(Editor’s note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA — J. Landham had made up his mind.
He’d been raised in Hendersonville, Tenn., a city tucked along the Cumberland River, 30 minutes northeast of Nashville, a family of five loving life on 120 acres of wooded bliss.
He’d played soccer collegiately at Union University, just two hours away from home on the road toward Memphis.
He’d spent last fall as the goalkeeper coach and volunteer assistant, in that order of importance, at Vanderbilt, the school in Nashville that won the 2018 SEC women’s soccer regular-season title and made the round of 32 at the NCAA tournament.
And now he had a job offer from another school in Nashville, a position that would keep him coaching goalkeepers and close to the family that is the most important thing in his life.
So why, this spring, did he find himself sending off his resume for an open position at Montana? And why was he in Missoula in June, going through on-campus interviews?
Hadn’t he already made up his mind?
“I told my dad I would come out to Montana with an open mind, even though I thought I’d made my mind up to stay in Nashville,” he said.
“I joked with him that coming out here with an open mind was the worst decision I ever made.”
Montana just has that kind of drawing power.
The open position on second-year coach Chris Citowicki’s staff — the one that works with the goalkeepers — never would have registered with Landham had he not spent two years as an assistant at Northern Colorado.
The first of those seasons, in 2016, the Bears headed northwest, first to play at Eastern Washington, then a Sunday match at Montana, in late October, when Missoula has a habit of being at its very best.
One day shy of one year later, Citowicki, on staff at North Dakota, would make his first visit to Montana and be left wondering: How perfect would it be to both live here and coach soccer?
Less than a year later he was announced as the fourth head coach in program history.
When Landham arrived at South Campus Stadium that Sunday morning, he didn’t want to forget how perfect it was, the field sitting at the base of Mount Sentinel, a sunny day on its way to the low 50s.
So he captured the moment. “I still have the picture I took when we were walking onto the field,” he said. “The landscape, with the mountain behind the field, the beautiful weather. It made an impact.”
But it would take more than a postcard moment to get him out of Nashville. He had a career to consider, one that began in 2012 when the Union men’s program asked him to stay on after his playing days at the school were over.
So when he visited Missoula last month, it was more than Landham simply interviewing for the position. He needed to be sold as well. Because only the perfect situation was going to convince him to put Nashville in his rearview mirror.
“I got to see Chris’s vision and his drive to create a culture of success and build a program for the long term,” said Landham. “Many of the things he’s doing here are the same things I’ve seen at the Power Five level with Vanderbilt, and that was extremely attractive to me.
“Coming out here with an open mind led me to realize how awesome of a power team I believe Chris, (assistant coach Katie Benz) and I could be.”
Still, he needed to think about it. But by the time he had reached the airport in Seattle, on his way home after his interview, his mind was made up.
And it wasn’t what he’d been planning when he’d been offered the coaching job back in Nashville earlier in the spring.
“Over the 24 hours I was here, I realized this is truly where I want to be,” said Landham. “I saw it as a place I could truly start developing my career and be part of a program that has awesome goals and purposes and a culture that I really want to be a part of.
“It was a shock to me that that’s the way I went. I was leaning toward Nashville because it was the safe option. It was home. But the more I’ve been here, the more it makes sense. This is where I want to be and where I need to be.”
That it was the draw of family that almost cost Citowicki his top choice after a national search is quite apropos. And he probably wouldn’t want it any other way.
Family isn’t just a buzzword for Citowicki. It’s what he’s going to spend the upcoming years of his life trying to build at Montana.
Teams, so many just an anodyne collection of people, can be found all over the place. But ones that elevate that bond to family? That’s what Citowicki is after.
“We were looking for the same thing with this search as we do with recruits, and that’s to find the right people first and foremost,” said Citowicki. “Is he alive, hungry and happy, as we like to say? Is he passionate? Is he humble? Does he enjoy learning?
“And is he family-orientated? Yes, he comes from a very strong family background. When we inserted him into this environment, it’s like he’s been here forever, because we value the same things and think the same way. He just seamlessly fit right in.”
And to think it all began with a ball and the wall of a barn, on those 120 acres in Hendersonville.
There was inline hockey. And basketball. But those were set aside once Landham began playing soccer competitively for the first time at Station Camp High, from which he graduated in 2008.
“That’s where my soccer addiction started. All those other sports fell away. That was all I wanted to do,” said Landham, who was drawn to the goalkeeper position from the start.
“The easy answer is nobody else wanted to do it, but I enjoyed the pressure and taking on that role of responsibility. I became pretty good at it pretty quickly and soon it was the only position I wanted to play.”
