MISSOULA — Colby Blaine has seemingly made a quick transition to successful head coach.
The former Montana Western player and assistant coach is in his first season as the head men’s basketball coach at College of Idaho, an NAIA Division II program in Caldwell.
“One of my former bosses told me that being a head coach is an out-of-body experience, and he was completely right,” Blaine said in a recent interview with MTN Sports. “As an assistant, you think everything you say is right. As the head coach, you don’t think anything is right.”
Blaine must be pushing some of the right buttons. The Yotes are 13-1 this season and undefeated against NAIA teams, reaching the No. 1 spot in the latest NAIA Division II top 25 poll. It’s the first time since the 1991-92 season that COI has had the top ranking.
“We want to be the No. 1 team in the country. We want to compete for national championships every day, that’s our program goal, there’s no question about it,” Blaine said.
The Yotes know what it takes to compete. They advanced to the NAIA national tournament each of the past two years, reaching the semifinals of last year’s tournament.
Blaine is now tasked with putting together another strong season, and, to get there, he’s relying on some of the things he learned during his stay at Montana Western. He joined the Bulldogs as a player in 2007 and graduated in 2009. He then spent two seasons on coach Steve Keller’s staff.
“I coached for him 12 years ago and I still use things that he’s taught me,” Blaine said of Keller. “He’s taught me about being consistent. He’s very consistent in his approach. He’s taught me to keep it simple. He’s taught me, at the end of the day, everybody’s going to push you to be your best, but when you’re done with it, those guys that push you are going to love you and be there to support you.”
Keller spent 11 seasons as the Western head coach, accumulating a 231-124 overall record and leading the Bulldogs to eight NAIA national tournament appearances in the past nine seasons. He left Dillon this offseason to take over the program at the University of Providence, where he has the Argos out to an 8-2 start this season.
Blaine was a finalist to become Keller’s successor at Western, but the Boise native withdrew his name from consideration once the COI job came open.
“I’ve always loved Montana. I spent two years in Dillon at Montana Western. I learned so much being up here. I love the state, the competitive battle that every city has, the basketball spirit that’s in this state,” Blaine said. “I’ve always said if I could a chance to come back here and coach in the state, I would love to. It was an internal battle, for sure, during that week, where potentially Western might have been an option and then College of Idaho opened. It was a battle. But both are great programs, so I’m feeling very lucky just to be a head coach at one of them.”
Keller’s move was part of an offseason shakeup in the Frontier Conference, which plays at the NAIA Division I level. Mike Larsen took over at Western and Kurt Paulson replaced Carson Cunningham at Carroll College.
Still, Blaine’s COI team, which plays in the Cascade Collegiate Conference, is 4-0 against teams from the Frontier, including a 77-62 win over Western on Nov. 24.
“Both conferences are very close, we both play each other quite a bit. We’ve played four Frontier Conference schools this year,” Blaine said. “We’re always checking scores, trying to compare, ‘OK, this team did this, that team did that.’ We’re always calling each other back and forth just to say, ‘Hey, we’re playing so and so this week. You guys played them in the preseason, what do you think?’ We’re very close between the conferences. And me having coached in the Frontier for a couple years, I know a lot of these guys that are still in the conference.”
That familiarity will only strengthen in the coming years. The Cascade and Frontier conferences are already intertwined in football, wrestling and other sports, but the NAIA is eliminating the separate divisions to go to one level starting with the 2020-21 season.