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Billings coaches Drew Haws, Chris Murdock, Charlie Johnson turned early lessons into long careers

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Posted at 3:28 PM, Jan 11, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-11 17:28:09-05

BILLINGS — The younger Drew Haws made a promise to himself he couldn't keep.

Haws was a high school basketball player at Billings Skyview and upon graduating college, gained his first assistant coaching gig at Billings West under Joe Sukut.

During intra-city games against Billings Senior, Haws watched Broncs head coach Jim Stergar go through his game-night metamorphosis as a man possessed. Stergar is not subtle in the coaching box, whether shouting out plays, questioning calls or holding his players to account.

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From left, Drew Haws, Chris Murdock, Jim Stergar and Charlie Johnson reminisce of their time together on the same coaching staff at Billings Senior.

Haws, just starting out in his own career and trying to determine if he even wanted to be a head coach, knew one thing for certain: No way I could coach with that guy.

The joke was on Haws, though. A year later he was teaching at Senior, and, guess who he was coaching alongside? You got it.

These days, Haws calls Stergar his mentor, as do the likes of Senior football coach Chris Murdock and Billings West’s former girls basketball coach and current athletic director Charlie Johnson.

They all matriculated to Stergar’s staff and coached together during most of his tenure as head boys basketball coach at Senior, which ran from 2002-11.

Stergar, now in his 26th season, the last 12 of which have been at Billings Central, says there are two types of assistants: 1) those who are eager to learn the ropes about all aspects of running a program to become a head coach one day; and 2) those who are happy to remain in the background to provide input and be a sounding board/reality check for the head coach.

Haws, Johnson and Murdock fit into the former category. Along the way, Stergar’s underlings took the rope Stergar gave them and picked up some of his intricacies and made them their own. For better or worse, Murdock said with a laugh.

Johnson, who played for the Broncs during Stergar’s early years at Senior and was still a junior in college when he first sat on Stergar’s bench as an assistant, became the head girls basketball coach at Broadview-Lavina for three seasons before moving on to West, where he guided the Golden Bears girls to a Class AA state championship in 2022-23 and a COVID-shared title in 2019-20. After 10 seasons at West, Johnson, 38, stepped down last spring to become the school’s AD.

Murdock, 43, got his coaching career started with another mentor as a football assistant to Mark Sulser at Senior. Murdock completed his 12th season as the Broncs head football coach last fall and coached the Broncs to three consecutive championship games from 2015-17, winning it all in the second and third trips.

Haws, 46, went on to become the head girls basketball coach at Senior for two seasons before sliding over to coach the boys, where he’s in his ninth season. He won a third-place trophy with the girls, and for the boys he’s been to two state semifinals with two fourth-place finishes. Haws said he was this close to following Stergar from Senior to Central and at one point envisioned himself being Stergar’s career assistant.

As for the 52-year-old Stergar, who first became a head coach at Ronan in 1997 for five seasons before moving on to Senior, he’s racked up 350-plus wins, five divisional championships, two state championships (both at Central), and eight state-tournament trophies.

In all, he’s approaching 600 career games as a head coach, and entered this season with a 354-213 record (though two of those losses came during the 2002-03 season when Billings’ Class AA teams forfeited games due to the Billings Public Schools teachers’ strike.)

This group of four went from being virtual unknowns to each other to longtime friends and coaching confidants. While it’s not uncommon for multiple assistants from the same staff to move on and become head coaches themselves, it’s also not common to see three from the same staff become double-digit year coaches guiding successful programs in just one or two stops.

Stergar, Johnson, Murdock and Haws all recently took the time to talk about their beginnings together in the mid-2000s and what they all took from the experience.

Stegar: I learned from going to coaches clinics, the key is to find coaches that want to be head coaches. You’re going to make your program better to have guys that want to be head coaches who are going to prove themselves as assistants first. We tried to say to people who want to be a coach someday, ‘Come coach with us. We’ll get you ready for it.’ Charlie was one of them. Drew was one of them. Chris wanted to coach basketball so he could learn other ways of coaching.

Haws: I never thought I would coach with Jim, just from being ultimate rivals when I was at West. I couldn’t stand him when I was coaching at West. So then when I was teaching at Senior, I didn’t know Jim, except just from basketball. When he came and talked to me, he was just so nice. It was like two different people. Like, he just goes crazy during games.

Johnson: I called Jim to do like a mentorship or just like observe at practice. I was really just going to watch a practice or two, that was basically it. When I got there he said he was shorthanded and just kind of threw me into things. When my observation was up he gave me a call back, ‘if you want to be a coach come sit the bench.’ He just asked me to stick around.

