BILLINGS — Mark Sulser has already spent 31 years as an educator, coach and administrator in Montana, yet he's running headlong with optimism into a brand new challenge when he assumes the job of athletics and activities director for Billings Public Schools in July.
Sulser told MTN Sports last week that he has been hired to replace retiring School District 2 AD Mark Wahl beginning in the 2023-24 academic year. Sulser said the school board gave final approval of his hiring at a meeting on Monday.
"At this point in my career I felt like I needed a challenge," Sulser said Tuesday night. "I don't want to say I'm on the horizon of my career, but at this point the challenge will be really good for me and I think it will be good for this position for everyone, just because it's a fresh start in a lot of ways and a fresh perspective."
Sulser, 55, has spent the majority of his career with Billings Public Schools, including the past 10 years as the activities coordinator at Billings Senior High School. Prior to that he served for 14 years as the Broncs' head football coach, where he had a 67-80 overall record with six playoff berths and appearances in the Class AA state championship game in 2003 and 2007.
But this is a very different role, and the job is no small task. Sulser has identified a handful of general challenges that await him in the AD chair, as well as his objectives.
For starters, he said there is major room for growth for SD2's facilities, especially when you consider grizzled Daylis Stadium, which shows its age with each passing year. Sulser pointed to the fact that Billings Public Schools hasn't hosted a state track meet in nearly 20 years as just one sign that there is need for upgrades.
Sulser also said the continued growth of Billings means SD2 and its three high schools — Senior, Skyview and West — continue to serve more students and families than it ever has from an activities and athletics standpoint, which means infrastructure is key. Sulser indicated that facilities improvement is the biggest topic on his radar.
The continued success of the state wrestling tournament, which gathers the sport's statewide community at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark for its championship event each February, is another of Sulser's main objectives. It is Billings Public Schools' biggest undertaking every year.
Sulser raised his family in Billings, and his three kids, Ben, Morgan and Gabe, all starred in their respective sports. Sulser said he wants to treat each student involved in extracurricular activities within SD2 as if they are his own and work to provide the best possible experience for everyone.
"I have nostalgic feelings about Billings and Billings activities, and you have these ideals about how activities should be," said Sulser, who grew up in Glasgow and played football at the University of Montana. "You want to preserve what we have but also surge forward and try to lead the way. The potential with the size of our community and the resources that we have here, I look at it as an opportunity to really keep us on the map and move us forward.
"One person can only do so much, but by selling your ideas and putting on great events and attracting great coaches — which we already have — and making the activities portion of public education attractive to new families, I just feel like we have such great potential. We want to continue to do what we do but also have higher ideals for what we've done."
One question that looms over SD2 is when (or if) it will offer baseball as an athletic option. The Montana High School Association is in its first season of sanctioning baseball as a varsity sport, and 21 teams across the state are participating in Year 1. That list, however, includes only two Class AA teams — Belgrade and Butte. SD2 has so far been in wait-and-see mode.
Sulser said baseball remains a hot topic, and that its implementation within Billings Public Schools will take more conversation and innovation not only because of the significant startup costs but also facility availability.
In addition, Sulser noted the quality of coaches SD2 already boasts, but called the hiring and retaining of coaches perhaps the most important and underrated part of what the district does — to make the coaching profession appealing to more people. It will serve as a top priority, he said.
"I personally think that teaching and coaching is the greatest profession in the world," he said. "I recommend it for everybody. I learned a lot from (Wahl), a former coach who understood what coaches are going through. So he was great to work for from an activities coordinator standpoint and also from a coaches standpoint. So I've got to remember to be sensitive to those things too."
Sulser will officially take over as AD on July 1.
"The things we do, in my opinion, in the next five to seven years can be generational," Sulser said. "If we can get some things in place, we won't see the end of the possibilities of what we can do. That's my hope for this community."