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Sonny Holland, legend of Montana State football, dies at 84

Sunny Holland
Posted at 3:21 PM, Dec 04, 2022

BOZEMAN — Sonny Holland, who won national championships in football at Montana State as both a player and head coach and remains one of the most revered figures in MSU history, died Saturday in Bozeman. He was 84.

Montana State confirmed Holland's death to MTN Sports on Sunday prior to releasing an official announcement.

Called "The Greatest Bobcat of Them All," Holland was a Butte native who won a national title with the Bobcats in 1956 as a center and again in 1976 as head coach. Holland led the MSU football program from 1971-77, winning a pair of Big Sky Conference championships in that span.

Holland's jersey No. 52 is retired by the Bobcats. He was inducted into MSU's athletic hall of fame with its inaugural class in 1986, and is also a member of the Montana Football Hall of Fame and the Butte Sports Hall of Fame.

Following the announcement of Holland's death, tributes poured in.

"What an incredible honor for me and my family to get to know Sonny Holland," Bobcats athletic director Leon Costello posted to Twitter. "He was a regular in my suite on gamedays and I am still in awe of how all Bobcat fans, young and old, respected and admired him. I will miss our conversations and hand shakes but will always remember his sincerity. To the Greatest Bobcat of all-time, thank you. You set the standard and will be greatly missed.

"An absolute legend in every way," current MSU coach Brent Vigen tweeted. "Coach Holland personified what our players & our coaches strive to be. The Greatest Bobcat — his legacy will last forever!"

"Rest in peace Sonny Holland," tweeted Bobcats wide receiver Willie Patterson. "Was a pleasure meeting you and your impact on bobcat football will FOREVER be remembered."

Allyn "Sonny" Holland was born on March 22, 1938 in Butte and went on to graduate from Butte High School. He played center at Montana State from 1956-59, and helped the Bobcats go 9-0-1 and claim the NAIA football championship as a freshman in 1956 by tying Saint Joseph's (Ind.) 0-0 in terrible field conditions at the Aluminum Bowl in Little Rock, Arkansas.

After his playing career, Holland went on to be an assistant coach at Bozeman High School in 1961, then coached at MSU from 1962-64 under Herb Agocs, first as an assistant offensive line coach before becoming the full-time line coach in 1963. He then was the first head football coach at Charles M. Russell High School in Great Falls, serving there from 1965-67.

Holland returned to the college ranks as an assistant under another Bobcat, Jim Sweeney, at Washington State the following year in 1968. That was before taking the head coaching job at Western Montana College (now Montana Western) in Dillon for one season in 1969, where he won Frontier Conference coach of the year honors.

In 1970 Holland returned to the Bobcats as defensive line coach under Tom Parac prior taking over as head coach in 1971 as Parac's hand-picked replacement (Parac ascended to the role of athletic director in 1971).

Holland presided over one of the most successful eras of MSU football, as the team won league titles in 1972 and 1976.

In 1976, Holland coached MSU to a 12-1 record, a Big Sky title and a 24-13 victory over Akron in the NCAA Division II championship game in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Holland's head coaching record at Montana State was 47-24-1. He went 7-0 in his one season at Western, giving him a 54-24-1 career record as a head coach, a winning percentage of .684.

Holland, known to his players as "Chief," went 6-1 against rival Montana as head coach of the Bobcats. According to MSU, from the day Holland arrived at Montana State as a freshman until the moment of his retirement, the Bobcats won 17 of 22 games against the Grizzlies.

Holland was part of two of Montana State's three national championships. The Bobcats are the only college football program two win titles at three different levels — NAIA in 1956, NCAA Division II in 1976 and NCAA Division I-AA (now Division I FCS) in 1984.

In 2011, the south end zone of Bobcat Stadium was bowled in to add several thousand seats, an area christened as the "Sonny Holland Zone." In 2016, a nine-foot bronze statue of Holland was unveiled outside Bobcat Stadium as a tribute.

According to MSU's press release, Holland became Montana State’s first three-time All-America football player as a center. The Bobcats finished with a cumulative 31-6-1 record during Holland’s time as a player.

After stepping down as coach following the 1977 season, he later served as the school's alumni director from 1978-92 and was also a special advisor to the university president.

For years after his retirement, Holland was a regular at MSU athletic functions, remaining a venerable member of the Bobcat family.

Holland was preceded in death by Deanna, his wife of 50 years. He is survived by daughters Wendy (Gator) Rivers, Heidi (Eric) Vinje, and Jody (Tyler) Delaney, as well as numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.