division) I-AA football playoffs. The 97th Brawl of the Wild takes place in Bozeman on Saturday. It’s been sold out for weeks.”

And there it was. The “Brawl of the Wild” name was born. Twenty-five years ago to the day.

You’ve seen the name for years now. And you’ll see it all over ESPN’s CollegeGameDay on Saturday when the wildly popular pregame show broadcasts live from outside Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman in advance of the 121st battle between the Cats and Griz.

You’ll see it everywhere else, too. Some like the name, some don’t. Frankly, some hate it. But this is true: It’s here to stay.

Briggeman, one of the state’s finest sportswriters of his era, is the man who coined the term, and he did so in an effort to bring a new definition to the rivalry, which in the ‘90s was marketed as the “Montana Power Classic” among other generic names. But he can’t exactly pinpoint how it all came together.

“Well, it’s not a real sexy story,” Briggeman told MTN Sports. “I think that was my 10th or 11th year on the beat, and what do you call the darn thing? There’s so much division. If you say Griz-Cat then you get heat from one side, and if you say Cat-Griz it’s the same thing on the other side.

“By then I was getting kind of tired of all that, as I still am. I got to thinking, well, we have the Apple Cup and the Iron Bowl and The Game, so I thought it would be a good name for this. But I really have no idea how I thought of it.”

The name “Brawl of the Wild” is a play on the title of the 1903 Jack London novel, “The Call of the Wild,” a story about a St. Bernard named Buck who is stolen from his home in California and made to become an Alaskan sled dog.

Long story short (with sincere apologies to Mr. London), Buck eventually gains his freedom and heeds the call of the wild to live and survive in the wilderness — a habitat not unlike parts of Montana.

“I read that in high school I’m sure,” said Briggeman, a 1981 UM graduate. “But it wasn’t a recent reminder. I guess I was thinking of getting ‘Wild’ somewhere in there.”

Briggeman said he first broached the name to Missoulian sports editor Bob Meseroll, who as Briggeman recalls wasn’t initially keen on its usage.

But Meseroll has a different recollection.

“Kim probably has a better memory than I do, but I only remember liking it. It references ‘The Call of the Wild,’ and Jack London is my favorite author. I don’t remember having a problem with it,” Meseroll said.

“I think it’s just so fitting for the state of Montana,” he added. “Referencing ‘The Call of the Wild,’ to me it was just a natural. If anything I’m maybe surprised that it took a while to catch on.”

It’s not unlike how the Big Sky Conference was named.

The league, founded in 1963, got its handle from longtime sportswriter Harry Missildine of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, who floated the term in a Feb. 20, 1963 column, basing it off the 1947 novel by A.B. Guthrie, ‘The Big Sky,’ which is among a sequence of books about the birth of Montana.

“When the Big Sky was forming, he’s the one who was credited with naming it,” Briggeman said. “They came up with something that was obviously a good name.”

The “Brawl of the Wild” name didn’t have the same immediate effect.

At first, the moniker was used pretty much exclusively by those at the Missoulian and later by other newspapers in Lee Enterprises’ Montana chain.

Now it’s everywhere. Television, newspapers, radio, advertisements, websites, social media … anywhere with an interest in promoting one of the longest and most heated college football rivalries in the country.

It's a complete 180 from two decades ago, when local media outlets, competing for eyes and ears, squabbled over its usefulness, and in some places in the media world it was met with disdain. But not necessarily from the general public.

“I don’t remember getting blowback from readers. That’s not to say that we didn’t. That was 25 years ago,” Meseroll said. “I do remember blowback from some fuddy duddy journalists in the state, but that didn’t really concern me because I knew the quality of the work that we were putting out.

“The readers were OK with it, and by now they’re more than OK with it. In my 27 or 30 years as the sports editor at the Missoulian I don’t remember a huge outcry against it.”

Briggeman was no longer the Missoulian’s main beat writer for Griz football after the 1998 season, having handed it off to Jon Kasper, who is now the senior associate commissioner of championships at the Big Sky Conference.

The league now uses "Brawl of the Wild" anywhere and everywhere, though the name lived in the shadows, at least outside of Missoula, for several years.

“We didn’t use it all the time, because nobody else was picking up on it. It went over like a lead balloon for most of the world,” Briggeman said. “I think it was Bob who had our graphics person (Kathy Taylor) create a logo for the 98th Brawl of the Wild, but that was the only time we really ever used it. Kasper didn’t go overboard with it.”

“It was years before anybody else ever used ‘Brawl of the Wild.’ I don’t know that you could find it for maybe the first 10 years on TV, radio or other newspapers.”

Now it’s inescapable, like it or not.

Briggeman said he was nudged by friends and family in the early days to try to copyright the “Brawl of the Wild” name. He said he spoke to higherups at the Missoulian about doing so, but that’s when they found out that Learfield — the media rights holder for both the Bobcats and Grizzlies — had beaten them to the punch.

As it stands, Learfield owns rights to the marketing and promotion of the name. Town Pump sponsors the annual all-sports competition between Montana and Montana State, which is dubbed “Brawl of the Wild” and is complete with a traveling trophy that is awarded to the athletic department with the most wins across all competition between UM and MSU (not to be confused with the Great Divide Trophy that will be battled for on the football field Saturday in Bozeman).

Despite its anonymity in the early days, the moniker eventually stuck.

“I would say 20 years ago it would have really been surprising, because there was no traction for years and years,” Briggeman said. “I guess I am surprised. But I don’t understand how the marketing world works. Somebody in that world thought it would be useful.”

Six days after the “Brawl of the Wild” name first appeared, the Grizzlies beat the Bobcats 27-25 on a Kris Heppner field goal as time expired, ripping victory from defeat and crushing MSU’s hope of snapping a debilitating losing streak to the Griz — which at that point reached 12 in a row and eventually grew to 16 before coming to an end in Missoula in 2002.

During his time on the beat, Briggeman never covered a Griz loss to the Bobcats.

“Don’t blame the streak on me,” Briggeman said with a laugh. “I didn’t throw one pass.”

But his most significant contribution — other than his first-rate coverage during what was a nasty and one-sided struggle between the teams — arrived on Nov. 16, 1997. Twenty-five years ago to the day.

And the name “Brawl of the Wild” is here to stay. You've seen it everywhere, and you'll see it again Saturday when ESPN's College GameDay sets up shop across the street from Bobcat Stadium.

Like it or not.