HELENA — Gary Turcott has been at Carroll College for more than 30 years — four years as a student in the 1960s, 20 years as the head men’s basketball coach from 1990-2009 and the past eight as an assistant women’s basketball coach.
Turcott played football for the Saints and participated in boxing smokers, but eventually turned his attention to basketball. He coached at the high school level, spending 11 years as the head coach at Great Falls High before ultimately earning the Carroll job in 1990.
From his time as the men’s basketball coach, a number of Turcott’s former players, including current men’s basketball coach Kurt Paulson, have embarked on their own coaching careers. Turcott, who was inducted into the Carroll College Hall of Fame in 2011, sat down with MTN Sports to reminisce about his days as the head coach and reflect on his transition to the assistant role in this week’s Sunday Conversation.
MTN Sports: First, Gary, let’s talk about before you were a coach, back in the 1960s when you were a student here at Carroll College. What are some of your fond memories when you look back on those times?
Gary Turcott: “I came to Carroll in 1964. I had been in public high school, and my parents wanted me to come to Carroll to get some Catholic education, and also I had an opportunity to play football here at Carroll. I really wanted to play college athletics. It was probably the best decision I ever made. Look back at your life and say, ‘What were the big decisions?’ That was a big one to come in 1964. Four years later I graduated, had a degree and went out and became a teacher.”
MTN Sports: From what I’ve heard, you were quite a boxer when you were a student here at Carroll College. Tell me a little bit about that.
Turcott: “They had a boxing program here, and they had a junior class smoker. We had some great teachers who really kind of taught you how to defend yourself, how to box. We trained for about six weeks. Then we would have this great, big smoker. Where the present-day chapel is now, there was an old gym, and they would bring the lights down. They had a ring, referees and judges. Everybody at Carroll was there. I fought in two years — I was a sophomore and I fought a senior one year. When I was a junior, I fought a senior year that time, too. Everybody’s cheering for you or against you. Probably the most amazing feeling that I ever had when I boxed was, I remember just having the whole crowd just cheering and screaming, and I was trying to figure out what it was and realized, ‘I just got hit.’ You learned a lot. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.”
MTN Sports: Were you a good boxer?
Turcott: “I was average. I was a little bit skinny and weak, so I didn’t pack much of a punch, but I learned how to defend myself and I learned how to throw a punch.”
MTN Sports: So you weren’t a Golden Gloves winner or anything?
Turcott: “No, I wasn’t that kind of good. Gene Mallette was my vintage, and he was really good. Denny Goodheart was another one really good. Hank Burgess was the coach. He was a tremendous coach, wonderful literature teacher — British lit teacher, longtime professor at Carroll. He was the one started the smoker and taught boxing.”
MTN Sports: You came here to play football, did some boxing on the side. When did the transition to being such a basketball-centric mind come into play?
Turcott: “I think that I just was meant to be a coach. I think I always knew I would be a coach; I just didn’t know what I would be a coach in. Baseball, football would have probably been my first choices, but when I went out to become a teacher, the opportunities were in basketball. I grew to love it. I came to all the Carroll basketball camps when I was a young, aspiring coach. I learned an awful lot about basketball at the camp. I started to study, go to clinics, read books, and kind of developed a passion for it. All of a sudden, I had an opportunity to become a head coach at Great Falls High School. It was a real tough opportunity, because there were two experienced coaches that had more experience than I did, but I lucked out and got the right people to back me at the right time. Got to be the head coach there, and that was the first big chance I had. Eleven years later, the opportunity opened up at Carroll. I always wanted to come back to Carroll, this was always in the back of my mind, it was a goal that if I ever had the chance, I wanted to do it. In 1990, I believe it was, I had the chance and got hired. It was great.”
MTN Sports: When you look back — you mentioned the difficulties and challenges at Great Falls High — what were some of the challenges to transition to coaching from high school boys basketball to college men’s basketball?
Turcott: “It’s still basketball. I had a great player in Bill Pilgeram to start with. It’s unbelievable to be your first year as a head coach and know that you’re coaching the best player you’re ever going to coach. He was definitely a Division I star who got overlooked in those days, and I got to coach him. And then I had just such good players — Guy Almquist and on and on and on, Kevin VanNice, J.D. Solomon, the list just went on. We were really attracting great players, and I had some real quality assistant coaches, and I worked at it hard. I worked at it real hard. That was my job, and I loved it. I had a lot of fun doing it.”
MTN Sports: What do you think was the growth you made as a young coach in 1990 to when you “retired” in 2009, what are some of the others you think you personally grew?
Turcott: “In a coach’s life, you go through a learning, growing period. Then you have some peak years where your experience and your system — and you’re able to recruit to your system. It took a while for us to get there, but once we kind of got there, we knew the kind of kids we wanted to recruit. We were starting to get awfully good Montana kids. If the Bobcats and Grizzlies didn’t get them, we were getting them. Then I just think I learned to relax a little bit as a coach and not be so crazy with the referees and so demanding of my players. I think when I relaxed a little bit, they relaxed a little bit. I think we all started to have a little bit more fun, and I think the success followed with that.”
