Montana Grizzly football coach Bob Stitt paces on the sideline at Washington Grizzly Stadium. (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION

MISSOULA – June is a tough month for the coach. Always will be. It’s a reminder of what’s been lost. A friendship that surpassed what most of us would assume is the limit of human connection. The type of friendship the coach will never have again. And given the hurt that never really goes away, maybe doesn’t want to.

But if half a lifetime of heartache, which is particularly acute in June, the anniversary of his best friend’s death, when all the memories of the good times return, never to be repeated, is the price to pay for those nearly 25 years they shared, he would not hesitate to ante up again. It was just that good.

June is a reminder of a life cut short, way too short, right when it was peaking, just months from leading a team onto the field for the first time as the guy at the front of the game­day stampede. After 26 years dutifully working as a coordinator, finally the brass ring: head coach.

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He didn’t seek the position it out, but given the national championships his defense helped bring to his school, the conference titles, it was only a matter of time before it found him. In his hands, the keys to the Cadillac of NCAA Division II programs, which he helped build, the Northwest Missouri dynasty.

He didn’t need the promotion to find happiness. That came wherever he happened to be, and it wasn’t a coincidence. As the coach says of his best friend, “He was undefeated in the game of life. He had it figured out. He never had a bad day.”

He was the guy so many of us wish we could be. He lived life at 90 miles per hour. Not to get somewhere else but to fully enjoy every waking minute gifted him where he was. Because to him the big time wasn’t the next job, the next level, the new title. He made it the big time where he was.

In football terms, he was the anti-­Nick Saban. He had his process, sure, but it was paired with gusto, a passion that couldn’t be contained, that he saw no reason to harness. Because why should the players be the only ones having fun out there?

Football was everything. Until the game was over. Then it was about celebrating family and friends, win or lose. Postgame at his house, a full dozen siblings and step­siblings. Don’t know the family or anyone else there? Stop by anyway, and by the end of the evening you’ll feel like they’ve been friends for life.

He found his happiness in the simple things. Football, and there were few better than he was at coaching it. Family, his wife and two kids, plus all those siblings, and everyone else he ever met whom he made feel like it. And beer, none of which was bad. To him, it only varied by degree of awesomeness.

Twenty­-six years a defensive coordinator. Then on Dec. 31, 2010, a promotion to the corner office. The coach had never seen his best friend so happy.

As a Catholic, his friend would have agreed: God works in mysterious ways. But given everything he gave to everyone else, what was laid out in front of him and what he still had the opportunity to accomplish, what happened on June 5, 2011, still does not make any sense, even to the most devout.

At the age of 49, Scott Bostwick collapsed to the ground while mowing his lawn in Maryville, Mo., never to rise again. He led with his heart in everything he did. It’s what drew people to him, allowed him to push his players harder and farther than other coaches ever would have been able to.

That heart, so full of life, so open to anyone who wanted a piece of it, finally gave out, and Bob Stitt hasn’t been the same since.

*****

The meaning of the green hat, the genesis of the headgear worn by Stitt on the Montana sideline on game days that has led to so many questions, so much handwringing, so many whispers of Doesn’t he know we’re maroon? can trace its roots back to 1988.

Prior to that, Stitt was the star running back for Doane, Bostwick the standout linebacker for Nebraska Wesleyan, each school the other’s hated rival, located just 20 miles apart, one in Crete, the other in Lincoln. Stitt, it needs to be noted, went 4­-0 against Wesleyan in his career, 3-­0 against Bostwick.

Their friendship ­­ though let’s call it more of a mutual respect at that point than amity ­­ began in Lincoln, when groups of Tigers felt the need to go out on the town and found that Crete, population: 7,000, just didn’t provide enough options. They frequently ran into Prairie Wolves.

But the true origin of the friendship that would change both of their lives was more happenstance than anything else. It came at an indoor track and field meet at Wesleyan in the winter of 1988. Having exhausted his eligibility on the football field in four years, Stitt coached Doane’s defensive backs as a fifth­-year student assistant in the fall of 1987. That winter he ran his final season of track.

After one 60­-meters race at that fateful indoor meet, Stitt bumped into Bostwick, who had just been hired as Wesleyan’s defensive coordinator by new head coach Jim Svoboda. Spying Svoboda, Bostwick called his new boss over and told him, “This is the guy you need to hire to coach our running backs.”

He didn’t know how it would look for Nebraska Wesleyan to hire someone from Doane, but the next morning Svoboda called Stitt and offered him the job. Salary: $3,000.

“I don’t think Jim knew what he was doing at the time, putting Scott and me on the same staff, but thank God he did, because those six month were the foundation of our friendship. It only grew stronger over the next 25 years,” Stitt says.

The head coach was 26, Bostwick was 25, and Stitt was younger than both of them. Bostwick sold Pickle Cards on the side, Stitt worked at a health club. “You just tried to make ends meet so you could coach,” Stitt says.

