MISSOULA — "Wild" Bill Kelly has a special place in Montana lore.
William Carl Kelly was a Denver native who grew up in Butte, moved to Missoula and led Missoula County High School to its first state football championship in 1921 and its first state basketball title in 1922. As a 17-year-old, he boxed heavyweight title contender Tommy Gibbons and didn’t get knocked down in a four-round exhibition match in front of about 1,400 people at Missoula’s old Liberty Theater.
Kelly chose Montana over Notre Dame and coach Knute Rockne, playing basketball and baseball in addition to football. After he led the freshman football team to an undefeated 1923 season, Montana was invited to join the Pacific Coast Conference. Using his open-field running ability, Kelly was a three-year starting quarterback from 1924-26, a two-time All-American and the MVP of the East-West Shrine game after his senior year.
Kelly went on to an NFL career in which he was a teammate of “Red” Grange, playing in 56 games and starting 36. In 1969, he became the first former Griz inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and was the lone inductee until Dave Dickenson got the call this past year.
What may be less known is that Kelly’s final win in college came in Montana’s first-ever game against UC Davis, the opponent the Griz will face at 2 p.m. MT Saturday in Davis, California.
Kelly, Montana’s captain, displayed his running ability in his second-to-last game with the Griz on Nov. 19, 1926, in Sacramento, California. Dubbed “the feature attraction,” he rushed for all three touchdowns in the game, and his “performance electrified the rain-soaked crowd in the bleachers,” according to the game recap in the Nov. 20, 1926, edition of The Daily Missoulian.
Montana was favored going into the game and posted a 21-0 win, the first and only shutout in the eight-game history of the series. The game recap was the lead story on the front page of the newspaper, with the headline reading: “Montana defeats California Aggies by 21 to 0.”
The game was a run-heavy affair played on a muddy field and in “a drenching rain.” The teams combined to throw for a just 1 yard, with Montana going 0 of 2 and UC Davis finishing 1 of 4 for the lone passing yard, according to the box score in the game recap.
Montana gained 293 yards to UC Davis’ 78 and had a 15-5 edge in first downs. UC Davis didn’t get its first, first down until the third quarter and never made it inside Montana’s 25-yard line. The teams combined to punt 27 times, and Montana punter Tom Davis, from Butte, had three fake punts in which he ran for 20 or more yards each time.
“It was a decisive Montana victory over the California Farmers, who were inferior to the invading horde of gridders in every phase of football, even to mud navigation,” the recap read.
In a move that’s not explained further, UC Davis punted the ball to Montana on its first offensive snap after Montana kicked off to open the game. Four plays later, Kelly ran for a 4-yard touchdown.
Kelly rushed for another touchdown in the second quarter, but Montana again missed the extra point. The Griz added a safety in the fourth quarter, and Kelly later scored on a final touchdown run.
“On a dry field the Montana squad would have more than doubled its score as the speedy backs on numerous occasions broke through the first defense only to slip in the knee-deep mud,” the recap read.
Montana, led by first-year coach Major Frank “Shrimp” Milburn, closed the season with a 61-0 loss at USC. The Griz finished 3-5 overall but 0-4 in the Pacific Coast Conference. Kelly never led Montana to a winning season, but he beat rival Montana State in each meeting.
Montana left the Pacific Coast Conference in 1950. The league disbanded in 1959, and eight teams in that league went on to form what's today known as the Pac-12.
Montana and UC Davis didn’t resume their series until 69 years later in 1995. The Griz won the first seven games until they lost to the Aggies at home in 2018.
Kelly had an untimely death at 26 years old on Nov. 14, 1931, due to “acute alcoholism and coronary sclerosis,” according to his death certificate mentioned in a 1984 biography. His obituary in The Daily Missoulian called him “Montana’s greatest athlete.”