MTN Sports: You mentioned having success recruiting Montana kids. A lot of those guys are still in Montana coaching teams themselves now — Guy Almquist at Helena Capital, Bill Pilgeram at Helena Capital for a long time, Jay Jagelski (Missoula Sentinel), Ross Gustafson (Kalispell Flathead). What does it mean to you to see so many of your former players take what they learned from you, to a degree, and enter into the coaching world?
Turcott: “I think it’s wonderful. Kurt Paulson, who is the head men’s coach at Carroll, was our point guard for three years. And then all the other head high school coaches around the state, and even guys that aren’t head coaches are coaching their kids or they’re coaching sophomore, but they’re coaching. It’s wonderful to see them pass on what they learned and to give back to the game that was so good to them. It means an awful lot. It means, really, that you were able to be involved in somebody’s life at a critical time and maybe make a contribution to them and that they are doing the same for others.”
MTN Sports: That Gary Turcott coaching tree, there’s a lot of guys on it. Can you remember all of your former players who are now head coaches?
Turcott: “It started in Helena, Peterson at Helena High. Then, of course, Almquist and Pilgeram, who were at Capital. Jagelski at Missoula Sentinel. Kelly Darragh is at Billings West. Boy, I know that I’m going to miss some and I’m going to be angry that I have. Kevin VanNice, who is coaching out at East Helena and one day I bet would be the head high school coach there, would be my bet. I know I’m missing some more. There’s quite a bunch of them.”
MTN Sports: Do you keep in touch with those guys? Do they ever call you and ask for advice anymore?
Turcott: “They don’t ask for advice, but they do call. Most of them want to talk about the old times. The one thing that I do wish to any of them that hear this is that, ’Quit embellishing the stories. The things we did were crazy enough, the things that I did. You guys, quit embellishing them, because every time I hear them, they get better.’”
MTN Sports: What are the toned-down versions? What are some of the best stories, the best memories you have from being the head men’s coach at Carroll College?
Turcott: “The stories that the players like the most involve meals after games, when we would order fast food. Sometimes the players would order anchovies to be put in my sandwich, or meatless sandwiches, and then they would just love it. They would howl and laugh and cry. I think those are the worst stories. I forgot to mention Jeff Hays, goodness, at Missoula Hellgate. He’s a state champion a couple times. But those are the stories that they like. They tell them and re-tell them, and they seem to get better over the years.”
MTN Sports: Three-hundred wins. Do those memories come back, or is it more the meals and stuff away from the game?
Turcott: “It’s the relationships that matter. The Ws and Ls don’t mean nearly as much, they really don’t. It’s the relationships and hopefully that you were able to make a contribution and most importantly to try to provide a quality experience for the kids that come and play for you and give four or five years of their life to you and to Carroll College, to provide a quality experience. Because not every kid is going to be a starter, not every kid is going to be all-conference, there’s a lot of kids that worked awful hard and never got to play very much, but we still tried to provide a good experience for them.”
MTN Sports: I was talking to Guy Almquist earlier. He mentioned maybe in the moment, he maybe cussed you a few times. In hindsight, he says you’re one of the most influential people in his life. To hear former players speak in such high regard about you, what does that mean to you and your legacy?
Turcott: “It means everything. The thing about being a high school coach or a college coach, is you get to work with really high-, high-quality human beings. These are very, very goal-oriented, hard-working people, and you get to be a part of their lives and you get to influence how they feel about themselves, how they feel about their teammates, and you really want to do that job right. That’s one thing you want to really do right. When I hear that sometimes we did it right, it’s very gratifying.”
MTN Sports: You mentioned now that it’s been eight years since you’ve been an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team, what’s been that experience like for you?
Turcott: “When I retired, I didn’t think I would ever coach again. Rachelle Sayers got hired at Carroll. I had been out of coaching for two years, and she wanted an assistant coach. I wasn’t really sure. I had never been, really, an assistant coach, and I wasn’t really sure that I could do it, but she insisted. She’s been patient enough with me, and I’ve learned a lot about how to be an assistant, because it’s different than being a head coach: It’s a different role. I feel like I’ve done better at learning how to do that. When you’re an assistant, you make suggestions. When you’re head coach, you make decisions. What I try to do at times is provide options. Sometimes I’ll tell Coach that I think we really need to look at this, and she’ll think about it, and sometimes she listens and sometimes she knows better. But it’s really been great. I’ve really enjoyed coaching with Coach Sayers. She’s just a high-quality person. She treats the girls terrifically, she really cares about them. We’ve had just some great girls come through here since I’ve been coaching. I can’t believe it’s been eight years. I never thought I would do it this long, and here I am in my eighth year.”
MTN Sports: Nineteen years as the head men’s coach, eight years as an assistant women’s coach, four years as a student here — Carroll’s been a significant part of your life for 30-plus years. What is it about this place that’s so special?
Turcott: “I think it’s the people that are drawn to come here. The friends, the relationships that I made at Carroll from 1964 to 1968, that is the basis of my best friends all my life. They support me, they challenge me, they have made me a better person. I think that. It’s a challenging place. Carroll isn’t for everyone. It’s academically difficult. It’s important that you’re able to get along with other people. You have to learn how to communicate. You have to learn how to think. Then to get an opportunity to play college sports and the opportunity to grow through that, it’s just a tremendous experience. The kids that make it through — and that’s most of them that come — their life is changed. My life was. Then I got to come back and be a coach and teacher and assistant coach. It was a blessing.”