HELENA — In a different life, Shawn Kraft might be earning six figures — or more — coaching college football at a big-time program.
The former Cut Bank High School star quarterback spent a decade in college coaching after graduating from Montana State University. He started at Nevada in 1997 and ultimately matriculated to the University of California, Berkeley in 1999, where he rubbed elbows with brilliant football minds like Bill Walsh and Jeff Tedford.
After a stop at Sacramento State, though, Kraft turned down other coaching opportunities to return to his home state of Montana.
“Family,” Kraft said of why he left coaching. “The bouncing around, the transiency, it’s nomadic, it’s tough. It’s tough on families. The good ones can hang through it and go through it. At that time, we said, ‘Is this really what we want to do, is raise ourselves on east coast, west coast back and forth?’”
For Kraft and his, at the time, growing family, the answer was no. He and his wife already had two children and a set of twins was on the way. They made the decision to move back to Helena, where Kraft got into the insurance business.
He still satisfies his football urges coaching Small Fry Football. He recently joined the staff at Helena High, where he coaches the quarterbacks.
“The Small Fry’s been fun,” Kraft said. “My son’s coming up through the ranks of it and stuff, so it’s fun to spend some time with him and do that. Jumping in and having coach (Scott) Evans and coach (Manny) Garza — when you start saying Evans and Garza and (Dane) Broadhead and (Bob) Sampson and (Rob) Tesch and guys like that and (Ryan) Schulte, guys like that who are synonymous with high school football and especially specifically Helena, they do a great job. That’s kind of quenched a little bit of my, ‘Geez, I’d like to be able to run this, but it’s hard to teach a seventh grader.’”
Yes, the Helena High coaching staff is a who’s who of Montana coaching royalty. Still, it’s evident Kraft enjoys reminiscing about his days on the bigger stages. Make no mistake, he’s more than happy with his decisions and the life he lives in Helena, but he fondly recalls memories coaching Kyle Boller, who was selected in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft after a sensational career at Cal, or recruiting Marshawn Lynch, who ultimately played at Cal after Kraft left.
Kraft jokes that he, too, was one of the many college coaches who missed on Aaron Rodgers coming out of high school. Kraft spent only about six months coaching Rodgers at Cal before leaving for Sacramento State.
It was on the recruiting trail where Kraft produced some of his best stories.
“At Cal-Berkeley, we had a good budget but not a great budget,” Kraft started. “I remember I pulled up to a few houses in (Los Angeles) a few times, and I came walking out — I was a young coach, I was the youngest guy in the Pac-10 at that time, 27 years old and recruiting this big tight end out of Ventura (Calif.), and I walked out like, ‘I nailed this thing.’ In pulls two big, fancy Mercedes, and it’s Pete Carroll and the crew from USC getting out heading in for a home visit right after me. Needless to say, we didn’t get him.”
Kraft was at Cal for the beginning of Carroll’s USC dynasty, coaching against the likes of Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Reggie Bush, who Kraft considers two of the best players he ever coached against. Boller was one of the best players he ever coached.
In the coaching office, Kraft learned from Walsh, the godfather of the West Coast Offense, while coaching under Tom Holmoe at Cal. Tedford, known for developing college quarterbacks, replaced Holmoe in 2002 and brought more of a freelance philosophy.
Kraft also coached with former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci at NFL minicamps, but he comes back to Montana when asked about the most influential coaches during his career.
“Anything related to Cut Bank athletics or football is synonymous with coach (Ron) Kowalski,” Kraft said. “I looked, even now coming back into high school football, the guy was so far ahead, not only just inventive, but just fundamentals, just disciplined, just the program itself.”
“Part of my coaching philosophy delved back to him,” Kraft added on Kowalski, who won 210 games at Cut Bank from 1972-92. “It’s doing the right things, not just discipline and technique and things like that, but on and off the grass. He’s unbelievable. With that, taking that in and combining that with coach Holmoe or Tedford, people I’ve been around at the assistant level when I got into the Division I level, I always fell back to those things. And that’s what’s great about him. He’s fun to be around and just demands the best of people.”
Kraft won a Class B state championship under Kowalski, helping lead the Wolves to an 18-7 win over Choteau for the 1989 title. He then played at Montana State from 1990-94, walking on as a quarterback before finishing his career at running back.
When his playing days were done, Kraft immediately got into coaching, starting at Bozeman High School before climbing to the Division I ranks at Nevada, Cal and Sacramento State. It’s come full circle now with him back in Montana, again coaching high school football at Helena High.
“Do you miss the pageantry and the Saturdays? Yes. Do you miss the camaraderie of the staff and the kids? Yes. … Are you playing in front of 100,000 (fans) anymore or something like that? No, no,” Kraft said. “But at the same time, that’s a two-hour Saturday, and if you didn’t do well, you wouldn’t be playing in front of 100,000 next year, either.”