HELENA — For the first time this century, Carroll College will be looking for a new head football coach.
Mike Van Diest announced his retirement at a press conference Monday morning, stepping down from the post he’s held since 1999. Van Diest guided the Fighting Saints to 203 wins during his 20 seasons as head coach, winning 14 Frontier Conference championships, including 12 consecutive from 2000-11, and six national titles.
Carroll hasn’t posted a winning record since 2014, though, when the Saints finished 10-2 and advanced to the quarterfinal round of the NAIA playoffs. They went 5-6 this fall after three consecutive 4-6 seasons.
“I didn’t have a blueprint to be a head coach, I didn’t have a blueprint for retirement. My health is good, I still think I could coach, but I think right now, the way things have played out, the timing is right for the college, for the program,” said Van Diest. “Selfishly I wanted to come back (after last year) to be around this senior class — Drew (Melton), Tony (Madsen), Ryan (Beaulieu), McBride (Galt), Reece (Quade), Beaugh (Meyer) and all these guys, Connor (McGree) and the offensive guys, Troy (Arntson) — just a great group of guys. They played football for the right reasons, I’m sorry I could not have led them to a playoff appearance or championship, but the time spent with them is invaluable and I’ll never forget that.”
Van Diest is a 1970 graduate of Helena High School and has been in the college coaching ranks since 1976 when he got his start at the University of Wyoming. Van Diest served two stints with the Cowboys — 1976-79 and 1991-98. He was also an assistant coach at Montana (1980-85), the University of Massachusetts – Amurst (1986) and Northwestern (1987-91).
Van Diest got his first head coaching job in 1999 when he succeeded Bob Petrino Sr. at Carroll College and started an unprecedented run of success. The Saints won national championships in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2010. Van Diest’s 203 career wins are the most in Carroll College football history.
“I think the biggest challenge when we came here was that Carroll had a great reputation in terms of Coach Petrino and the type of offense that he ran. People were moving away from that run game to a spread offense and that’s what I was able to bring with me to Carroll with Jeff Savage and then (offensive coordinator) Nick Howlett in subsequent years,” said Van Diest. “We opened it up and invited quarterbacks and receivers and that type of excitement for fans. With the new stadium being built, it was a great opportunity for us to benefit from that and be able to bring kids on campus to see that. It was an awesome draw.”
Van Diest grew emotional when thanking his coaching staff, particularly Howlett and former offensive line and strength coach Jim Hogan, who retired in February. Multiple times during his press conference, Van Diest choked up when mentioning players, both past and present, and the relationships and friendships built over the past two decades.
But it was discussing his family — wife Heidi and sons Shane and Clay — that Van Diest admits was the greatest struggle, after their dedication and support throughout his coaching journey.
“I don’t know if I did a very good job of (hiding that emotion), it was very emotional. That’s a part of who I am, the emotional part of me comes out in situations like this. My care and passion for the game of football, for my players and my family,” he said. “There are so many people to thank. I didn’t get to thank all of them. You in the media have been very kind and very good and professional in dealing with our players. What I’ll remember most, as you said, are the relationships. The emotions are tough and it’s going to be tough. I have to call recruits and let them know I won’t be the head coach next year, but hopefully they’re looking at Carroll College for the right reasons. If they are, this will be a great choice for them.”
Carroll college athletic director Charlie Gross declared the search for Van Diest’s replacement will begin immediately, with a target date of mid-December, when the fall semester at Carroll College concludes.