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Butte’s Sam Jankovich: Most interesting football man in Montana?

Posted at 6:58 PM, Mar 28, 2018

BILLINGS – Folks are still talking about the latest class inducted Saturday to Montana’s Football Hall of Fame in Billings.

Eight new inductees with eight great stories. It’s easy to see why this one was such a crowd-pleaser.

Sam Jankovich has held many titles: player, coach, athletic director, CEO. But let’s just call him what he really is – the most interesting man in the Montana football world. It started where so many great stories do – in the heart of Butte.

“Everything I have in my life I owe to Butte,” said Jankovich. “When you go by a high school today and you see 1010 cars, when I was growing up there wasn’t one, we didn’t own one.  So we spent all our time playing football on the streets.”

Jankovich was good enough to earn a scholarship in Missoula but a knee injury cut his playing career short. So he turned to the next best thing – coaching. He started as a Griz grad assistant, then coached the West team in Montana’s Shrine Game, and eventually made his way back to Butte, where he led the Bulldogs to a state title in 1967.

“My whole career, my whole life was based on being the head football coach at Butte High, and the success we had,” he recalled.

Jankovich then got back into the college ranks, following Butte native Jim Sweeney to Washington State as Sweeney’s defensive coordinator.  But that was the last stop for Sam Jankovich the coach. In 1972 he left the sideline to become the Cougars assistant athletic director – and got the big job four years later.

“Nothing was more challenging than Washington State,” Jankovich admitted, “because we were the underdogs and because we played most of our games off campus.”

Washington State played its football games in Spokane back then. Jankovich knew step one was getting them back to Pullman, so in 1979, he had Martin Stadium’s capacity increased from 26,000 to almost 40,000 and the rest was history.

Jankovich loved Wazzu, was admittedly happy there. But then a bigger fish came calling – again and again.

The University of Maimi.

“Tells you I wasn’t very smart,” chuckled Jankovich, “I wanted to turn down that job, and tried so many times… this could be the USC of the East coast.”

Prior to Jankovich’s arrival, Miami had one bowl win in 15 years. The year he got there, in 1983, the Hurricanes won the national championship, and then two more in the ’80s as the most dominant program in college football.

“The opportunity to succeed and have an impact, Miami was it,” he said.

But it came with a cost.

“Pressure there, if you weren’t winning, that’s one place you wouldn’t want to be”

Miami’s biggest rival in those days was Notre Dame, culminating in a 1988 game that coined the phrase Catholics versus Convicts.

Besides the Cats and Griz, there may be more Notre Dame fans in Butte than likely any other school, but Jankovich knew he was on the right side.

“Notre Dame had more convicts than we had,” he laughed. “It wasn’t hard beause when I was at Butte High, we had a rivalry with Butte Central, and they never scored a point against us, so I always liked competing against Notre Dame and the Catholics.”

While football made the headlines, Jankovich says his biggest accomplishment was bringing men’s basketball back to Miami after a 15-year hiatus. He’s always been a college hoops fan and still follows it today.

After his run at Miami Jankovich became CEO of the New England Patriots for two years in 1990.

When asked who he’s rooting for to win this weekend’s Final Four, he sided with the Catholics this time.

“You can’t help like what they’ve done at Loyola-Chicago,” he admitted, “(I’d) like to see them win because of that nun out there clapping at 98 years old and those players play their heart out for her.”

He can’t root for Miami. After all, the ‘Canes got beat on a first round buzzer beater by… Loyola-Chicago.

What else would you expect in the life of the most interesting man in the Montana?