The Cat vs. Griz showdown is one of the oldest rivalries west of the Mississippi. And arguably the best of them all.
BY JACK MARSHAL III
It’s a crisp November day in Bozeman, the kind that usually draws attention to the snow-dusted peaks and last golden leaves of autumn, but not today. Today’s spectacle is concentrated on Montana State University’s campus, where ESPN’s College GameDay, college football’s premier game-day show, is broadcasting one of the oldest rivalries west of the Mississippi, between the Montana State Bobcats and the University of Montana Grizzlies.
Lee Corse, Kirk Herbstriet, Reece Davis, Pat Macafe, Desmond Howard and other college football celebrities are in Big Sky Country. “Today nothing matters more than taking Montana to the train station,” Davis bellows.
A brackish sea of maroon knit hats and blue-and-gold jackets floods the area around Montana State’s Bobcat Stadium. The excitement of any football Saturday is ballooned by not only the intense rivalry but also that it will be showcased on national TV for three hours. The heat of the competition is as palpable as the near-zero-degree temps; it’s the coldest College GameDay on record. A crowd of more than 22,000 exhausted every last ounce of spirit in the stands, seeing the Bobcats to a 55-21 victory against the Grizzlies, a game that will be remembered for years.
What nearly 2.2 million people nationwide saw during that 2022 College GameDay broadcast is something that Montanans have long honored, from the sparsely populated rural farm towns to the bustling streets of the Bobcats and Grizzlies home dens in Bozeman and Missoula. It’s the Brawl of the Wild—the last-best rivalry in the West.
The rivalry dates back to 1897, less than 10 years after Montana became a state. At that point in time, the forward pass wasn’t even allowed in football. For more than two decades the annual football game was played in Butte in an event known as the Copper Bowl, but since 1952, the two schools have alternated hosting the brawl. While each school’s stadiums have grown over the years, the game regularly sets attendance records; when the teams play in Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, it becomes the seventh largest town in the state.
Scott Hirschi is a lifelong Montana fan who witnessed much of the rivals’ story, including when his beloved Grizzlies won 16 games in a row against “the neighbors,” as he calls the Bobcats. During that streak in the late ’90s, Hirschi was a radio host in Missoula and he devised a song known as “The Bobcats Suck Polka,” which he distributed via CDs. Eventually he led the University of Montana marching band in a live performance of the jingle.
“Why’s there a cow at every Bobcat wedding ceremony?” the polka jokes. “To keep the flies off the bride.”
“I think it’s one of the best,” Hirschi said of the rivalry. “My theory is that all the best rivalries are based on hatred.”
The physical manifestation of the Cat/Griz (or Griz/Cat if you’re petty enough) rivalry is the glorious Great Divide Trophy. Modeled after Bear Mountain on Homestake pass, it was introduced in 2001 and is proudly housed on the campus of the winning school until the next game. This only adds to the already robust bragging rights, as the winning school can parade it around whenever it wants, including using it for recruiting photo shoots and fan photo opportunities. As if the symbolic weight of the trophy isn’t enough, this thing is massive. Montana football players weighed it in 2022, revealing the prize at a whopping 306 pounds. The trophy is usually brought into the stadium for each brawl in the bed of a truck, and upon victory, the linemen are often the team members parading it triumphantly. It’s meant to take up space, emblematic of the spirit of Montana.
Also true to Montana is the small-town camaraderie that keeps the rivalry fun amongst fans, players and coaches. Perhaps such culture is instilled by home state players like Bobcat tight end Treyton Pickering, who played six-man football in the (way) northern Montana farming town of Sunburst, or Griz lineman Sloan McPherson, who hails from the beet-growing town of Savage along the Yellowstone River. In these towns, which are closer to Canada and North Dakota, respectively, than they are to either Bozeman or Missoula, family and community members still celebrate Saturdays in the fall getting decked out in Cat or Griz gear.
“These are local kids playing for local colleges and I think you know, win or lose, the winners get to say ‘I made the right choice’,” said Bozeman resident Dale Palmer, a Bobcat season ticket holder of 20-plus years and religious tailgater.
Cat and Griz players may also count themselves lucky for signing on to Division I institutions still bound to their traditions, while other famous rivalries in the West take new forms. Oregon and Washington just abandoned their in-state rivals in the PAC-12 to go play in the Big 10. Now the only option for those once-beloved rival games is in the early fall. There’s no more snowstorm Apple Cup that will determine a bowl game, or an Oregon rivalry that gives bragging rights heading into the postseason.
But in Montana, the Brawl of the Wild is still a pedestal game, the last of the season without exception. Every year, the game still has to kick off at noon so fans can drive home safely, some traveling several hours across the sagebrush land and mountain passes that Montana boasts. Don’t be fooled though—the spirit of the rivalry isn’t just contained to the November football game.
“Everybody focuses on the football game, but you talk to volleyball players, you talk to basketball players, they want to beat the Griz or Cats just as much as the football team does,” Palmer said.
Both men and women Cats and Griz face off on the basketball court twice each season, usually yielding the most attended games of the season. The duel plays out in track, cross country, tennis and just about any other match-up between the two schools you can imagine.
Similar to the Great Divide trophy in football, the Main Line trophy in volleyball is yet another physical manifestation of the brawl. In the last two seasons, both Montana State and Montana have set individual school volleyball attendance records, and during the 2022 season, MSU set the Big Sky Conference volleyball attendance record in the rivalry match.
College sports are increasingly changing, but the Brawl of the Wild is steadfast. That’s what makes Montana and its flagship rivalry special. As long as the sun sets over the Treasure State, Montanans will always tune in to the last best rivalry in the West.
Jack Marshall is a born and raised Montanan who grew up skiing at Bridger Bowl and watching Bobcat football games. He attended the University of Montana and now works as a sports reporter in the state.