BOZEMAN — Choosing to walk on to the football program at Montana State was the first big decision Helena native Bobby Daly ever made.
And what a good decision it was.
A high school standout at Helena Capital, Daly eschewed scholarship money at various Frontier Conference schools for the opportunity to play for the Bobcats. By the time he wrapped up his career — Daly played for head coaches Mike Kramer and Rob Ash at MSU between the years 2004-08 — he became an All-American and one of the Bobcats’ most decorated linebackers.
“I’m very grateful that I made the decision that I did,” said Daly, now the inside linebackers coach at the University of Idaho, which visits Montana State on Saturday. “Ultimately I liked the idea of putting myself in a position where I had to start at the bottom and work my way to the top.
“It was more than I could have ever hoped for. Everybody over there treated me like family since the day I stepped in the front door.”
Daly has returned for many Bobcat football games since his career ended. His younger brother Brad, a defensive end at MSU, won the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS in 2013.
But nothing will compare to Saturday’s setting. Daly will be on the opposite sideline with the Vandals, who are in search of road victory on the heels of a humbling performance last week at Idaho State, a 62-28 defeat.
From a sentimental standpoint, Daly is downplaying his return.
“It’s going to be weird to be on the opposite sideline, no doubt. Every game I’ve ever played in there, every game I ever watched in there I’ve been on the Bobcats’ sideline,” he said.
“I’m really excited, first of all, to watch our guys play. More than anything it’s a business trip for us. We’ve got to get a win down there. We’ve got to get it rolling. More than anything I’m focusing on the game.”
Looking back, Daly is proud of the work ethic he adopted to become the player he was.
Daly played defensive end at Capital for coach Mark Samson, and there was a lure for Daly to go with Samson when he became the head coach at MSU-Northern in 2004. The chance to stay home and play for Carroll College was also an attractive option.
But Daly preferred to be pushed out of his comfort zone — and also follow in the footsteps of his father, J., who was also an All-American at MSU.
The road wasn’t easy.
“I played a lot of scout team linebacker,” Daly remembered. “I went there as a defensive end, and just from all my reps on scout team I learned how to play the position of linebacker, which I hadn’t played my whole life.
“It just kind of carried over that spring (of 2005) and the coaching staff made the move. I ended up starting six games as a freshman due to injuries and things like that. It couldn’t have worked out better for me.”
A fierce competitor, Daly had 121 tackles as a sophomore in 2006 and collected 136 more stops the following season. He finished his career fourth in program history with 382 total tackles. He was named a unanimous first-team All-American following the 2007 season.
After graduating from MSU with a degree in business finance, Daly went on to play three years of indoor football before matriculating to Idaho, where he achieved a master’s degree while a graduate assistant on the Vandals’ coaching staff.
Now as Idaho’s inside linebackers coach, Daly is an instructor at the very position he played in college. His star pupil this season is Ed Hall, a junior from Chugiak, Alaska, whose 40 tackles lead the team.
“I’ve got a fun group of kids,” Daly said. “I’ve got some senior leadership in Ed Hall.
“I saw Ed come in as a true freshman, walk on, and he’s made himself into a heck of a player, a three-year starter. Very similar story to myself. I’ve got a lot of respect for Ed and what he does for me in that room as far as being a leader.”
Daly is one of several Idaho coaches making a homecoming (of sorts) on Saturday: Head coach Paul Petrino is a Butte native and former Carroll College quarterback. Special teams/tight ends coach Troy Purcell, also a Carroll grad, previously was the head coach at Havre High and Bozeman High.
Offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich is a Carroll product, too. Defensive coordinator Mike Breske won a national championship in 2001 while on the staff at Montana, and cornerbacks coach Vernon Smith played defensive back for the Grizzlies from 2000-04.
It’s a pivotal game. The Bobcats are 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the league, while Idaho is 2-3 and 1-2.
“I think all of us would like to go back and put on a good show,” Daly said. “We would like to go back and show what we’re doing here at Idaho, and compete and get out of there with a win.
“Every conference game matters at this point. It was nice to see a couple teams get some wins last week against some unbeaten conference teams, but we can’t rely on people to lose games. We’ve got to keep up by continuing to get wins in the conference.”