GREAT FALLS — It’s been a week since legendary Montana coach Steve Keller coached his last game for the University or Providence and entered retirement after 45 years and over 900 wins.
During that time he coached thousands of athletes and won dozens of championships. His coaching tree is a veritable who’s who of Montana hoops.
Danny Sprinkle, who played for Keller at Helena, is now head coach of the Montana State men and on the verge of a second straight Big Sky title.
J.C. Isakson, who played for Keller at Western, was just named his replacement for the Argo men. Keller predicts nearly 50 former players are currently coaching. Those are just a few examples of countless others.
But his impact can best be distilled through the careers of his two most successful players.
Brandon Brown and Zaccheus Darko-Kelly.
“I can honestly tell you I'm laying in the emergency room after my first heart attack and my wife is there,” Keller recalled. “I can tell her I'm not worried about whether I'm going to live or not. I'm worried about coaching Brandon Brown two more years.”
Keller recruited Brown out of Tacoma, WA in his second year at Montana-Western. Things started to roll from there.
Brown led Western to three NAIA tournament appearances. He was a two-tine 1st Team NAIA All-American, and is still the Bulldogs all-time leading scorer.
Brown is in his 11th season playing professional basketball overseas. He currently plays for Hapoel Jerusalem in the Israel Premier League and has spent time with teams in France, Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Australia, Cyprus, and Greece.
He says none of it would have been possible without Keller giving him a shot.
“I have to sit down with him and let him know in person, like the impact he's had because for sure I wouldn't be where I'm at,” Brown said. “I’m on year 11 playing professional basketball. But aside from basketball, I’m married with three kids and just learning the importance of family from him is huge. He's done so much for me.”
Keller is known for taking a chance on players that other coaches ignored. For example, Zaccheus Darko-Kelly’s only offer out of Missoula Sentinel came from Montana-Western.
“Nobody recruited him in Montana and and he worked so hard,” Keller said. “And he was a 1st Team All-American for two years as well.”
Darko-Kelly went on to become one of the best small college basketball players in the country. He set the single season scoring record at the University of Providence and was a two-time Frontier Conference Player of the Year and 1st Team NAIA All-American.
Darko-Kelly spent time with the Toronto Raptors summer league team, and is currently playing professionally in Greece.
“Keller doesn't let you get complacent or let you relax. He's always trying to push you to get more out of yourself,” Darko-Kelly said. “I think that's great because I already had a drive, but it just made that drive stronger as the years went on to be the best I could be.”