Billings Central head coach Jim Stergar has a well-traveled basketball career. Stergar began as a player at Anaconda before landing at Montana Tech, then Montana Western, where he ultimately finished his college career. Stergar has been a head coach at Ronan, Billings Senior and Billings Central, amassing north of 300 wins and a pair of state titles in nearly three decades.
MTN Sports caught up with Stergar ahead of the 2022 Eastern A divisional tournament to talk about his playing days, coaching career and life away from the hardwood.
MTN Sports: Jim, thank you for joining me. Let’s kind of go back to where it all began, back in high school at Anaconda. You were fortunate enough to get to play in a state championship in 1989. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
Jim Stergar: “It’s a blur. Thinking back that far now, but the things that stick in my mind was I remember laying in my motel room and my sister running in the night before after we won the semifinal game against a really good Miles City team. She says ‘Oh my gosh! You’re in the state championship!’ And then it hit me then. Oh my gosh. We’re playing for the state championship. It was a really cool experience. A lot of my best friends that had been playing basketball with each other for years and years and years and we got along so well. We did everything together, every sport together. It was kind of cool to be in the state championship. In football, we came up short in the semifinal game. In basketball we had another chance. We had a great class of guys that were seniors and some underclassmen that were good, too. It was fun.
MTN: You were obviously good enough to go play at the next level. You started at Tech then transferred to Western. Explain to me the reason for transferring and ultimately how that worked out in your favor.
Stergar: “One of my favorite guys that I’ve ever had as a coach was Rick Dessing at Tech. He recruited me. I fell in love with what he did as a coach. Playing for him my freshman year in college, I wanted to do what he does. Thinking of graduating at Tech, that’s not the avenue of coaching. He basically inspired me to be a coach and a teacher. I had to go to him and tell him that. He agreed that I needed to transfer and go to basically one of the best small colleges with teaching, and that’s Western. And that’s their rival at Tech. He inspired me to leave him, so it was bittersweet for both of us. I had a great experience at Tech, then going to Western was three great years and playing there and meeting a lot of good people and coaches that are still coaching today.”
MTN: You didn’t waste any time after that getting into coaching. You mentioned earlier to me that you almost started coaching alongside Steve Keller there in Helena. What happened right out of high school that led you to Ronan? Or out of college, excuse me.
Stergar: “My first stop was the freshman coach in Anaconda. Alan Green gave me my big break. He had called me and said do you want to be my freshman coach? I told him I’d love to do that. It’s what I want to do. I did that for a year. The next year, Steve Keller, I got to know him at Helena High. He’s one of the best. Hall of Fame guy. I wanted to learn more. I was going to coach at Helena High and then I was still trying to look for a teaching job. I had some interviews that year and got picked up late, like October, in Ronan. So I ended up leaving before I got started with Steve at Helena High. I went up to Ronan and became a teacher and started helping Mark Sulser as a coach.”
MTN: You coached a couple pretty good players there. Nate Harris, Matt Leudtke at Ronan. You played for another state championship. What sticks out about that 2002 state title game?
Stergar: “We had a group of guys that really gelled and got along. We had some really good players. Zach Pitts was a great point guard for us. For three straight years he was an all-state point guard. He played with Matt Leudtke and Shane Coman and those guys, who really got us going in the right direction. Then that state championship game flew by so fast. We had expectations of playing in that title game. With some guys leaving other teams to go play on Browning’s team, not mentioning any names, Mike Chavez, it really made us motivated. We got to him and that team and they were a really good team and we just ran into a buzzsaw.”
MTN: After Ronan you made your way here to Billings. How did that come about and what stood out about your tenure with Senior?
Stergar: “Mark Sulser again. He was the key there. He was in Ronan as a coach, then left to come to Billings. He was at Billings Senior coaching and a vacancy came open and called and asked if I was interested and I said yes. Nine years later I left Senior and came over to Billings Central.”
MTN: This is year, what, 29?
Stergar: “Overall, 29 years as being an assistant and head coach combined. I think this is 24 as a head coach.”
MTN: So in those 24 as a head coach, you’ve made six title games here at Central, the one in Ronan. You’ve come away with a couple state championships there. Are those memories from winning the ones that stick out, or do the losses hurt a bit more?