It was the type of environment that incubated deep friendships. Without family or the money to do anything else, they sat around the office deep into the night discussing football, X’s and O’s, life and dreams. Both Svoboda and Bostwick would be in Stitt’s wedding.

Stitt and Bostwick probably shouldn’t have hit it off. Clearly the odds were against it. One was from Doane, the other from Wesleyan. One had a mind for offense, the other for defense. One tried to make his unit unstoppable, the other his group immovable. But at its root it was always bigger than football.

“It’s weird how it happened. We just kind of gravitated toward one another, and it just grew over time,” Stitt says.

Stitt was at Wesleyan for just one season, barely half a year, before Northern Colorado coach Joe Glenn convinced him to become one of his staff’s graduate assistants.

With Stitt gone to Greeley, he and Bostwick would never again be on the same staff, but something special, something unbreakable, unaffected by distance, was in place, and it would not only last until Bostwick’s death. It grew stronger over the years.

“I didn’t realize it until the time he died that we had talked at least once a week for more than 20 years. Sometimes it was two times, sometimes it was three. Every time I’d get on the phone with Bos, my wife would just roll her eyes, because she knew it was going to be an hour,” says Stitt.

By the time Stitt made it back to Doane as offensive coordinator, in 1990, Bostwick had decamped for Western Washington, hired to be the Vikings’ defensive coordinator.

There they each remained for four seasons, until Bostwick moved first, joining Mel Tjeerdsma’s new staff at Northwest Missouri. Tjeerdsma’s pick to be the Bearcats’ offensive coordinator? Jim Svoboda, hired away after seven years as head coach at Nebraska Wesleyan.

“Mel hired my two best friends to be on his staff, so I always had that connection to Northwest Missouri,” says Stitt. “That was the first score I would look at on Sunday morning. Then I’d get a phone call and Bos and I would hash it out, both of our games and how they went. Then we’d usually talk every Friday morning about our upcoming games.”

One more connection: Tjeerdsma (CHURCH­ma) got the job at Northwest Missouri after leaving the same position at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Tjeerdsma’s replacement asked of him a favor. Did he know of any bright, young offensive coordinators? “That’s how I got from Doane to Texas,” says Stitt.

With Stitt relocated to Texas, Bostwick and company got to work at Northwest Missouri. Things got off to an inauspicious start. The Bearcats went 0­11 in 1994, the staff’s first year together.

Of course that season has long been forgotten, a light sidebar to an era of dominance. By 1998, Northwest Missouri was holding up the national championship trophy. The Bearcats did again in 1999, going 29­1 over those two title seasons.

Everything had come together for Bostwick: success and fulfillment in his work, close proximity to his and his wife’s families, two kids of their own.

“It was such a great fit for Bos,” says Stitt. “He’s from Omaha, and his wife is from Omaha. Then they started winning. Over the years, people would call and offer him jobs, but he never looked for jobs. He always said, the big time is where you’re at.”

After five seasons at Austin College, another, in 1999, as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Harvard, Stitt got his first head coaching job, at Colorado School of Mines.

Both coaches now settled, they put their heads down and got to work. Northwest Missouri lost in the Division II national championship game in 2005, ’06, ’07 and ’08, each time by a touchdown or less, until breaking through for its third title in 2009.

Discounting that first season, the win-less fall of 1994, the Bearcats would go 183-­32 over the next 16 years, with
Tjeerdsma as head coach, Bostwick as his defensive coordinator. (Svoboda spent 10 years as the offensive coordinator at Northwest Missouri, leaving after the 2003 season to become quarterbacks coach at UCLA. He was the assistant head coach at Montana State under Rob Ash from
2007­09. Since 2010 he’s been the head coach at Central Missouri.)

After Stitt’s own rough start in Golden ­­ the Orediggers went 2­8 in his debut in 2000 ­­ Mines would win the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title in 2004, going 8­0 in league and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.

A loss to Pittsburg State kept Mines from facing Northwest Missouri in the national quarterfinals. At a school that wasn’t supposed to be a factor on the football field ­­ finding one future engineer who could play a little football was one thing, fielding an entire roster of them was quite another ­­ Stitt’s teams would finish above .500 every season but one after 2000.

“Bos and I were similar in that we could have gone and done different things, but we were focused on building our programs,” says Stitt. “You work hard and do a good job where you’re at, and you might miss out on opportunities, but you don’t even think about it. Then you wake up and it’s 15 years later.

“But I always say, if you’re happy, it’s hard to beat that. You can chase something that will never be there, and there is nothing worse than regretting a move.”

In all that time, Stitt and Bostwick never lost the connection that started in their one season together at Nebraska Wesleyan. To every other coach he would come to know over the years, he was always Stitty. To Bostwick he was always Bobby. It was just a different level of understanding, of intimacy.

This will probably be instructive and maybe all you really need to know: After Stitt and his wife, Joan, had their two sons, they put together a will. And if something were to happen to the Stitts, would Bostwick and his wife take care of the boys? “He didn’t even hesitate,” says Stitt. “He said, absolutely.”

