KALISPELL — Montana’s athletic history has seen multiple Treasure State natives crowned champions at various levels, from the thousands on the high school front to conference and national titles in college, but few, if any, boast the line on their resume Mark Gilman has — NCAA Football Division I national champion.
The Kalispell Flathead star became a back-to-back champion with the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1994 and 1995, landing on the MontanaSports.com #MTTop40, a list of the top football players in Montana history, this past summer.
MTN Sports sat down with Gilman to recall his playing days, which included a high school state championship in basketball, his favorite sport, and playing for the legendary Tom Osborne and the Cornhuskers.
MTN Sports: How did you get into athletics to begin with?
Gilman: “I was born to be a coach and a teacher, so my father was a football, basketball, track, shot put and discus, his specialty, coach. That was a big part of the Gilman household growing up. From a very early age I participated in all the sports. There was a lot of sports talk at the dinner table, the psychological approach to sports, being mentally ready and prepared, hard work and determination, teamwork, all that stuff. It started from a very early age with my father.”
MTN Sports: Which was your favorite sport growing up and did that change over the years?
Gilman: “Basketball was my first love and as time went on, I realized that basketball was not going to allow me to play, what I would consider, maybe on the national stage. Football was something that, I played football and enjoyed football. I was proud to play for the Flathead Braves under coaches Bob Raeth and Dan Hodge. It was something where, I had success at (football) as well (as basketball), but I found it real ironic that the phone calls I was getting, recruitment phone calls, were from major colleges. Nebraska, where I ended up going, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado State, Colorado talked to me a little bit, and Wyoming. Whereas I loved basketball and I felt I was really good at basketball, and I was lucky enough to get offers from Montana and Montana State, which I really appreciated, and some small colleges, as well, but I started leaning toward, ‘I kind of want to try something big.’ It switched to football, not to say that football became my love, I still to this day enjoy basketball more, but I wanted to give the biggest challenge possible and that ended up being going to Nebraska to play football.”
MTN Sports: What was that like as you were getting those offers and when did it click that you were good enough for that level?
Gilman: “I’ve always been, now that I’m 46 years old, I would say I’ve always been very modest. I actually found it kind of surprising that larger football schools were as interested as they were, but I figured they knew what they were looking at and what they were talking about. I had a lot of success on the basketball court and I was pretty quick, fast and could jump high, so to be honest with you, when I went to Nebraska, I still had apprehensions. I was like, ‘Holy cow. I wonder if I can even make it here.’ Then it became apparent, at first it was hard, it was a challenge, but I saw the competition, I saw the other tight ends. I played scout team and was able to handle myself going one-on-one against one of the best defenses in the nation. It kind of hit me early on that, ‘I can do this.’ I had a ton of improvement I had to do, obviously, I was very raw. But I could tell off the bat I could do it, it was just, ‘Was I willing to step up and put the work in and improve myself mentally and physically to excel at that level?’ I could tell right away I had a chance, I just had to cultivate it.”
MTN Sports: Take me back to high school and put yourself in an opposing defensive coordinator’s position, how would they stop you? What were they game-planning against you? Or were you still fairly raw in high school?
Gilman: “I played wide receiver my sophomore and junior year. We were primarily at Flathead High a running team. I don’t think we were 50-50, we were more like 70 percent run, 30 percent pass. I still had 49 catches my sophomore and junior year, but I felt like, ‘Hey, coach, I don’t think they can match up with me. I’m 6-foot-4, I’m pretty fast, I can jump, I don’t think they can keep up.’ I actually wanted the ball a little bit more, but I wasn’t a diva wide receiver like you see today, Terrell Owens and guys in the NFL. It was different back then. You didn’t have as much film or technology. You had the old VHS tapes, stop and rewind and things like that, so I think defensive coordinators from other schools probably knew about me from basketball. I don’t really recall a ton of double teams, but what I did notice as time went on, the defensive backs would try to get a little more physical at the line of scrimmage because I was pretty tall and skinny. I had to learn how to use my hands and chicken fight a little bit.”
MTN Sports: Regarding those high school days, what stands out the most? Is there any play, any game that you really enjoy to this day?
