(Editor's note: story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA -- Clint May, the builder of Bozeman High’s nationally recognized distance programs, has been hired as Montana’s new cross country coach.
May, who will also coach the Grizzlies’ distance runners during the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, replaces Vicky Pounds, who stepped down earlier this month to take a position at Clemson.
May was the head cross country coach at Bozeman High for 10 seasons, from 2006-15. His boys’ teams won nine state titles in those 10 years, as did his girls’ squads. He also coached runners to nine individual state championships.
He spent nearly two decades as an assistant track and field coach for the Hawks as well.
May, a runner on Montana State’s first Big Sky Conference men’s cross country championship team in 1993, was hired by Southern Virginia, an NCAA Division III school, in the summer of 2016 to be its head cross country and track and field coach.
He worked there for three years before returning to the state where he built a name for himself.
“I don’t think we could have done better,” said Montana track and field coach Brian Schweyen. “I think he’s going to be fantastic for this program and these kids.
“It worked out perfectly that he was out there and available. I’m really excited about what he’s going to bring.”
The journey from high school to college coach began with a phone call, the one May took a few years ago from Rocky Mountain College.
The school wanted him to head up its cross country and track and field programs.
“As we sat at home and talked about it, it didn’t feel right,” said May, who has four children, three sons and a daughter, with his wife Mindy.
“I went back to coaching and teaching in Bozeman, but that’s what started the thought process, that’s what got the wheels turning. After that happened, I started thinking more about it.”
When Montana went through a distance-coach transition, from Collin Fehr to Pounds, in the winter of 2016, May reached out to Schweyen to express his interest.
Schweyen told him he was still lacking a critical piece of experience: coaching and, most important, recruiting at the college level.
A sixth-grade health enhancement teacher at Chief Joseph Middle School for nine years, May’s only previous experience in recruiting was trying to convince middle schoolers to give running a try when they reached Bozeman High.
It worked. His final teams combined to have nearly 100 runners. Along with his own refinements as a coach, Bozeman High went from a state force to a national one.
The first fall May was coaching at Southern Virginia, the boys’ team he had built at Bozeman won Nike Cross Nationals in Portland. The girls’ team placed eighth.
Recruiting to a Division III school with no athletic scholarships proved to be a little more challenging than selling those eighth graders on the sport of running.
“That was the biggest lesson learned, just how involved recruiting is to the position,” he said. “I thought if I reached out to five kids, I was going to get one.
“It turned out to be a little more difficult than that, maybe 50 to 1. Without any scholarships, the school had to really stand on its own.”
He also left behind in Montana when he packed up for Virginia some of his well-earned reputation. His name and the program he built at Bozeman High just didn’t resonate more than 2,000 miles away.
“I didn’t feel like I had any carryover in reputation. I was just another guy,” he said. “I had an experience base that anyone could look into, but it was like, well, that’s in Montana or that was the high school level.
“What I have here is more of a rapport with coaches in Montana, in Idaho, even down to Utah. During those years at Bozeman, I was building relationships with coaches. They know that our high school teams were really good. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
Schweyen as well. “That’s going to be a huge benefit, something that can’t be measured,” he said. “There has been a tremendous amount of talent within the state of Montana over the years, both male and female. That’s where you’re going to see the program grow, I think, is in the state.”
Raised in Salmon, Idaho, May turned down an offer to run at Montana State so that he could compete at Boise State, which he did for one year before serving a two-year church mission.
When he returned, he found out he had lost his scholarship, so he ran himself back into shape at Ricks College, a junior college with a strong athletics program in Rexburg, Idaho, and once again the Bobcats came calling.
He competed at Montana State for his final two years of eligibility, an experience capped with the 1993 cross country title under coach Tom Raunig, who would later become the head track and field coach at Montana.
May, who earned a degree in health and physical education, didn’t immediately get into teaching. He and his wife bought and operated a window-covering business for 10 years first.
But coaching? That was something he needed to get into immediately. He volunteered at Bozeman High for one year, then was hired on to be an assistant for Mary Murphy’s cross country program and as the head distance coach for the Hawks’ track and field team.
When Murphy stepped down after the 2005 season, putting an end to a career that would land her in the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame, May got his chance.
The Hawks had been successful under Murphy. May wondered if that could extend beyond the borders of the state. Could they do something at the regional level? How about national?
Expectations were raised, not of improving from the start of the cross country season to the end but of entering the fall at a higher fitness level than ever before. Then going up from there.
It became more than a three-month sport or a way to get into shape for basketball season. And the results followed.
Within a handful of years, no one in the state was touching the Hawks when late October and the state meet came around. When the program really got rolling, only a handful of schools in the nation could when the major races arrived in early December.
May’s explanation: “Buy-in. In the early years, we won some state championships but we weren’t as successful, ultimately, as the last five years I was the head coach.
“What I attribute that to is complete trust and buy-in from not only the athletes but their parents as well. We had incredible support. And the kids, if we asked them to do more, they believed based on what I’d learned over the years.”
He knows he’s back to the starting line again, this time with a new program and new athletes, some of whom will have to be convinced. After all, runners tend to have their own beliefs, based on their previous experiences and what they’ve become comfortable with.
It’s the reason he’s already met with a majority of his new athletes. Montana’s season, after all, opens in a little over two weeks, at the Clash of the Inland Northwest in Cheney, Wash.
“I’ve already met with more than half the team. That’s all I’ve asked of them, to give this new change a chance, and that’s not 2-3 days. Give it months,” he said.
“If they do that, they’ll be happy. I think they will find they are doing things that will help them become better runners. There is nothing better than having your best times in the last third of the season.”
The best part of going from the 90-plus athletes he had at Bozeman High to the maybe two dozen Grizzlies he’ll be coaching? The more personal approach he’ll be able to enjoy.
“I feel like what I’ve done a really good job of the last 10 years is searching and pondering what works best for individuals,” he said. “That was really hard to do at Bozeman High.
“If you can do that, it really opens things up. I should be able to be in their lives, if they are allowing that. I think they’ll find I’m in their lives out of care and compassion, not any other motive, and wanting them to feel they are getting the most out of themselves and the program.”
It’s no easy task he’s taken on. He will have all the advantages Montana’s other programs have used to their benefit to recruit to Missoula -- the school, the location, the support -- it’s just the mountain he’s trying to climb is steeper than most coaches find set before them on Day 1.
Northern Arizona has won the last three national championships in men’s cross country. Southern Utah is a nationally ranked program as well. Then there is the next tier of schools with long histories of success.
On the women’s side, the Grizzlies won a Big Sky championship as recently as 2010, but the Grizzlies haven’t been higher than fifth since.
It’s why May is preaching patience. Believe but give it time.
“He wants to win a conference championship, and I think that’s fantastic,” said Schweyen. “Let’s continually move forward and get better than we were before. And that’s for all of the coaches on this staff. Let’s continue to improve and get better than we were.”
For May, it’s Bozeman High all over again. Take something that’s good and let’s see if we can’t make it great. Join him, won’t you, all runners and supporters? He can’t do it alone.
“That’s definitely what I’m shooting for,” he said, “to develop this into a program that is highly respected within the Big Sky Conference and hopefully beyond.”