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'The Chief:' Ex-Montana State QB Paul Dennehy shares memories of longtime coach and friend Sonny Holland

Sonny Holland statue
Posted at 4:52 PM, Dec 06, 2022

BILLINGS — It's hard to imagine anyone outside of his immediate family knowing Sonny Holland better than Paul Dennehy.

The coach/quarterback pair who helped the Montana State Bobcats win the 1976 NCAA Division II national championship blossomed into lifelong friends after college, but Dennehy will always remember Holland one way.

"I always called him coach or 'The Chief,' because I had too much respect for him to call him by his first name," Dennehy said.

Dennehy loved Holland the moment he met him. More importantly, so did Dennehy’s mom.

"The most important thing for a mother is to know who’s looking over their son when he leaves," Dennehy said, "and as soon as Coach Holland came to the house, my mother said, ‘That’s where you’re going.’”

Paul Dennehy 1976 Montana State Bobcats
Paul Dennehy (third row up, second from the left) was the quarterback for the 1976 Montana State Bobcats team coached by Sonny Holland that won the NCAA D-II National Championship.

Holland and Dennehy understood each other immediately — what else would you expect from two Butte natives? It’s hard to find anybody in the Mining City who wasn’t a Sonny fan.

"It doesn’t matter what university or college you went to, everybody thought a lot of him," Dennehy said.

The way Holland is talked about, you’d think he was the longest-tenured, most successful coach in Bobcats history. In reality, he only coached the team for seven years, and retired at the age of 38. But he never really left the program, all the way up until his death Saturday at the age of 84.

"I think he’s the Godfather of Bobcat coaches," Dennehy said with a laugh. "Everybody that comes in, you live up to the standard he set. If he doesn’t sign off on you, you’re not going to get (the job)."

He signed off on current Cats coach Brent Vigen. Now Vigen and others will return the favor for this Friday night’s FCS quarterfinal inside Bobcat Stadium.

"I think it’s going to be tremendous," Dennehy said. "They're trying to get all the previous players who played for him to wear their letter jackets and gather for a moment of silence at the statue. I think it’s really going to be something for him to look down on."

Dennehy will play a special part, carrying the Montana flag into the stadium and handing it off to another Butte legend — current Cats QB Tommy Mellott. If you want to know what advice Dennehy will give him, it’s some he got almost 50 years ago.

"The coach was famous for, when we were getting ready to play, saying, ‘This is the place. Now is the time,'" Dennehy sad. "I told the girls after the Weber game (last Saturday), ‘This is the place. Now is the time.’”

It always was for Sonny.