Gilman: “No. 1 is basketball. We won the state championship in 1989 and what a thrilling ride. Those are some of the best memories I’ve ever had. The thought of winning a state championship against an incredibly talented Butte High team that we had gone back-and-forth the entire year with. They had beat us three times in the regular season and in the divisional tournament, but they were absolutely unbelievable. We were good, too, but they beat us three times, back-and-forth games. One game up in Kalispell, I think there were seven dunks. This is Kalispell, Montana back in 1989. Dunks, seven of them. I had two, by the way. They were great. That was my very best memory, the state championship my sophomore year. The best memory in football was really my entire sophomore year. I had a lot of great games individually, we had some nice wins and it was fun. That’s when I really realized that football, you build close relationships with your teammates. In football you always hear that adage of, ‘Going to war together. Going to battle together.’ I really started to feel that camaraderie and teamwork in football and that’s something I really enjoyed my sophomore year.”
MTN Sports: How eye-opening was it when you walked on that Nebraska campus, not for a visit, but for Day 1, you’re ready to go?
Gilman: “It was very intimidating, to be honest with you. I was being very modest in my abilities and I questioned myself early on for the first couple days. The thing that stood out about Nebraska, and I was warned about this, but I didn’t listen, we get there and the first couple weeks it was just the freshmen. I was all excited because there was only myself and one other tight end, so I was like, ‘This is great. I don’t have a ton of competition,’ and I felt like I probably had more skills than this other individual, but then the varsity reported and I was sitting in the receiver room looking around, I’m seeing a lot of pretty large receivers, tight ends, that looked just like myself. I came to realize there were 14 tight ends. During the recruiting process I only heard about four of them and they were all juniors. Not so true. It really hit me, ‘I’m really going to have to work hard. I’m really going to have to figure this out and figure it out quick, because every one of these guys are good and I have to separate myself somehow.’ That’s the thing, I’ll never forget it. Fourteen other tight ends.
MTN Sports: When we looked at the stats, did it come from a similar offense, the run-first at Flathead? The rushing yards we looked at in 1994 and 1995 were incredible.
Gilman: “Nebraska, they were always known for their option attack. They weren’t like the military schools with the wishbone, it was a true option, and one of the things that stood out to me from the great Tom Osborne, one of my top 10 mentors of my life, he made some comments because we had messed up some passing plays in a game, he said, ‘You know, we don’t have to pass it. We’re averaging nine yards per run, so we pass to keep them modest. I’ll stop passing it if you don’t start figuring this out.’ There was a little bit of facetiousness with that, but the point was, it was a run-first offense. The tight end, every year, was usually the leading receiver. Sixteen to 22 catches, which is not very much, I realize that, but hey, 16 to 22 catches.”
MTN Sports: Do you have a Tom Osborne story for us? Your relationship, a funny moment in practice or a game?
Gilman: “It’s been a while now, 20-plus years, and as time goes on, especially being a husband and father, I don’t really recall. He had some interactions and comments in front of the team that were funny, and I do remember one funny one that I’ll share, but overall the thing I remember from (Osborne) is that he was a genuine leader of men, a perfect example of how you should live your life. He was a wonderful family man, a law-abiding citizen and a guy that truly when he tried to build character with his team, he was truly trying to do it and believed what he was saying. That’s something I remember. I’ve used a lot of the things he’s said in my life. A tried and true mentor to the very definition of the word. The one funny interaction I had with him, my senior year (of high school) I did play quarterback at Flathead High. I switched from receiver to quarterback because our quarterbacks had graduated. When I was at Nebraska we had bad injuries at quarterback — our No. 1, Tommy Frazer, got a blood clot so he couldn’t play for a while. Brook Berringer, our No. 2, he got a collapsed lung. They actually were thin at quarterback and I remember in the hallway, I said, ‘Hey, coach, I’ll sacrifice to the team and I’ll come over and play some quarterback. Have you given that any thought?’ He looked at me and goes, ‘Mark, we have not even thought about that and it’s not even a possibility, but thanks.’ It’s funnier the way he delivered it, let’s just put it that way. I was like, ‘OK.’”
MTN Sports: Only a select few Montanans have played in the Super Bowl, maybe won, but college football championships at that level, we’ve seen Dave Dickenson and the Griz, Montana State win, but there are very few, I don’t know if there are others besides yourself that have been on that big-level college championship, what’s it like knowing you’re in a very rare, maybe the only one, group?
