MISSOULA -Griz Nation is in mourning.
Former University of Montana football coach and athletic director Jack Swarthout died Saturday evening in Olympia, Wash. He was 85.
On Sunday, former players, assistants, and friends of the Grizzly icon remembered the man who led UM to national prominence during his nine years as coach from 1967-75.
"He was one of the classiest people I've known in my life," said Pat Dodson, an assistant during Swarthout's tenure. "He was a great football mind. He surrounded himself with outstanding people. He's one of the greatest coaches that the Grizzlies ever had. What a loss."
Swarthout had been battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma in recent years. He'd even made trips to Mexico seeking alternative treatments.
"I know he was in the throes of it, so maybe it was a blessing," said Ron Nord, an assistant with Swarthout and a former head coach of UM's basketball team. "He was one of the best persons I've ever worked with. He was an amazing man."
Swarthout's last visit to Missoula came in November of last year. He was honored during a halftime celebration of the Grizzlies' 34-22 win over Northern Arizona. At that time, Swarthout was a "living legend." To his players he'll always be much more.
"All of us lost a father in Jack, he meant a lot to all of us," said Robin Peters, a star defensive back for the Griz from 1968-71. "A lot of us are the way we are because of Jack."
Swarthout is best remembered for guiding the Grizzlies to back-to-back 10-0 regular seasons in 1969-70. Both teams went on to lose in the Camellia Bowl, which crowned the small college national champion, but the popular coach had already changed the face of college football in Missoula.
"He was a great inspiration," said Montana athletic director Jim O'Day. "You could see how much he meant to everybody."
Before Swarthout took over, the football program had just two winning seasons in the previous 21 years. He finished with a 51-41 overall record at UM, which ranks second behind Don Read in career wins. A former Griz player from 1939-41, Swarthout guided the Griz to their first Big Sky Conference title in 1969.
"He was an innovator as far as head coaches at his level for his time," said Ron Rosenberg, a Griz linebacker from 1971-74. "He kind of took the position of CEO of the company. He surrounded himself with quality coaches and developed a nice program."
Swarthout used a "Wishbone" offense that gave defenses trouble with its multiple options at running back. He built up the Griz roster using junior college transfers, including some quirky players from Hawaii.
"That group there was one of the finest that came along," Nord said. "Especially those Hawaiians. They changed our attitude to being relaxed and playing tough. They really got us playing good football."
The '69-70 teams were the highlight of Swarthout's career. The low point came a few years later when the Griz program got mixed up in a work study scandal. Swarthout, who was the A.D., and several other members of his staff went on trial for misusing government funds, but none were convicted.
"When we got hit with the work study thing, we were honest," Nord said. "We were on trial, but we were innocent. It kind of spoiled (Swarthout's) whole thing."
Still, Swarthout's former players talk about his character and kindness as much as his football mind. Some recalled that he and his wife, Mary, taught ballroom dancing for many years.
"He wasn't demeaning in any way," Rosenberg said. "He coached up to people and prepared them for life.
"He was a gentleman in a game that, in those days, wasn't known for gentlemen."
"He made such an impact on so many people," said Peters, an insurance agent in Missoula. "He's going to be missed by a lot of people."
"All the players thought soooo highly of him," O'Day said. "Now you see how successful they became in the business world and that's because of him. He was a real leader."
O'Day said Swarthout was going to attend the Grizzlies' 2005 opener, but at the last minute decided against it.
During his last visit to Missoula, current Griz coach Bobby Hauck presented Swarthout with the game ball from that NAU win.
Hauck said Swarthout gets overlooked for setting UM on the path for its current success.
"Jack meant an awful lot to the University from the standpoint of who he was and what his football teams did while he was here," Hauck said. "He affected a lot of people. He was a great guy."
Swarthout will forever be credited as the coach that turned Montana into a winning program and he did it in his own unique way.
"He wasn't a rah-rah attitude," Rosenberg said. "It was a step above that. It was professionalism. With other coaches it was all about the physical end of the game. Jack stressed the mental end. He wouldn't tolerate playing without class."
Services are pending.