Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Sonny Holland October 15, 2010 by Bill Lamberty • Published 10/15/10

Sonny Holland It's been decades since Sonny Holland put on a football uniform or walked the sideline. Yet, his place in Bobcat lore still grows.
Sonny Holland last pulled on a Montana State football uniform in 1959. He hasn't stalked the sidelines as the Big Sky Conference's dominant head coach in more than three decades.

And yet, slowly but inexorably, Holland's legend hardens. His place is cemented in Bobcat football lore both by deed and proclamation as the program's dominant and most beloved figure.

At colleges across the sporting landscape, especially in small communities, great players and winning coaches stand as living legends that project and upon whom are projected dreams and memories and hopes. Such things fuel passion for college athletics.

But there's an amazing factor in play with Sonny Holland, who is now retired and living in Bozeman. Most of those who consider him the single greatest living Bobcat never saw him play football. Many of the people who can cite Holland's achievements chapter and verse aren't old enough to remember the glory days of Bobcat football when Holland led the program to two Big Sky crowns in seven seasons and a national championship in 1976.

Yet, most who talk about Holland's legacy don't talk about big-picture items, or about the victories or championships. They talk about moments, small scraps of time that can be lost in the scramble of a day but stay with a person for a lifetime.

"I remember sitting in (football team) meetings when I was playing for him and hanging on every word he was saying," says John Close, a Bozeman businessman who played defensive end for the Bobcats from 1975-78.

Close said it is difficult to define the kind of charisma that Holland has. "If you could explain it, everybody would do it," Close said, but he believes the connection was rooted in Holland's selflessness and sincerity.

"It was never about him. It was about you." Close said. "Everyone had a role and everyone was important. That's the key in building any sort of team. You have to understand that role to be successful, and he helped us do that."

That connection was never more evident to Chuck Karnop, MSU's athletic trainer from the late 1960s through the remainder of the century, than on a seemingly meaningless trip to Moscow, Idaho, early in Holland's head coaching career.

"He and I left here on a Sunday afternoon in a bus, just us with the JV team, and we went to the University of Idaho," Karnop recalled with a chuckle. "We played in the middle of the afternoon on Monday, won, and loaded up and came home. We stayed in a motel (Sunday) that wasn't much, but I've never seen anyone enjoy anything more than he did being with a bunch of young guys. There were no assistants or anything on the trip, just him and me, but seeing him with those kids was really something amazing."

Marshall Cook arrived as Montana State's athletic trainer simultaneous to the beginning of Holland's playing career in 1956. Cook was already a veteran in college athletics, and he would work with athletes as a trainer or physical therapist for decades into the future, but says without hesitation that Holland remains a unique individual.

"He was probably one of the most dedicated athletes I ever worked with," Cook says, "and that's a lot of athletes. He was aggressive, and at the same time could be humble. He would kick the living (crap) out of you and at the same time be humble about it."

Like many great prep athletes in Montana, Bobcat assistant coach Kane Ioane grew up with a general knowledge of the Bobcat-Grizzly football phenomenon, but his attention was more trained on his own career than on either of the state's college programs. He received tutorials from some great Bobcat names--Rick and Brandon Vancleeve, Ron and Jeff Muri--once he signed with the Bobcats and came to know Holland just prior to the end of Ioane's All-America career.

Late in the 2003 season, with the Bobcats fighting toward what would be a second consecutive Big Sky Championship, Holland approached Ioane and told the safety that he considered him the finest Bobcat football player he'd seen.

"That made it all worth it," Ioane said. "That is the best compliment I ever had here as a player, coming from probably the greatest Bobcat of all."
Close said that football comes way down the list of reasons why Holland remains a beloved figure to him. "My son, Kevin, was hurt playing football (in 2009), it was a fairly serious injury, and one of the first people who called was Sonny. He heard about it from his daughter or something, and just wanted to know how he was doing."

The devotion Holland's players continue to feel for him is deeply rooted, Karnop said. "He was a guy that players believed could part the sea. They really did."

Cook acknowledges that the warmth those connected to MSU will always feel toward Holland has much to do with the Butte native's loyalty to his school. "He seemed to be all Bobcat," Cook said.
Holland agrees that MSU was always a good fit for him.

"I always wanted to go to Montana State," he said recently. "I just loved the outdoors. The access to fishing and hunting and the outdoor life. And farm people and life impressed me. I just enjoyed the people immensely going to Montana State. And I still do."

Holland says he has no idea why his legend grows. Yet, the issue of the universal respect paid to Holland is not generational.

"It didn't really matter much how old people were," Karnop said. "It could have been his players or a group like (the late)Max Worthington and guys like that, when Sonny entered a room that's where the attention went. He just (has) that kind of charisma."

But his humanity remains the core of Holland's legacy. "I don't know if I can put a finger on it," Cook said, "but I've always respected the man. He says what he has to say, and he says it at the right time.

"He's just a good guy."