BOZEMAN — Each Saturday, as Montana State football players and coaches participate in the Bobcat Prowl, high-fiving fans and hearing their cheers on the walk to Bobcat Stadium, they are reminded of their program’s storied past, thanks mostly to the large statue placed just outside the north end zone.
The man the statue portrays? Arguably the greatest Bobcat in the history of the school — former player and coach, Allyn “Sonny” Holland.
The Butte High graduate and multi-sport high school star became a three-time all-American center and was a national champion in 1956, leading MSU to four consecutive wins over the rival Montana Grizzlies. Holland joined the coaching ranks out of college, with stints as an assistant at the high school and collegiate levels before returning to Montana State in 1970 as an assistant coach. He became head coach of the Bobcats the following season and led MSU to a national championship in 1976.
Holland retired after the 1977 season, winner of 47 games, the highest win total in MSU history until Rob Ash won his 48th game in 2012, and Holland also guided the Bobcats to a pair of conference championships. He still lives in Bozeman and attends many Bobcat games and functions.
Over the summer, MTN Sports caught up with Holland to discuss his Butte upbringing, the national championships as a player and coach, as well as his numerous fishing trips.
MTN Sports: Tell us what it was like growing up in Butte and playing sports in those early days.
Holland: “Wow. That was everything to me, as far as I was concerned. My whole world (revolved around) athletics. Depending on the season I was bouncing a basketball, throwing a shot put, playing football. It was just one season after another, something that was extremely important. That’s something you had to do or you weren’t ‘with it,’ so to speak.”
MTN Sports: When did Montana State become a reality for you in football?
Holland: “I always wanted to be a Bobcat, that was a big part of my upbringing and something that was really important to me. I just felt like I was going to be a Bobcat from the beginning. There was never a doubt in my mind and as it turned out, that’s the way it was.”
MTN Sports: It was a perfect fit. A national championship, being a freshman captain — looking back on that, what stands out the most from that first year?
Holland: “It was a glorious year, actually. We ended up playing in the national championship, something that was way out there, as far as something that I would ever be a part of. It developed, we had a great year, things came together, and we just responded to each other and it was an exciting time for us, for sure.”
MTN Sports: Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that you would get to live out your goal of playing there, have the success that you did with the all-American selections, the national championships, all of it combined into one?
Holland: “It’s hard to say that. It’s something that I never even passed any consideration on that it would be a part of my life. As it turned out, each day that went by was a little bit more and more realistic that it could happen. You just had to keep working hard, being lucky, so to speak, at times. It just seemed to work out.”
MTN Sports: What’s one of your favorite memories from your playing days, maybe besides the national championship?
Holland: “Probably a win over the Grizzlies my freshman year. It’s something that was big here at Montana State and certainly became big to me. I felt like, as time went on, that was the most important thing, you had to beat the Grizzlies. Without a victory over them then it was a bad season. It’s something we really worked hard at and were able to pull off four years in a row when I played there.”
MTN Sports: How soon did you know coaching is what you wanted to pursue? Was that in college? Was it before college?
Holland: “Coaching seemed to be where my opportunities were available. It wasn’t something I really planned to do, but as it turned out, that’s where the jobs were. That’s where I went and it became more and more important to me as an individual to do the right thing at all times.”
MTN Sports: There were so many stops along the way before you came back to Montana State. How did stops at places like Great Falls CMR, Washington State, Montana Western, how did that all lead you back to Montana State? Then, when you became the head coach after first serving as an assistant, how exciting was that to be back in the place it kind of all started?
Holland: “It’s just what you said, extremely exciting. It was made possible by those opportunities that happened along the way that I jumped on. It all seemed to fit together for me. Everything I did seemed to be pointed to the future as far as Montana State was concerned. It turned out that’s where it ended up.”
MTN Sports: There was just one losing season in your first year. What did you guys have to do as a coaching staff to change that culture and get it on the right track in season No. 2?
Holland: “There were some things that we had to take care of as coaches and that was, first of all, we had to instill an attitude amongst the players that it was a privilege to play here. It was something they had to cherish to be a part of and aspire to be a part of every day they worked. As things wore on, it seemed to be that that’s where our strengths lied, putting this unit together and pointing them toward victories every time out of the chute. As it turned out, we were pretty fortunate with that direction.”
MTN Sports: In 1976 then, how did all of that culminate with that national championship?
Holland: “I think the records will back me up on this: We kind of came from behind, I don’t know how many games there in one stretch, but there were a number of games we were behind and came out the victor. You do that by kids working hard every day in practice and realizing that practice isn’t over when you hang it up and go in the locker room. You just constantly preach togetherness and team and being No. 1. That has to be on the table every day. It’s something that we made extremely important to the kids and they picked up on it and carried the ball.
MTN Sports: How proud are you and what does it mean to you to be in the Montana State Hall of Fame, the Butte Sports Hall of Fame, the Montana Football Hall of Fame? They have the statue out in front of Bobcat Stadium, there are all those things that they never could have happened in your wildest dreams like you mentioned, what are those honors like?
Holland: “They’re all … something that is a gift that comes with success. It’s the part of an identification with a group of young people being a part of every day having success and working for success.”
MTN Sports: We’ve always seen you on the sidelines. When you got out of coaching, was it hard to watch from over there and not be in control of what was happening?
Holland: “Yeah, it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. As it came about, I realized that I was very fortunate, I had some really outstanding young men. Without those type of players, we would have never had the success that we did. But as it turned out, we had some really great athletes and just fortunate enough to be part of the group.”
MTN Sports: What’s your proudest moment since becoming a fan and not the coach?
Holland: “Being able to look at that situation and see how it has to be, to come about to where you’re successful. I now go up and spend a few practices, not a lot, but a few practices with Coach (Jeff) Choate and I’m extremely impressed with him and the type of young men he recruits and the fact that his staff works so hard in developing their program. I think they’re going to be great.”
MTN Sports: Is it hard to get to know those coaches knowing they might move on and go somewhere higher, or ultimately maybe they lose their job over not winning the big games, getting to the playoffs? You know these coaches better than most of us do.
Holland: “It’s part of the world that it is. It’s one that they have to realize, nobody knows more than they do that there’s a winner and a loser in every game. They know that. They don’t step into it blind to that. That’s something that’s an obvious given and something that drives them, too.”
MTN Sports: How much do you enjoy the retirement part? Being out fishing, having fun watching the games, chatting with players, coaches and fans?
Holland: “There’s no question about it, I’m really proud to be a part of the program and something that people remember. It makes me feel extremely proud.”
MTN Sports: What’s your best fishing story? I see there’s (a mounted fish) here in the living room, there’s one in the garage. What’s your one fishing story that people haven’t heard enough of?
Holland: “I don’t know. You always want to get the biggest fish there, too. That’s always something that drives you and is something really important. My fishing partner now, who is one of my former coaches, we spend a lot of time jabbing each other. It’s really fun. It’s really fun.”
MTN Sports: Who is that?
Holland: “Howard Ross. We spend a lot of trips together and enjoy each other’s company. We always know every time who caught the most fish.”
MTN Sports: And that’s you right?
Holland: “Oh, all the time. Don’t tell him I said that.”