Bostwick would visit Colorado. Stitt would stop by Maryville when visiting his parents in southeast Nebraska. Golf trips were taken together. Even recruiting trips, when transcripts would first be looked over by Stitt, then passed on to Bostwick if the player wasn’t quite Mines material.

And then there was the American Football Coaches Association’s annual gathering. The host city may have changed, but some things never did.

“We’d be inseparable at our national convention. That was the joke among all our coaching friends. Has there been a Bostwick­-Stitty sighting yet? because we were always together,” says Stitt, who five times offered Bostwick his open defensive coordinator position at Mines. Five times he was turned down.

It wasn’t personal. His family loved Maryville, and Bostwick had made it the big time where he was. They had built Northwest Missouri into a powerhouse. Bostwick was named the AFCA Division II Assistant Coach of the Year in 2007. Two of his players went on to play in the NFL.

“He was a great coach because of the relationship he had with his players,” says Stitt. “He had such a strong bond with them. They truly trusted him.

“And then he’d coach them hard. Real hard. But they loved it. That relationship and that trust is the key to everything. They loved him and would do anything for him.”

In 2010, Northwest Missouri went 12­2. The Bearcats dropped their season opener to Texas A&M­ Kingsville and wouldn’t lose again until falling to No. 1 seed and eventual national champion Minnesota-­Duluth 17-­13 in the semifinals. It would be Tjeerdsma’s last game as head coach.

Twenty days after coaching his 226th game as Northwest Missouri’s defensive coordinator, Bostwick was introduced as Tjeerdsma’s replacement. “It’s what I’ve wanted. It’s why I’ve stayed here, and here it is,” he said.

Stitt spent time with Bostwick the following May, one head coach mentoring a first­timer who hardly needed it. One month later, as the first speaker at Bostwick’s memorial service, which had to be held inside Bearcat Stadium so large was the crowd, Stitt said:

“I think when people go to heaven, they take on what they looked like when they were happiest on earth. When I see Bos, I think he’ll look exactly like he did when I saw him in May. I’d never seen him so happy.”

*****

As so often happens with the most terrible events in life, Stitt, even six years later, remembers clearly the day he got the phone call from a Northwest Missouri assistant coach telling him his best friend had died that Sunday morning. Stitt and his family were packing up to take a vacation to Las Vegas.

The memories of the next few days have become hazy, lost in the overwhelming emotions of the news’ aftermath, perhaps the mind’s defense mechanism that keeps us from reliving the events over and over again, unable to move forward.

He and Joan flew to Nebraska and stayed with his parents, then made their way to Maryville for Bostwick’s service. It just didn’t seem possible, to Stitt or the thousands who showed up that day, fellow coaches, former players, people Bostwick probably didn’t even know he’d touched.

Speaking first, before Svoboda, Stitt began his part of the eulogy by stepping up to the on­field dais and putting on a red hat, the same kind worn by Bostwick on the sideline during games, something that allowed his linebackers to easily spot him, with all that Bearcat green.

There was a long pause as everyone waited, understanding the delay. Stitt had the words. His papers that contained his thoughts fluttered in the breeze. Two shaking hands held them down. But the strength he needed to say them, with the casket of his best friend lying a few feet below, wasn’t there.

Finally, with a whispered, cracking voice that revealed to everyone in attendance the depth of the two coaches’ relationship, which started in 1988 at Nebraska Wesleyan and was strong enough to bridge time and the distance of separation, Stitt said:

“Scott Bostwick was many things to many people. Husband, father, son, brother, coach and friend. And he was my best friend. If it’s possible to find your soul mate in a friend, I did in Bos.

“I wasn’t lucky to have a brother of my own. But if I would had, I couldn’t imagine being any closer to him than I was to Scott. I loved him like a brother. I thank God for the time I was allowed to spend with him.”

*****

Now he had to move on. With his friend on his mind every day that summer in the weeks leading up to the 2011 season at Mines, Stitt mulled different ways he could memorialize Bostwick. Something noticeable but subtle.

What better way than to don a red hat on game day? Not only was it practical ­­ given his team’s blue and silver colors, his quarterbacks would now be able to pick him out that much quicker in an offense that valued every second of efficiency it also was deeply personal.

“Not one person ever asked in my last four seasons at Mines why I wore a red hat,” says Stitt. “I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked about the green hat here.”

In his first spring at Montana, in 2015, Stitt had a problem. He wanted to continue the tradition, but a red hat on a maroon sideline wouldn’t work. He considered yellow, then came up with an even better solution: Bearcat green.

He isn’t asking that you join him, because 26,000 green hats would defeat the purpose. He just hopes you understand why he does it.

The phone calls, once, twice, sometimes three times a week that always started with, “Hey, Bobby,” no longer come. The ache will always be there, just a thought away, back to the times they spent together.

But he finds comfort is this: The only undefeated coach in Northwest Missouri history is enjoying the only greener pasture that ever could have taken him out of Maryville. And that one day the best of friends will reunite at last.

Copyright ©2017 University of Montana

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