HELENA — Troy Purcell is coming home.
The former Helena Capital and Carroll College football player is the 21st head football coach at Carroll College, athletic director Charlie Gross announced Friday. Purcell will take over for six-time NAIA national champion Mike Van Diest, who announced his retirement last month.
“We are very excited to welcome Troy back to Carroll College as our new football coach,” Gross said in a release. “His record of success throughout his entire career speaks volumes about his ability to teach the game of football. I am confident he will be an outstanding leader for our young men on and off the field.”
Purcell was an all-state running back for the Capital Bruins in 1986, playing for legendary coach Jim Tuss. He remained in Helena, joining the Carroll College football program with high school teammate Paul Petrino, whose father, the late Bob Sr., was head coach of the Fighting Saints.
“I’m just a little kid who a long time ago used to go to the Carroll games and had a chance to stay on the sidelines,” Purcell said. “You just knew once you went to CR Anderson, you went to Capital High, and your next step was to go to Carroll College. Coach Petrino gave me that opportunity. It’s just been an exceptional, great opportunity to come here and to learn from him and be a part of this great college and mission that it represents.”
“There was some tough times this year,” Purcell continued. “I lost my dad this year, and coach Petrino passed away this year, but I know there’s two men up there right now with big smiles on their faces knowing this opportunity is available and where the direction of the program is going, so that’s pretty exciting.”
Carroll qualified for the NAIA playoffs in each of Purcell’s four years as a player, winning Frontier Conference titles and posting a record of 36-6 with Paul Petrino at quarterback.
It was Tuss and the elder Petrino that pointed Purcell to the coaching world, with the latter directing him to Regis High School, a Catholic school in Stayton, Ore. for his first coaching job.
“He’s striking me and pushing me in the walls saying, ‘You have to work them over,’ and (Petrino) was demonstrating and he said, ‘Ok, now head out to Oregon and win it,’” Purcell recalled to MTN Sports in the fall of 2017.
After three seasons with the Rams, Purcell returned to Montana in 1994, taking over the football program in Eureka at Lincoln County High School. The Lions captured five District 6B titles under Purcell’s tutelage, qualifying for the playoffs in six consecutive seasons.
Following a 32-23 record in Eureka, Purcell was hired at Havre High School in 2000, returning the program to a Class A contender. The Blue Ponies were runner-up in 2002 before winning the Class A state championship in 2004, the program’s first in more than three decades.
The quick success on the Hi-Line led Purcell to Bozeman, where he became head coach of the Hawks prior to the 2005 season. Purcell and his staff won Class AA championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015, with a runner-up finish in 2012. All the while, his former teammate, Paul Petrino, was trying to lure him to the college ranks.
Persistence paid off for Petrino, as Purcell joined his Idaho Vandals’ staff in 2016 as a linebacker coach, before moving to mentor the tight ends in 2017. Purcell added special teams coordinator to his duties this fall.
“He was excited for me. Kind of bittersweet, he doesn’t want to lose me,” Purcell said of his relationship with Paul Petrino. “It’s kind of fun being able to look across the table and see my old friend after 25 years and keep learning from him and learning from that staff. I can’t thank him enough for giving me that opportunity. We can close the door in the office and we can kind of go back to our old times and talk more friend to friend instead of boss to employee. He wants what’s best for me and what’s best for my family, for sure.”
Purcell will take over a Carroll program that has finished with four consecutive losing seasons, including a 4-6 mark in each of the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons. The Fighting Saints ended 2018 with a 5-6 mark.
Van Diest earned 203 wins during his 20 seasons at Carroll College, winning 14 Frontier Conference championships, including 12 consecutive from 2000-11. The Fighting Saints won national titles 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2010.
“You can’t fill those two legendary coaches’ shoes,” Purcell said of Van Diest and Bob Petrino Sr. “I got to pave my own path and build on the success that they’ve had. They’re unbelievable coaches. They’re so fun just to listen to. Those types of coaches you just listen, you never talk, you just listen and you try to absorb as much as you can from them to help you become a better coach and a better person. There’s no way to replace them. … I’ve got to go my own way with continuing the excellence that they set the standard for. That’s the ultimate goal, is to continue the tradition of excellence here.”
Purcell plans to meet with the Carroll football team on Friday night before hitting the recruiting trail. He didn’t provide a specific timeline for when he plans to finalize his coaching staff, but Purcell said he’ll “evaluate the current staff and then start looking at some external staff and candidates.”
(Editor’s note: Slim Kimmel contributed to this report.)