SIDNEY — When Mike Gear stepped away from the coaching ranks more than seven years ago, Montana’s high school football landscape forever changed. The Sidney High School graduate coached his alma mater for more than three decades, winning nine Class A football championships, including a state record seven consecutive from 1987 to 1993.
Gear resigned in 2011, the winner of 222 football games, tied for fifth-best in Montana history, according to the Montana High School Association. Butte’s Swede Dahlberg won 222 games from the 1920s to 1950s. Sidney won state championships in 1982 and 1984 before the seven straight from 1987 to 1993. Gear began coaching in 1972 before a brief hiatus in other occupations.
The MTN Sports team caught up with Gear this summer to discuss his Hall of Fame career, the Montana record seven consecutive state titles and what keeps him busy during his retirement.
MTN Sports: When we’re showing the youngsters (about your career), maybe tell them how you got into this to begin with?
Gear: “It’s really strange, because probably teaching and coaching was not something I thought about when I first went away to college. I just played a little football and track at Dickinson (N.D.) State and the coaches there then really encouraged me to get into the field. That’s kind of how I got started. I graduated from (Sidney) and a year out of college they came calling and said, ‘Hey, we have some openings. Do you want to come back and start coaching here?’ I said, ‘OK, I guess I can do that.’ It sure wasn’t a planned thing for a long-range job, and a lot of things happened that you can never plan for, that’s just the way it went. We fell into a great class of football players in 1982 and won that first state championship. From there everything sort of builds and pretty soon you’re four years down the road and go, ‘Wow, that was fun.'”
MTN Sports: Were those early seasons successful or a struggle, a challenge to figure things out?
Gear: “It was definitely a challenge, it’s always a challenge. That’s the thing about, we had going for us, we settled into a coaching staff and we had the same six guys coaching freshmen through varsity for more than 20 years without a change in the staff. Then we changed one guy, and what I think is an extreme success of the program is that there are still two of those guys coaching football here with Roger Merritt and Guy Melby still on the staff. To me that’s been a real key to how successful we were, even in the last two or three years we’ve been in the playoffs and win a game here or there. People don’t realize that once you get in those playoffs some good things have to happen for you. We haven’t been able to get over the hump here the last couple years, but they’ve done a great job. They’ve actually, I guess what I would say is, they’ve moved the offense into the modern era from the old days of our I-formation and running the football.”
MTN Sports: Seven state championships in a row is unimaginable. Take us back, what happened? How is that even possible and can it be matched again at any time?
Gear: “I don’t know. You just have to realize that somewhere along the line there were some really, really, extremely lucky things that happened for you. You get a mentality in your program that, ‘We’re the senior class that doesn’t want to, we don’t want to drop the ball this year.’ You know it’s eventually going to happen, but every year those guys are going to give you whatever they’ve got. You have some really great football games you were able to win, but you just as easily could have lost them. I’ve always told everybody, you just don’t write that script. You just go out and play, and for us, good things happened.”
MTN Sports: Remind us where the streak ended? Was it in the playoffs? Was it in a championship game? Do you remember being surprised that it was just done?
Gear: “I think we got to one of those points, what usually happens in high school is, you get to one of those points where you have those classes that are sometimes loaded with players, and then you have those classes where you don’t have a lot of players. Sometimes you can get by if you have one of those and you have big classes on either side, but you get to a point where you have a couple of those smaller classes of players and you just don’t have the bodies. That’s kind of what happens to you, it breaks the streak. Then you have to start all over. Football is kind of a numbers game, so you have to try and get those numbers back up. That’s kind of how it ended for us.”
MTN Sports: Do you remember what your record was during that streak?
Gear: “We had some losses. Did we go three years, I think three years without losing a game. We went 42 in a row, so that’s about three or four years. It wasn’t in the very beginning (of our run), it was kind of in the middle of it. I don’t really remember, I don’t remember those years.”
MTN Sports: The stepping away (from coaching) part, was it the right time? Was it a big, huge challenge? Something that took a while to get used to?
Gear: “You know, it really wasn’t that hard. I think about halfway through my last year I had made that decision that, ‘You know, this is it.’ You miss the kids, you miss the practices, I don’t know if I miss the Friday night games. That’s always such a tense time, but you miss that part of it. When you’re a football coach, you don’t miss the two-a-days in August. When the season’s over, you don’t miss going through the helmets and stacking them up and getting them ready for reconditioning and all those other things you have to do outside of interacting with the kids. That’s what you miss more than anything, being with the kids and coaches. I think coaching is one of the greatest fraternities there is and I spent 21 years on the Montana Coaches Association board and going to their clinics. When you get to the point, at one time you know everybody that came through the door, but when you get to the point where you only know about half of them, you’re kind of going, ‘OK, I think this is it.’ My wife would work the desk and she thought the same thing the last few years. You go, ‘Man, there’s more and more of these guys that I don’t know.’ But the ones that you do know, they’re the guys that come through the door, put their arm around your wife and give her a big hug and say hello and that you miss. You really miss that part of it.”
MTN Sports: What kept you busy early in retirement and has that changed now? Is it finding different hobbies now?
Gear: “I’m not very busy in retirement. I took on a little part-time job mowing grass at the golf course, while my wife and I play quite a bit of golf during the summer time. Around here you just try to stay warm in the winter and go to a few high school activities. We’ve done, the thing about it is, when they ask you, ‘Do you want to come back and do this or do that?’ and you go, ‘That wouldn’t be a bad idea,’ but that means that if I want to go do something else I can’t. If you make that commitment you have to be there. Somebody might come up with a nice cruise that they want to go on and we go, ‘Hey, we’ll go along on that. Oh, wait a minute, I’m busy.’ We’re not busy anymore. That’s the thing that I’ve become pretty protective of in my retirement, the free time, because the last 13 years I coached football and was the athletic director, so there wasn’t a lot of free time. If we were doing something it revolved around activities. I’ve become real protective and been able to say ‘no’ a little more.”
MTN Sports: You have to tell us now what’s the best hole of golf you’ve played? Any hole-in-ones on a Par 3 or anything?
Gear: “All these years and I still don’t have one. I’m jealous of my friends that have four or five of them, they make me mad. I’m more of a hacker than a golfer, I think. You play for fun and relaxation and being outdoors, that’s the key.”
MTN Sports: Do these guys still pick your brain around here? Do you still find yourself talking coaching with a lot of these guys?
Gear: “Sometimes when we get together. That’s the one thing I told myself, ‘I’m out. I’m not going to be standing over there at practice,’ even though it’s fun to watch practice. Someone is asking you this, someone is asking you that. I’ll still mutter up in the stands sometimes, ‘What’s Coach Melby thinking about there?’ But that’s one of the things you learn being an AD, you hire those people to do a job and just because you don’t like what they’re running or what play they called or whatever, that’s just the way it is. There are a lot more important things, and if they’re doing those, you have a successful program. You don’t have to, you get some people that think you have to win in every activity that you have every year. In a school our size it’s not going to happen, because you only have so many athletes and you have to spread them around. There’s all those other things athletics can be without winning and that’s what I concerned myself with when I was an AD.”