BOZEMAN — In the late summer of 2004, after 13 years in front-row seats for Oregon’s decidedly un-civil Civil War, I arrived in Bozeman eager to experience first-hand the smaller-school showdown I'd heard of only as — quaintly, I thought then — the “Brawl of the Wild."
Now, I was under no illusion that just because the audience was smaller that rancor between backers of Montana and Montana State would be any less feverish. I’d covered seven Boise State-Idaho football feuds in their Big Sky Conference days, and recall Boise with its equal parts Bronco and Vandal alums becoming especially testy come November.
I also knew as the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's new sports editor I was entering a rawhide world miles from the leafy gentility of western Oregon, even if the transition from dusty pickups to squeegee-clean Land Rovers was well under way.
But still …
As I've noted in this space, my first taste of the rivalry’s intensity was hammered home within a few weeks. I had the audacity to predict a higher Big Sky football finish for the Grizzlies, even though that’s precisely what had happened for the previous 19 seasons dating to MSU’s lightning-in-a-bottle 1984 national title run.
A voicemail the next morning half-jokingly — I think — cautioned me to adhere to the Wild West tradition of sitting facing the door lest my anatomy be rearranged if caught unawares.
Never, in more than a decade of annually picking Oregon State to finish behind Oregon, did anyone in Corvallis ever propose grinding me into a human gut pile.
If that wasn’t a pause-worthy enough flavor of my new environs, a few weeks later, after the start of hunting season, a reporter I’d brought from Oregon shared with wide eyes his tale of coming home to the apartment he platonically shared with a female college student, a Montana native. No slice of milquetoast himself, having briefly lived amid gangs on the mean streets of Tacoma, Washington, he was nevertheless slack jawed upon entering the bathroom and finding parts of an elk carcass hanging from the shower head.
That was shortly after we’d chased a black bear sow and her two cubs from the Chronicle parking lot.
And in case I thought the roaming bruins were a one-off, the office scanner was a nightly chatterbox of wildlife encounters ranging from mountain lions stalking pets to a bear breaking into the Ace Hardware on Main Street.
I didn't need anyone to tell me Montana was wild. It routinely showed it.
I was given free rein to remake the Chronicle sports section as I saw fit, but I did unwittingly cross a line once.
That was the first and only time I referred to the UM-MSU game in a Chronicle story as “Brawl of the Wild”.
“It’s Cat-Griz,” I was admonished by a veteran colleague in a tone and tenor that suggested I’d have more success arguing with that hyperphagic mother bear.
My quizzical look begged an explanation, and I got one in what was otherwise a bastion of objectivity: “Brawl of the Wild” was coined by talented Missoulian wordsmith Kim Briggeman in 1997 for a competing newspaper (strike one) in Missoula (strike two), a.k.a. the home of the Griz (strike three).
Turns out some conspiracy theorists were even convinced the Chronicle was a closet Griz booster, our reams of Cat content notwithstanding. The paper’s burgundy A1 banner was suspiciously close to UM’s maroon and the newsroom was known to be infiltrated with UM J-school insurgents.
Calling it “Brawl of the Wild” would only affirm the narrative.
So Cat-Griz it was for my 3½-year stint, though even that rankles some UM supporters who won’t accept second billing to a rival they’d dominated from the mid-1980s through 2015.
They insist on “Griz-Cat”, but ... sorry. No.
It’s a cadence crusher akin to McCoys and the Hatfields, Costello and Abbott, and Cher and Sonny.
Seventeen autumns later, with MSU winning six of the last 10 on the field and at long last able to shrug off the old Griz-dominance jabs, this much I’ve learned:
• Don’t write prediction columns, even if the picks are obvious.
• Scour parking lots for bears and bathtubs for elk carcasses.
• It’ll never be “Brawl of the Wild” for the truest-blue of Bobcat Nation.
• Above all, the battle for the Great Divide Trophy, whatever you want to call the game, doesn’t take an intensity or emotions backseat to the Apple Cup, the Big Game, The Victory Bell, The Territorial Cup, or the Oregon grudge match now formerly known as the Civil War.
Ours is the only rivalry I know where what to call it can be nearly as contentious as the game itself.
“Brawl” is here to stay, of course. But what I suspect we can all agree on is that the storied history, with its annual ruckuses in the mud and the blood, render “Brawl” and “Wild” — clever and useful as they are if, say, you’re trying to lure ESPN’s College GameDay to Montana — as superfluous as telling us Montana is "wild" when it routinely shows us.
Nothing quaint about a simple two words that despite their thrift instantly evoke a mental brand of "brawl" and "wild".
In short: 'nuff said.