BILLINGS — For this year’s Montana East-West Shrine Game the connection between East head coach John Fitzgerald from Red Lodge and West head coach Dane Oliver from Missoula Sentinel goes back a few years.
Both coaches were players on the Montana Grizzlies' 2001 national championship team. Oliver was a receiver for the University of Montana and Fitzgerald played tight end.
“That’s about 20 years ago now," said Oliver, who was an assistant coach in the 2016 Shrine Game, which is the last time the West won. "John Fitzgerald is a great football player and in the education field he’s a superintendent, he’s kind of climbed the ladder there. Tremendous football coach. It’ll be exciting to go against an old teammate and it’ll be a fun week.”
For Fitzgerald, he was actually a part of the Shrine Game in the late 1990s. Back then the game was in July. The Red Lodge head coach remembers the scorching heat, but the weather in Billings this week was pretty similar with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees. Fitzgerald was an assistant coach for the East in 2012.
“We ended up losing, but it was a great game, great week," Fitzgerald said of his playing days. "July is usually hot -- well, this week is modeling that too. Great experience and some relationships that last forever."
Oliver is coming off a 2020 Class AA state championship with Sentinel, and he’s excited for one last ride with a few of his now-graduated seniors. His squad has six players representing the school at the Shrine Game. However, Oliver is also to excited coach some of the best players in the state.
“It’s one more chance to coach a tremendous group of kids who are great football kids, but most importantly great people,” he said.
In practice, Fitzgerald has kept things simple for the East. He's also been impressed with his defensive line which has players like Bozeman High's Luke Fedyk and Billings West star Paul Brott.
“We have some good kids on the perimeter and offensively we’re going to try to open it up a bit," said Fitzgerald. "(Our) defensive line is -- three or four of those kids are going to the Cats and Griz. It’s difficult to run the ball on them.”
Oliver is hoping to see a packed house in Billings for the 74th annual Montana East-West Shrine Game after COVID-19 robbed them of the game in 2020. Most of all, both coaches are excited to raise money for the Shriners Hospital.
“Just excited for the game, but also it’s an opportunity to make an impact on some people’s lives who are maybe a little less fortunate than we are," said Oliver. "I think that’s the mission of the game and that’s the mentality we take in as coaches. Hopefully, we impart on the kids how grateful and lucky we are to play this great game.”
“The fact that you get to coach the state’s best players and being a part of a great cause too -- the proceeds go to the Shriners Hospital in Spokane, it’s a humbling experience,” Fitzgerald said.