Union, then an NAIA school and now NCAA Division II, would come calling, and Landham would earn second-team All-TranSouth Conference honors as a freshman and junior, first-team honors as a senior, the same year he made the league’s Scholar-Athlete list as a sports medicine and exercise science major.
He would be a four-year starter and finish with 14 career shutouts.
Tryouts to continue his playing career followed, but nothing stuck. It’s why he was open to listening when coach Clovis Simas approached him about an opportunity that he hadn’t spent much time considering.
Would he like to try coaching?
Like so many players, most of what he knew about coaching came in those few hours his spent on the field with their team, either at practice or on game day.
In his first season as an assistant coach, in 2012, the Bulldogs won 13 matches and finished third at the National Christian College Athlete Association national tournament. J. Landham was hooked.
“I realized that there is much, much more to coaching than the field work,” he said. “It really started to intrigue me.
“The practices and games are a blast, but it’s the comprehensive nature of coaching that kind of became my first awareness that that’s really what I want to do and make a career out of.”
Landham did some occasional work with the goalkeepers on the Union women’s team and coached girls as part of his work with the Tennessee Soccer Club, but it wasn’t until he reached Northern Colorado in 2016 that he coached Division I women’s soccer for the first time.
One of the Big Sky Conference’s most stable and successful programs under longtime coach Tim Barrera, the Bears went 10-8-2 in 2016 with Landham on staff, 13-7-2 in 2017, when they lost the tournament championship match to Eastern Washington on the Eagles’ home field.
Maddie Burdick finished the 2017 season, her second being coached by Landham, with a 0.83 goals-against average and Northern Colorado led the league with 10 shutouts.
“Montana is getting a quality young coach who brings a real positive attitude and good ideas to training,” said Barrera.
“He brought a good intensity and camaraderie to goalkeeper training. I’m excited for J. He’ll do well.”
If there is a story that’s instructive in the way Landham coaches not just a team’s lead goalkeeper but the position as a whole and manages to keep everyone engaged, it’s this one.
Burdick, the MVP of the 2015 Big Sky tournament, which the Bears won in Moscow, Idaho, was Northern Colorado’s top goalkeeper in Landham’s first season in Greeley, in 2016.
It was all Burdick all the time, until it wasn’t.
With the Bears on a two-match losing streak — following 1-0 home setbacks to Portland State and Sacramento State — and only three regular-season matches remaining to make the postseason, Burdick, who had played every minute in goal to that point, was unavailable.
All the Bears had left to turn to was senior Alyssa McGuire, the 5-foot-3 backup, who hadn’t played a minute as a freshman. Or a minute as a sophomore. Or a minute as a junior.
And the walk-on hadn’t played a minute in 2016 either until she was called upon late in the season, starting with a daunting road trip to Eastern Washington and Montana.
From the outside, it looked like a potential disaster for Northern Colorado, the end of the Bears’ hopes of playing into November. But McGuire was ready.
She made six saves as Northern Colorado rallied to win 3-2 at Eastern Washington, seven more as the Bears played the Grizzlies to a scoreless draw in Missoula two days later.
McGuire picked up her second shutout in row the following weekend as UNC blanked North Dakota in Greeley 2-0. It was enough to propel Northern Colorado into the league tournament. By that time Burdick was back.
“He had trained the keepers in such a way that when Maddie had to miss a couple of games, the next kid was able to step in and perform,” said Barrera.
“For a kid who had never played to that point in her career, J. was able to prepare her for the three most important conference games of the year, and she really excelled.”
“There is more to the position than just stopping shots,” said Landham, as way of describing his philosophy. “It’s a unique position that can be turned into more than just a shot-stopper. You can be a game-changer as a goalkeeper. That’s what I want to create.
“I believe strongly in team culture, but the goalkeeper is such a unique position that I think there is an opportunity to create a culture around the position as well.”
When Burdick had her 0.83 goals-against average in 2017? The only player in the Big Sky with a better average was Montana freshman Claire Howard, at 0.70.
It’s the player Landham will begin coaching early next month, when the Grizzlies open their 2019 season, nine months after winning the Big Sky tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in program history.
Howard, who had 10 shutouts last season, will be back for her junior season. Also in the position group will be sophomore Brooke Johnston, who played in just one match last season, and incoming freshman Elizabeth Todd.
“J. is going to fully develop not just Claire,” said Citowicki. “He knows how to work with Brooke and Elizabeth as well to get the most out of them and make sure everyone is ready.”
Because even life’s best-laid plans — Howard playing the next two seasons without incident or setback — often go awry. Or take an unscheduled route, from Nashville to Missoula.