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From 'battle scars' to gratitude, Montana native Mike Petrino still forging own coaching path

Mike Petrino
Posted at 4:26 PM, Apr 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-10 11:06:29-04

MISSOULA — The Petrino name is synonymous with coaching in Montana.

But Mike Petrino took a path slightly less traveled in the family.

“I love football, I love studying football coaches, but the opportunity to coach football in the family was pretty much already filled,” Petrino said, “so I guess I wanted a different route.”

With his uncle, Bob Petrino Sr., cousins Paul and Bobby and brothers Jason and Jared coaching football at various levels across the country during their careers, Mike Petrino has been coaching basketball for the past 31 years.

“I can say no one ever pushed me into coaching, no one ever did that. In fact, more people tried to talk me out of it,” Mike Petrino said.

The rigors of the coaching lifestyle are well documented, especially for young coaches coming up through the ranks. Long hours, poor pay and intense scrutiny often come with the job, making long-tenured coaches increasingly more of a rarity.

Bob Petrino Sr. showed how coaches can enjoy long, fulfilling careers at one stop by leading the Carroll College football team for 28 years. A quick internet search for Bobby Petrino shows the highs and lows of the profession.

Mike Petrino, too, has endured his own “battle scars,” as he calls them, but is at a place now where he feels at home. He just finished his third season as an assistant coach with the Boise State women’s basketball program after spending five years at Montana, four as an assistant and one as the interim head coach after Shannon Schweyen’s contract was not renewed.

“I'm grateful. You know, when things ended at Montana, because my family's rooted here, I thought I might be done,” Petrino said during an interview in Missoula before the Broncos played Montana in the first round of the WNIT.

“I’m grateful that (Boise State head coach Gordy Presnell) called me, grateful I get to coach still, grateful I have these relationships with these players.”

Presnell is more in the mold of Bob Petrino Sr. than he is the younger Petrinos, who have all changed jobs numerous times during their coaching careers. Presnell is a 37-year college coaching veteran, the past 19 seasons coming at Boise State and the first 18 at Seattle Pacific.

This season, Presnell surpassed 750 career wins. He reminds Petrino of other great women’s basketball coaches in the region.

“He reminds me a lot of (former Montana Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig). He reminds me a lot of Joe Legerski that I worked for at Wyoming. These are guys who care about the kids beyond basketball but also do a lot of things behind the scenes to give them the best experience they can have,” Petrino said.

Selvig, of course, coached the Montana Lady Griz for 38 years. He still attends games played at Dahlberg Arena atop the court that bears his name.

Selvig built the Montana women’s basketball program into a juggernaut, compiling 865 career wins and winning the Big Sky Conference tournament 17 times. He did so with great players, many from Montana, proving programs can win at the collegiate level with Treasure State natives.

The state of Montana regularly produces NCAA Division I women’s basketball players — from the three players each at Montana and Montana State to Mya Hansen at Boise State and beyond.

“I’m obviously biased because I grew up in the state, but I think there's some exceptional, competitive, caring, passionate kids in the state of Montana,” said Petrino, who was born in Glasgow, raised in Kalispell and coached high school teams at Kalispell Flathead, Billings Central, Helena High and Livingston before moving to Portland in the early 2000s.

“Coach Selvig built the program up with Montana kids. You look at what (Montana State coach Tricia Binford) is doing, and she's got a lot of Montana kids, and there's Montana kids here (at Montana) playing.”

NCAA rules prohibit Petrino from discussing specific high school players, but four Montana girls from the Class of 2024 have signed to play at Division I programs. Taylee Chirrick of Roberts and Teagan Erickson of Saco will play at Montana State, Billings West’s Kourtney Grossman at Eastern Washington and Billings Skyview’s Breanna Williams at Maryland.

More than a handful of players from the 2025 and 2026 classes have already committed or are garnering Division I interest, too.

With this surge in talent, it’s not hard to draw parallels to the exploding interest in women’s college basketball. With 15 years of women’s basketball coaching experience, Petrino is happy to see the growing excitement around the game but iterated that Montana has long supported women’s basketball.

“I think women's basketball fans have an emotional investment,” he said. “The true fans have an emotional investment, right? Coach Selvig's program here was built off that. You know, there was an emotional investment in this group and his programs. I’m sure the fans are still like that today. But there's appreciation for it, which is great. It is fun to see it rising and getting better and better.”