Stergar: “Well they definitely hurt a lot more. But I remember the two wins. Those wins, championships, are kind of for all those other teams that didn’t have a chance. Even Matt Leudtke, Shane Coman, when those kids were seniors, they didn’t even make it to the state tournament. They were 19-3 and a really good basketball team I coached. Those two were at my first state championship. They came and watched that game and shared that experience with me. That’s what it means to be a coach. To have all these guys that are still part of your family and backing you and talking and keeping in contact. I try not to remember how many losses there were, I know there’s a bunch, but I do know that there’s two championships, so that’s what I remember the most.”
MTN: Just over two years ago you surpassed 300 career wins, and I’m sure you’re coming up on 400 here shortly. A lot of good players must go into that many wins, right?
Stergar: “That, and you’ve got to keep coaching for a long time to get to it. Some coaches get to it fast because they’ve been blessed with great teams. It seems like I just started coaching. I don’t feel that old. I don’t feel like I’ve been coaching 29 years. I think it’s crazy to think that. You’ve got to have really good players. You’re not going to win games, not going to win championships without good players. If I can be there just to help them and guide them a little bit, that’s my job. You have to have a great staff, great assistant coaches. My staff here at Central, we’ve been together a long time. I look at our staff that I had at Senior High, and we had Charlie Johnson, who is a head coach. Jim Wilsey, who’s been a head coach since then. We have Drew Haws, who is now the head coach at Billings Senior. Jason Federico, who is helping coach at Rocky and he’s been a head coach. You have to have guys that are willing to put in that extra time and right now we have a very stable coaching staff here at Central. It means a lot to the kids and myself as a head coach.
MTN: You mentioned those few guys who have really been around with you a long time. How did you assemble that staff? I know some of those guys, they’re not much older than I am and they were good hoopers in their day. How did you assemble those guys and how did you get them to stick around?
Stergar: “Danny Desin played for me and always wanted to get into coaching and the timing was right for him. Connor Cunningham is an alumni here and has always wanted to coach and I really got to know him through this job and him being my assistant. Joe Keller is our freshman coach, and he’s been a big-time catholic school member and supporter, and he wanted to coach. He fell into that job. Then Bryce Hawbaker played for me at Central and he was looking to get into coaching. That’s kind of how it worked out with our stuff. We’ve had other staff members here before that. Other guys that are now coaching as assistant coaches at other schools but they’re still coaching.”
MTN: From the outside, you’re an awful intense guy on the sidelines. I know one of the things you’ve said countless times is don’t confuse passion with anger. Can you kind of expound on that for me?
Stergar: “One of my favorite mentors as a coach was Rick Majerus down at Utah. If you spend enough time around guys, from the outside you might think they’re crazy or there is anger issues or whatever. But he’s the guy I got that from. He used to talk and write about how coaching and athletics brings out the worst in people and the best in people. He talked about how you shouldn’t confuse passion with anger. I think I’m just passionate about being inspired from day one by Rick Dessing to be a very intense guy. To have basketball help these kids learn life lessons. It’s not always going to be pretty out there for these kids. Basketball is the fun thing. What can I do as a mentor to prepare them to handle bigger things in their life? Basketball is a sport. Basketball is fun. These kids know that I care about them. From the outside, if I’m on a kid or ripping a kid up and down, the outside doesn’t know what’s going on on the inside. We talk about The Man in the Arena quite a bit. The parents that know and have gotten to know us trust us with that. Over the years it’s been wonderful. I’ve had great experiences with all our guys. It isn’t for everybody, but life isn’t. Life isn’t easy. Anything I can do to help prepare them for that, that’s what we’re all about as coaches. That’s our No. 1 job is to prepare these kids to become better versions of themselves and become young men quickly, because it happens fast. It happens fast.”
MTN: How about life outside of basketball? I know you’ve got a few kids that probably keep your hands full, but how does your time get managed outside of basketball?
Stergar: “We have four now, and that’s about it. 14, 12, 9 and 6. The six-year-old is going on 20. You’ve got your hands full there. What it takes is you have to have your significant other. Ashley, my wife, does a heck of a job just managing everything and being the bus driver for those kids and running them around town. It will help when they get into high school and they can drive themselves, but right now she’s busy. I have to go pick up kids here as soon as I’m done with you in this interview, and it’s just non-stop. You have to be able to not bring any of that home sometimes, coaching or teaching, and you have a job to do and that’s be a dad, be a husband. That’s your No. 1 goal and all this other stuff is just for fun, to make sure you can take care of your family and to be a good husband and be a good dad. That’s your No. 1 job.”