Allyn “Sonny” Holland is a household name in Bobcat Country. In 1956, he played center for Montana State University’s NAIA Championship-winning football team, and from 1971-1977, he served as the team’s head coach, leading them to two Big Sky Conference victories and six Brawl of the Wild wins. But what really solidifies his name in the hearts and minds of fans is the 1976 NCAA Division II Championship.
This wasn’t MSU’s first national championship, and it wouldn’t be their last. (They’d go on to win the NCAA Division I-AA Championship in 1984, making the Bobcats the only college football program with national championships at three different levels.) But the amount of excitement in ’76 was unbeatable—much like the Bobcats team.
MSU was undefeated in the Big Sky Conference that year and fell only once in the regular season, losing to Fresno in Week 3 before going on a seven-game winning streak. At UM, they spanked the Grizzlies 21-12, and on road games at both Weber State and Northern Arizona, the Bobcats shutout their opponents. After finishing the season with a 28-7 win over Hawaii, MSU beat out New Hampshire and North Dakota State to make it into the Pioneer Bowl.
To make this all the more impressive, MSU’s 1976 roster only featured ten seniors. Many of the stars from the previous year had moved on (including the all-time leading scorer and the quarterback), so the MSU offensive backfield was a sea of first-year starters. Southpaw sophomore quarterback Paul Dennehy would go on to exceed expectations for a team predicted to finish fourth in the conference at the start of the season.
Defying the odds, the Bobcats faced off against the Akron Zips in the championship on December 11, 1976. MSU racked up 266 rushing yards and a field goal for a 17-0 lead going into the third quarter, but Akron forced two turnovers and made them count, bringing the game to 17-13. Bobcats defense held when Akron got the ball yet again, and MSU offense put the game to bed with an 8-yard touchdown run.
The final score was 24-13.