Gilman: “It’s amazing to me, when I look back at it, that I even went to Nebraska. It still catches me off-guard when I think about the story, because I told you, I was more of a basketball player. I have often sat back and just been amazed and thought how lucky I was to have perfect timing of all the colleges that I could have chose, I actually chose Nebraska, and they figured it out for about three to five years there. And I was part of it. It just blows my mind. I like to say that I had something to do with it. I did basically start two years and I was voted team captain and lifter of the year, which is a prestigious award there, so I feel like I had something to do with it, but obviously it takes so many people to get it done. It has to be almost perfect – from coaches to injuries to players’ attitudes to teamwork to sacrifice to hard workers. I’m so appreciative and it brings a smile to my face that I actually was part of that. I actually still can’t believe it. I smile every day. I look back and I’m like, ‘Wow. That was great.’ I’m good now, in my life, as far as sports went, I’m very, very satisfied. There’s still kind of some disbelief. It’s amazing.”
MTN Sports: You talked about growing up in a coach’s household and talking sports at the dinner table, how much of that have you taken into that role, sitting at the dinner table or living room and talking sports, how much fun has that been?
Gilman: “It’s been great. My son Tadan is 20 years old, my daughter is 15. Trust me, there was a lot of the same sort of approaches and psychological approaches with my son as he made his way through the household. There was a lot of basketball, baseball and football and a lot of weight training together. We worked out a lot and it was an absolute blast. I used a lot of the same techniques as my father, plus things I learned along the way from guys like Tom Osborne and my position coach Ron Brown and even down to the high school level. I was influenced so much by Bob Raeth and Dan Hodge and even my basketball coach, the late Bill Epperly. It was great and so far so good with my son, he’s getting good grades, and my daughter is excited about it. It’s a little different, her personality is different than my son’s, so I’ve had to do some different techniques with her, but it’s a lot of fun with her, as well.”
MTN Sports: Is it a challenge sitting in the stands as opposed to being out there? Sitting up there and remaining calm and quiet, seeing the things you see from your vantage point.
Gilman: “It’s funny you ask that. For my son, for example, and my daughter now that she’s older, I remember when he was younger I was more emotionally involved and I was always gauging how he was reacting to success and failure. After the game it was positive reinforcement, but later on having conversations about how to improve. As time went on and he got older, he entered the Glacier Wolfpack, I don’t know how much you know about that program, but it’s run very efficiently by Grady Bennett, the basketball program is the same way. Then it was more of a shift to just enjoying the time and taking advantage of the window of opportunity I could watch him compete. I went from being pretty emotionally involved, pretty intense at a lower level to just, when he hit high school, it was enjoyment, satisfaction and appreciating the fact he was able to compete for Glacier High School for three years in all three sports.”
MTN Sports: Was it more fun for you to play and be out there or to watch them?
Gilman: “It’s more fun to watch them. When I played I put too much pressure on myself. I don’t know why, I should haven’t. Hindsight 20-20, I would have told myself to relax and have fun, but I was genetically wired and always expected probably too much of myself, to be honest. It’s been a lot better with the kids.”
MTN Sports: Looking back, what can you say about this entire career and having a college athlete for a son, potentially your daughter, too, depending on what she wants to do. It’s a cool storybook type of life so far, a very exciting one for you.
Gilman: “Oh yeah, it’s been a heck of a ride. The crazy thing is, I just turned 46 and that was a long time ago. Now I sell insurance, personalized insurance for Payne West and that’s my focus, my sport, my competition now. I feel like this is my new, why I get up in the morning and try to rock and roll. The sports thing is so far away, but I’m very satisfied. I was very lucky. Everything that happened, I’m very appreciative. I never got to play at the professional level, I had an opportunity in the NFL, didn’t make it there for various reasons, but at this point I’m very satisfied with everything that happened.”
MTN Sports: We’ve noticed there are a lot of former athletes working for places like Payne West, is that why, because it’s competitive? You feel that drive and motivation?
Gilman: “I believe that anything sales, whether it’s insurance, real estate, a loan officer, which I work with a lot of real estate agents and loan officers, you can tell they have that competition drives them, as well. I think sales is equivalent in sports in some ways. A lot of the life skills I’ve learned, I’ve brought here. When I have a potential new client I want to win, I want to win their business, but doing it the right way. That’s the most important thing. You have to make sure you’re doing things on the up and up, still get that business and that’s a win. You go home at night and you’re like, ‘Yeah.’ It helps to be in sales.”
MTN Sports: Now we have to ask you, which were you better at?
Gilman: “Oh gosh. I don’t know. I’ve won some awards for doing insurance in my career. I don’t know, the equivalent of a national championship would be though. I’m not sure I’ve won a national championship in insurance yet.”
MTN Sports: Just tell everyone you’re better at this and they’ll be sitting in here across from you.
Gilman: “Right. Yeah, definitely insurance.”