HELENA — After 26 years as an athletic director and coach at Bridger and Ennis, Paul Bills is moving on to the next chapter of his life. Bills recently announced his retirement, but he will keep himself busy as a property tax appraiser out of Virginia City.
Bills was one of the biggest proponents for the neutral-site 8-Man football championship game to be rotated between Butte and Billings that was voted into effect at this spring’s Montana High School Association meetings.
“There’s no better place in the world than Naranche Stadium,” Bills said. “They can put 5,000-6,000 people in there. They can put 2,000 and it looks full.”
Bills said this has been something Montana has been trying to do for years, but many were unable to get completely behind it. However, 75 percent of surveys sent to Class C 8-Man ADs voted in favor of a neutral-site championship game this spring.
For Bills, the process had been like pulling teeth.
“That’s one of the problems,” Bills said of Class C, “all these coaches, ‘We love hosting, it’s good for our community.’ You know what? It’s a four-hour stretch, man. Does it bring a bunch of economic impact to your city? Not really. How many times does the traveling team stay where they play the night before? Zero. No coach in the state wants to stay in the same town they play in the night before a game.”
Bills is no stranger to hosting a state championship football game. Ennis hosted Wibaux in 2013, setting the record for the biggest gate for a state championship football game in Class C history. This is one reason that Bills is not concerned with teams’ travel for a title tilt.
“I think that financially (Butte and Billings), especially Butte, is going to get behind this game and our gates will be through the roof. It’s going to cover all the costs, where most all of our other playoff games we lose money through travel,” Bills said.
Representatives of 8-Man football are looking for greater exposure. The neutral-site championship game between Butte and Billings will introduce 8-Man football to an audience that “never gets to see this,” according to bills. The neutral-site championship game is also serving as an experiment of sorts for the other classifications.
“If we’re successful, I would be hard-pressed to imagine that 6-Man wouldn’t jump on that, Class B wouldn’t jump on that,” Bills said. “How cool would it be to go to three state title games in essentially one place in one day? That’s where I’m hoping this goes, that it’s financially viable and the schools are making money on this stuff.”
Due to Bills being an athletic director for more than 25 years, he has seen many faces come and go as fellow ADs in Class C. He attributes the turnover to most people not being able to deal with the ridicule, the heat that comes with being an athletic director, and moving on with their career choices. The constant turnover has made it hard for Class C to agree on rule changes.
For example, Bills referenced the eighth-grade rule. Nearly 30 years ago, the rule was implemented to allow eighth graders for essentially all sports except football. If a program wanted to use them, it used them and reporedt it to the MHSA, all based on local school board approval. Cross country, swimming, football and golf don’t allow eighth graders, and track and field only allows them on relays.
However, as small towns have started to dwindle in population, junior varsity and C-squad teams are going by the wayside. This leaves bigger Class C schools, such as Ennis, in a precarious position.
“Where I wanted it the most is, I’ve got varsity, JV, C-squad, but three-quarters of the schools in my league don’t have JV. Where am I going to find these games? If their eighth graders can play, I can have a JV game,” Bills said.
“It’s been a great run, I’ve really enjoyed it,” he continued. “Coaching track for all those years was just super. If I saw a place where I could try to make a change and it would be best for Class C as a whole, I went for it. I didn’t always win, but at least I fought for what I thought was the best thing for Class C, and all of Class C. It’s not about basketball all the time, it’s not about football all the time.”
Bills had success as a throwing coach, too. At Bridger, Bills coached Josh Henigman, who ended up being an all-American shot put thrower at Montana State, and Kylie Zent, the current all-class record holder in the girls shot put. Twenty-eight kids won state championships in just the shot put, discus and javelin under Bills’ tutelage.
His time at Ennis was successful, too. During his 13-year tenure, Ennis won two volleyball championships, two 8-Man football titles, and four consecutive boys track and field titles over the past four seasons.
“The two things that I’m going to miss the most are obviously the kids and the relationship you develop with them, and No. 2, I’m really going to miss the guys that I worked with,” Bills said. “I’m going to miss the (Seeley-Swan AD) Shawn Holmes’ of the world, I’m going to miss the (Belt AD) Jeff Grahams of the world, the (Fairview AD) Luke Klokers of the world — the guys I worked with on a regular basis to try and do the right thing.”