BOZEMAN — Each January, when Bozeman High School’s parking lot is loaded with buses, its gym floor strategically designed with four wrestling mats, dozens of high school wrestlers stretching, jogging and grappling on the foam, you can find him in the northwest corner.
Sitting in a chair atop the riser, his cowboy hat raised just enough to allow his blue-green eyes to peer out at the action below, is Tom LeProwse.
“I like to see the energy of the kids, I like to see their skills,” he said softly, motioning to the nearest mat. “I designed those mats and they were picked up by a company who makes them.”
LeProwse remains quiet for the most part, letting out the occasional chuckle or applause, depending on the match.
“Some of the things that you used to get pinned by, they’ve turned that into an offensive weapon and pin the other guy with it,” he repeated a few times, seemingly more amazed each time.
Though he’s perched far in the corner of the gym, nearly impossible to get to through the maze of people, he’s frequented by coaches, athletes and fans who want to shake his hand, say hello and occasionally, “Families will come down and want to take pictures with me and their kids,” he explained, a proud smile across his face.
It’s the kind of stardom that comes with the tournament named in your honor.
Growing up in Butte, LeProwse was an admittedly undersized, though determined, teen who starred in multiple sports, though football was his finest.
“How’s this? The (Montana East-West) Shrine Game? I was a captain in the first game, made the first tackle and got married after the game. Not a bad day,” he beamed.
Football led LeProwse to Bozeman, where he played for then-Montana State coach Clyde Carpenter, who eventually convinced LeProwse to enter the coaching ranks as his assistant for the local high school football team.
Those early years consisted of long hours for LeProwse, the physical education teacher who, besides coaching football with Carpenter, was coaching in basketball and track. Seeing a need for more activities for youth, LeProwse started swimming and gymnastics in Bozeman, as well as the program he’s still known for to this day — wrestling.
“We had no uniforms, there was no subsidy for it. Kids volunteered to come out for the team, the coaches didn’t get paid,” recalled LeProwse. “Most of these young people who would wrestle for us came off the ranches. They were pretty strong from wrestling pigs, sheep and calves, hauling bales and stuff like that. They had a good, competitive attitude on wanting to work and wanting to learn. So Bozeman really got into wrestling right away.”
LeProwse found quick success with his farm-kids-turned-wrestlers, crowning state champions and earning trophies at the state tournament. He recalled reading wrestling books during breaks in the school day, then applying what he learned during practice in the afternoon.
LeProwse helped usher in a new era of high school athletics in Montana, though his efforts didn’t come without hardships.
“I gave up coaching wrestling when the school board and Brick Breeden said I was making too much money being the basketball coach for $400, the track coach for $200 and the assistant coach for $100, I was going to get a raise to $500, so I was in three sports — football, wrestling and track — at that time and Brick Breeden said, ‘We can’t do that. Look at all the money LeProwse would be making,’” he said. “After I gave up the wrestling coaching position I started officiating it, and in the first year I made about eight times more money officiating it than I did coaching it.”
LeProwse leaned over in his chair, shaking hands with a Butte High assistant coach.
“Thank you for everything, Mr. LeProwse,” the coach said.
The old rancher — LeProwse still does custom haying to this day — sits back upright in his chair, beaming from ear to ear.
The appreciation and thank you’s continue throughout the afternoon for the man who started the tournament some 60 years ago.
“We had a dual meet between Kalispell, Missoula, Billings and Bozeman, that’s where we started it,” he said. “Then Missoula went to two schools, Missoula Sentinel and Missoula Hellgate, so we had to get someone else in, so we invited Hardin in. Then Billings went to two schools, Billings Senior and Billings West, so we had to invite another one in and we invited Helena in. These were the ones that started it, but each year people wanted to come in and wrestle in our tournament.”
As the tournament grew, LeProwse invited more schools each year, the format changed from duals to an open invitational, where it remains today. Athletes in each weight class battle for two days to be crowned champion, no matter their classification.
“I love it. A Class C kid can come out a champion, AA teams can come out champions. Colstrip and Huntley Project, look how tough they are. I think Huntley Project has won the tournament here before and they’re a Class B school, but they have some really tough wrestlers,” said LeProwse.
“We have a boy in this tournament now whose last name is LeProwse. He is a relative of my dad from his uncle. Like I’ve always said, ‘The LeProwse name is an epidemic in Butte now days,’” he continued, laughing. “I get to see these kids perform and watch them come up. I think I started a proud tradition for the LeProwse name in Butte.”
Tournament officials don T-shirts with the words “Tom LeProwse Invitational” across the chest, the brackets for each weight class reading the same.
“I don’t know of any greater honor than to have a school name something after you,” he said.
LeProwse has had such an impact on the annual wrestling tournament, even the coffee in the hospitality room has family ties.
“Scott has a lot of coffee, so I told Scott he should donate it to this tournament, and he has for years. He enjoys it,” LeProwse said of his son, who married into the family-owned D&R Coffee Service.
“I’m 91 but now, but next year I’ll be 93. I get to do that all year,” LeProwse chuckled at his own joke while searching for a chocolate chip cookie in the cafeteria.
He slipped through the room, passing the tables of young wrestlers pointing and whispering, “That’s the LeProwse guy,” not even noticing he’s caught their attention.
He stopped and talked with an official in the hallway, a former wrestler.
“He would make you put all your weight on him, then spin away and pin you,” LeProwse said, the referee laughing.
As he re-enters the gym, LeProwse pointed out former athletes of his, bringing to life more memories.
“The kids, you see where they’ve gone and where they’ve went. They were just kids when they were in high school, full of energy and ambition. Wrestling really helps kids fulfill that energy,” he said.
Eventually LeProwse returned to the riser in the northwest corner, climbing up the stairs and finding his seat at the end of the table, it unofficially saved for the royalty of the tournament. His focus returned to the wrestling, now in the quarterfinal round, his amazement of the strategy and maneuvers returning.
He looked forward to Saturday’s finals when he would hand out the medals at the conclusion of the tournament, a chance to personally congratulate the athletes on their hard-fought championships. Then it’s back home, around eight miles outside of Bozeman, where he waits another year to enjoy the tournament that bears his name.
“(I’ll continue this) as far as God will let me. I get up every day and I’m really happy about it. I have a lot of energy and I still drive, I drive to Phoenix, takes one day to get there from here. We have some real good times,” he said. “Things are slowing down a little bit, but you know, they didn’t slow down until I turned 90. They seem to be slowing down a little more than what they were, but I just judge myself on how well I feel and what my capabilities are. That’s the thing. I’ve just been so fortunate to have such a great life.”