MOSCOW, Idaho – Troy Purcell has encountered countless challenges during his years as a high school football coach, but none have provided a more valuable learning lesson than his first contest with Regis High School in Stayton, Ore.
“We didn’t bring a football to the first game. I was ready, I was fired up and ready to go, but we didn’t bring a football,” recalled Purcell, laughing at the memory. “I had to borrow some footballs from someone else and we lost 50-2. We got a safety so that was a positive.”
Purcell’s journey to the coaching ranks began as a player in Helena in the 1980s. He played on each side of the football for Helena Capital, earning all-state honors as a running back. Purcell says he “ran around with Shannon Blixt and Jon Hoovestal in those days” and also lined up in a backfield with all-state quarterback Paul Petrino.
Blixt and Hoovestal wound up in the rodeo world, wrestling steers across the Treasure State. Purcell and Petrino continued their football careers at Carroll College, appearing in the NAIA playoffs each year.
“You go from junior high to Capital High and then right into Carroll College where (Paul’s) dad, Bob Sr., was at. We went to their football camps and Jim Tuss, he was our coach at Capital, he and Coach Petrino Sr. were very tight and it was great to have the terminology and stuff built all the way through,” said Purcell. “Going from high school into college and keeping that relationship with Paul, we had a lot of great friends and we keep good contact and have a lot of good memories from the college and Capital High days.”
It was Bob Petrino Sr. that pointed Purcell in the direction of that first coaching stop at Regis High School, a Catholic school in Oregon. Purcell recalls memories of drawing offensive plays with Paul Petrino and running through offensive line drills in the eldest Petrino’s living room.
“He’s striking me and pushing me in the walls saying, ‘You have to work them over,’ and he was demonstrating and he said, ‘Ok, now head out to Oregon and win it,’” said Purcell.
Not bringing a football to the opening game remains the most memorable moment of Purcell’s time in Stayton, but the tutelage from Tuss and Petrino eventually paid off. The Rams continued to improve in the three years under his guidance, which included coaching a cousin of legendary Montana State quarterback Travis Lulay.
Purcell returned to Montana as the head coach of the Eureka Lions in 1994, building on a streak of seven consecutive Class B playoff appearances.
“We won some conference championships and made the playoffs I think every year,” Purcell said of the five District 6B titles and six straight postseason appearances. “We just couldn’t get to that next level although we had some good teams. I loved Eureka, loved the area. It was pretty exciting up there with the surroundings and being an outdoors-type of person.”
Purcell traded in the mountains for flat land in 2000. After a 60-34 record with the Lions he was named head coach at Havre High School, replacing Dan Olson with the Blue Ponies. Jumping to the Class A ranks proved beneficial for Purcell, who led the program to the 2004 state title.
“I was very fortunate to have that job there with the Havre Blue Ponies. We had some pretty good success there, some semifinals and a state championship, the first in 34 years, plus we lost a state championship there, too,” he said, referring to the 21-19 defeat against Laurel in the 2002 championship game. “After the state championship in 2004 where we had some good kids, I had the opportunity to go to Bozeman. It took a little while to get things cranking there, but we did some good things there, too. I met a lot of great staff along the way, a lot of good people along the way.”
Twenty-two seasons were spent on the Montana high school football sidelines for Purcell, who won three Class AA titles in Bozeman to accompany his ’04 championship at Havre. During the 11-year run with the Hawks, Purcell’s phone rang often with potential coaching opportunities, but it was his old friend and teammate Paul Petrino that piqued his interest.
“We always talked about, if he ever got a head job to give me a call so we would have to have an opportunity to coach together again. It would have to be on him, because I don’t think he wanted to come back down to the high school level,” Purcell laughed.
“There aren’t many people that get the opportunity to coach high school football for that long and then have that chance to get up into the college ranks, especially at this great level,” Purcell said of joining Petrino’s Idaho Vandals’ staff in 2016. “I’m very fortunate, and I’m always learning. You could sit back and just cruise, or you can go out and get it and put a little stress in your life, but it makes you better in the long run.”
Purcell spent his first season as a college assistant coaching the Vandal linebackers, but switched to tight ends coach for the 2017 season. He admits adjusting to the college game was “like learning another language” but credits the Idaho coaching staff for their mentorship during the transition.
Terminology and schemes weren’t the only challenges, though, as Purcell quickly saw the other side of the recruiting game. After years of helping his high school athletes seek college opportunities, it was Purcell trying to convince those same recruits to join him and the Vandals.
“There’s stress, but there’s stress in every job once you make the move. I think when you get done with that first year you know what clothes you’re supposed to wear and all those little things you’re not prepared for,” he laughed, recalling the difference in attire between home and away games. “These coaches have been very welcoming and helping me along the way. They’re teaching me this or teaching me that, Coach Petrino has been outstanding and Coach (Kris) Cinkovich and the whole crew. I’ve felt very welcome coming in and now I’m just another clog in the wheel there. It’s been a good opportunity.”
For 25 years Purcell earned wins and championships and sent prep players to the college ranks. Marc Mariani and Tanner Roderick were among his most decorated athletes, but Purcell says watching players sign their letters of intent made the everyday efforts worthwhile.
Still, Purcell knows how difficult it can be for a high school athlete to join a Division I program and reminds his current players not take the opportunity for granted.
“That’s what I tell these guys is, ‘Geez, you don’t know how many kids out there would love to have this opportunity, they would love to have this opportunity. You proved it in the high school ranks or else you wouldn’t be here, but now you have to take advantage of that opportunity,’” he said. “It’s tough, it’s not easy, but that’s life. … It’s fun to be able to see these guys and see them now at the next level. I don’t have any of my (former high school players) here with me, but there are a few out there. There are some really good high school players that moved to the next level and I get to see the next half of their careers.”
Purcell has never stopped learning during the ride to the college ranks, but one thing has changed. At the Division I level it’s not his responsibility to bring footballs to the stadium on game day. Crisis averted.