(Editor’s note: Nine coaches were selected to the latest Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame class, with an official induction ceremony scheduled for Thursday, July 30 in Great Falls. MTN Sports caught up with the inductees and will publish a series of stories highlighting each mentor. Links to their stories can be found at the end of this story.)
BILLINGS — Rob Stanton can still remember that Christmas morning, though just barely.
“I remember three of the four brothers got helmets, and I was the one that didn't get one, so maybe that's why I became a little knot-headed,” he laughed.
The youngest of four boys, Stanton arguably needed a helmet more than the others — Jim, Pete and Dan — who quickly introduced Rob to competitive sports.
“We liked it when it would snow because we liked to go play football out in the snow. There's a lot of families around Baker that were big families, and we could always get games going on,” Rob Stanton recalled. “There wasn't any jealousy or anything like that, we all wanted each other to do well, but obviously we also had little competition at times, too. I wouldn't say fist fights, but occasionally a bump or two in the hallway, and most of the time that was fighting for scraps on the table. You became competitive that way, too.”
Rob Stanton was born in Circle, the son of a coach, Jim, who once mentored NAIA Hall of Fame coach Mike Van Diest in Helena. The Stanton patriarch coached in Circle and eventually moved the family to Richey, where his youngest son has vivid memories of watching his older brothers compete.
“Jim was playing high school, and Pete was part of the 1979 championship Richey Royals,” Rob said of the small town’s 56-25 victory over Granite County.
It wasn’t until the family moved to Baker that Rob got his chance. He competed in football, basketball and track and field, but it was on the gridiron where he created the biggest impact.
A standout running back, Stanton helped Baker to the 1986 Class B state title, then followed in his older brothers’ footsteps in playing at Dickinson State. A two-time all-American and a conference player of the year, Stanton left DSU as the program’s all-time leading rusher (3,758 yards, which now ranks second behind Jace Schillinger) and still holds some of the top marks in the program’s history, including points scored in a single season (126) and touchdowns in a game (5).
Stanton was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2005.
“I was lucky to be coached by Hank Biesiot, and we had pretty good at teams out in Dickinson and a lot of success,” he said. “I was fortunate to be able to be coached by some amazing (coaches). Don Schillinger would be another one at Baker, and his brother, Jim Schillinger, who coached track. Those are special people and you kind of want to follow them to see how they did it, too.”
And then there were the older brothers. The “black sheep” of the family, Stanton “kind of balked at it a little bit,” but eventually took up the family business.
“I coached with Dan, I was in Miles City for the first nine years of my career. I was an assistant with him in track and in football, so we not only grew up together, but we were allowed to have the privilege of coaching together, too,” said Stanton. “He's tough. He's the toughest guy that I knew.”
Dan Stanton passed away in September of 2015 after a hard-fought battle with brain cancer. He and Rob will be inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame on July 30, joining older brother Jim, the longtime Billings Central coach who entered the hall in 2013.
“(Dan) was just a good human being and didn't ask for anything. He had a quote that, kind of, a lesser man would complain, but he wasn't one about complaining. He would always be the one that would be the first to go do something. He was a good teacher in the classroom, and he was also a head track coach and he was also head basketball coach, and that's kind of unheard of as well,” Rob said of Dan, who won two Class A football titles, in 2008 and 2010, defeating none other than brother Jim and Billings Central for the titles.
Rob, who has spent 18 years coaching Billings West’s track and field program, joined the football fray in 2015, taking over the Golden Bears after serving as an assistant on Paul Klaboe’s staff.
Stanton and West lost their first two road games that season, at Helena Capital (30-8) and Great Falls CMR (42-33), before returning to the Magic City where Dan had been hospitalized.
“We were kind of told he wasn't going to make it. So that was a tough afternoon, and I personally had to go into a game (against Billings Senior that evening), so your thoughts are kind of all over the place,” Stanton recalled. “Then after the game, I went up and visited him and he refused to sleep, not really giving the nurses any trouble, but he just didn't want to close those eyes. I told him, he couldn't communicate well, but he knew exactly what I was saying, and I just told him we got beat 27-0 by Senior and he kind of smiled like, 'You've got some work to do.' So he was inspiring until the end, that's for sure.”
“He battled. We were all shocked and surprised when the last surgery he had, he didn't get up, because the two previous ones, he was way ahead of schedule, and he was getting up and moving around before people could believe he was doing that,” Stanton continued. “He was an inspiration, an inspiration to a lot of people, myself included. Kind of a hero type of guy, and he still has an effect in that community and obviously with us too, so we greatly miss him.”
Dan Stanton left behind a storied 25-year career at Miles City, wining 84 games compared to 30 losses as the Cowboys’ head football coach. He was named Class A coach of the year in 2008 and 2010, his state championship seasons, and was head coach of the Montana East-West Shrine Game in 2009, where Rob served as an assistant.
The youngest Stanton credits Dan for much of his own success, which includes 13 divisional track and field championships and 23 state trophies, nine of those state titles, seven from the Golden Bear boys.
“We had some amazing athletes. We had a nice run where we won four in a row, and I was a little disappointed we didn't win six in a row,” Stanton said, remembering an out-of-lane penalty in the 400-meter relay in 2010. “It's been fun in track. We've had some pretty good teams and a lot of success, so it's cool.”
Track and field has been Stanton’s calling card — he’s been nominated for Montana’s coach of the year 23 times, winning nine, and also earned a 2018 national coach of the year nomination — but his five years as head football coach have been equally successful, with five playoff trips, including a 2018 state championship. Not bad for a job he never imagined taking.
“I remember Paul (Klaboe) saying, 'If you can handle somebody else walking through that door who has not been a part of this program, then don't apply.' And I was like, 'Gosh dang it.' He was so good with words,” Stanton said.
“I learned a lot from coach Klaboe, and it's always going to be his program, so when I'm done with it, that's one of the things I'll emphasize, 'This is Paul Klaboe's program,'” Stanton continued. “We still have there that straw hat and a replica of a mustache in our coach's office, and over my dead body, that stuff is going to remain there forever.”
Stanton points to Klaboe, like the Schillingers, Biesiot, John Polich and many more, for shaping his career to its current hall-of-fame point. Included in that conversation, of course, are his older brothers, of which “Pete’s the best coach of us all,” he admitted, though the others get the bragging rights of being in the MCA Hall of Fame. Pete, however, has served as head coach of the Dickinson State football program since 2013, and led the Blue Hawks men's track and field team to NAIA national championships from 2004-06. He's also the school's director of athletics.
Being honored in the same class as Dan only makes it more special, Stanton said, and he looks forward to sharing the official induction ceremony with the rest of the family, the entire family.
“It's going to be surreal, you know? ... It's not a goal to be a member of the hall of fame, it's nothing that you really ever think of that you would get selected for something like that. But it's obviously a big honor and a privilege,” he said.
“I know (Dan’s) probably looking down, and he'll be there on that day in Great Falls,” Stanton continued. “He'll be there.”
Montana Coaches Association 2020 Hall of Fame class: Fred Volkman, Cut Bank wrestling; Bill Lepley, Shepherd girls basketball; John Sillitti, Manhattan cross country and track; Steve Weston, Hamilton football and softball; Jim Carroll, Conrad track and field; Tony Arntson, Helena High football and track; John Smith, Columbus football and softball.