Murdock: I wanted to be a head coach, for sure, and (Sulser) spoke highly of Stergar, and Mark was right. I learned a lot from Jim and he was somebody that was obviously looked up to, somebody that helped me as a young coach.

Johnson: Stergar challenged us: Do you really want to be a coach? You sit there and ponder, well, do I really want to go through all this? Because it’s different when you’re sitting in that assistant coach chair. As you move over a couple chairs it’s a different ballgame.

Haws: When you’re a young person and just getting into coaching, it just seems like so much, and a little bit scary at times. The more you’re around it, the more coaches you’re under, the more they give you, the more you realize you could do this. It took me a couple years to even think I could do it. I remember when Joe Sukut resigned (at West), I had people ask me if I was going to apply for the head job. In my head I was like, ‘You’re crazy. There’s no way.’

Murdock: I knew Charlie the longest, because I’ve known him since he was just a little kid. I was just starting to get to know Jim and Drew. Now, we’re all good friends.

Haws: I remember we had to pick Murdock up from a football game; he was an assistant coach at that time. Jim had rented a cabin and so we went to watch a (Senior) football game in Bozeman and picked up Chris and spent the weekend at the cabin just talking basketball, getting to know each other, developing our relationships. When we picked up Chris that was kind of the first time I ever met those guys or spent any time with them.

Stergar: When I look at how we were then, how unique and special that was. They all wanted to be there. They all wanted to be head coaches that wanted to learn, whether it was through me or through the game. They were willing to jump in and do it. I’d make them do a lot of stuff where I gave more responsibility to them because that’s what they wanted.

Johnson: I remember my first game I sat in on we were playing West down at the Metra when they still played (the intra-city games) there before they brought them back to the high schools. So it was pretty neat sitting down there back in the role as a coach, you know.

Murdock: I remember how much work we put into it, like how much time and energy we put into it. The losses were so hard … they still are … and the wins, you’d be so excited. That’s one of the things that hit me. I mean, obviously now as a head coach, you go through that, but for whatever reason I just remember how much and how hard we worked and how hard the losses were and how great the wins were.

Haws: You’ve got to have people that are willing and ready and have the ability. I think that’s what Jim has done such a good job with. He was the type that always wanted feedback and I was always the type to say what I thought. Sometimes he would use it, sometimes he wouldn’t use it, sometimes he would ignore it. But he always gave you that voice and made you feel comfortable to give your thoughts and input.

Murdock: One thing I learned from both (Sulser and Stergar) was that you’ve got to be able to coach on the edge a little bit. Do you sometimes cross the line? For sure. But it’s that passion, you know what I mean? My daughters laugh at me when I’m throwing my headset or go walking out on to the field.

Later they’ll re-enact it for me and it’s always pretty funny. We were at the Senior-Central (boys basketball game) a couple weeks ago, and I said, ‘you guys just watch coach Stergar, that was one of my mentors right there. So you watch him and then you’ll start to figure out why I’m a little bit the way I am.’ (Stergar did receive a technical foul that game.)

Stergar: My wife told me the other day, ‘Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business.’ If you want to be a head coach, you have to be able to know what you’re doing is right and not care what anybody else thinks. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to do this very long. Because you’re not in it to really win games. Do you still have a relationship with the kid? Has he been helped? Did you help him become a better dad or husband or career man?

Haws: I learned so much from every one of those guys. I think we just had a great group. Obviously, we all went on and had our own careers, but just the way that group came together. There were some different personalities within that group. Charlie is so laid back, and Murdock and Stergar and me during games can be pretty crazy. But then on the outside, what a fun time we had together, traveling and going on retreats with players and coaches.

Johnson: I’ve been around high school sports for a long time. It’s not like you see three assistant coaches go out and be head coaches and be successful at their programs. I think it’s pretty cool to see Chris and Drew still doing an amazing job with their programs … Stergs, at Central, doing a good job … We had success when I was at West.

It’s pretty cool to see just a bunch of mopes at Senior under Stergs, you know, mopping the floor, to coming out and running pretty successful programs.

Murdock: Whether it’s the passion or the winning, I think that’s what people see. But I think more importantly, with all these guys, I think it’s what people don’t necessarily see: The day in and day out building of relationships. I think that’s the best part of what Drew and Charlie and Jim do. I think that far supersedes the winning part of it. Sometimes you get the right group (of players) and you win.

But I do think that it’s the impact they’ve had on the young men and young women that they’ve had the opportunity to coach that I think is the most important thing. I think that’s why we all respect each other because we know how we all go about it. It’s definitely an honor to be mentioned among that group because I do know how they go about their business.