BILLINGS — After 33 years coaching, Joe Shupe spent his final days on the mats at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark last weekend.
The longtime Harlem wrestling, football and track and field coach is retiring from his coaching positions, as well as from his job as the junior high English and physical education teacher. Shupe spent 29 years as assistant wrestling coach before assuming the head job after Lyle Faulkinberry retired in 2015.
Shupe is a Great Falls native, going to high school and playing football at Great Falls CMR. He played college football at the University of Montana before finishing his schooling at MSU-Northern. At Northern, Shupe started his teaching and coaching careers, which led to more than three decades of memories on the Hi-Line.
In this week’s Sunday Conversation, Shupe reminisced on his coaching career and the relationships forged in the wrestling community, while providing a glimpse into his retirement future.
MTN Sports: Sum it up as succinctly as possible, just kind of recap the 33, 30-plus years as a coach up there on the Hi-Line.
Joe Shupe: “It’s been an interesting journey. I started coaching when I was going to college at Northern. Then I kind of went on from there. I’m originally from Great Falls, so I student-taught in Great Falls and coached at Great Falls High and then ended up at Harlem. It’s been an interesting journey. I couldn’t have did it without my wife, of course. Got to make sure you mention your wife. But, yeah, I’ve had some good coaches and some good mentors. It’s been a fun ride.”
MTN Sports: That’s a long time to be coaching. What are some of the biggest changes, biggest challenges you’ve seen over the course of that time?
Shupe: “I think just getting kids that want to get after it. Being from Great Falls, we were supposed to be tough — we thought we were anyway. Kids, just getting them mentally and physically tough is probably the toughest thing, getting them motivated.”
MTN Sports: What’s the most rewarding part of being a coach?
Shupe: “Seeing kids succeed and becoming a successful person. When they come back and say, ‘Hey, Coach. How you doing?’ That type of thing.”
MTN Sports: Is coaching something you always knew you were going to do? Or did you just kind of fall into it?
Shupe: “My dad was a coach and teacher, so I kind of fell into that. It took me a while.”
MTN Sports: Were you an athlete when you were in high school, as well?
Shupe: “I wrestled and played football at CMR and played football at the University of Montana, finished up at Northern.”
MTN Sports: There’s a lot of similarities as far as football and wrestling and the parallels of success in both. What are the things that you see in athletes, especially in wrestlers, that allow them to be successful in football or other sports?
Shupe: “The mental toughness and the physical toughness, I think, is huge both in wrestling and football. I think they coincide with each other.”
MTN Sports: When these athletes, especially from Harlem or these other Class B or C schools, they come into Metra, there’s got to be that ‘Wow’ moment. How cool is it, first of all, for them to just be here for state wrestling? Then secondly, how hard is it for them to kind of approach it just like another match knowing what’s at stake in front of this big crowd?
Shupe: “That’s kind of what we talk about: It’s just another tournament kind of thing. The younger kids come in here and kind of go, ‘Whoa.’ It’s getting geared up. We’ve had a lot of success in wrestling in Harlem for years, so the kids are pretty good about coming in here and knowing what’s going on.”
MTN Sports: When you look back on your time as a coach, whether it’s the head coach or assistant coach with the Harlem wrestling program, what stands out? Is it the success, the wins? Or is it, like you mentioned earlier, when the kids come back and say, ‘Hey, Coach,’ and want to talk to you again?
Shupe: “It’s all of that. We all want to win. When Lyle Faulkinberry and I first started, we had our struggles getting those kids going. It’s tough. It takes time to build a program and get kids interested. A lot of work. I’m going to send it off to the younger generation now and let them get after it.”
MTN Sports: Lyle was the head coach, right? He stepped down and you took over, is that right?
Shupe: “Yeah, yeah.”
MTN Sports: What’s your relationship like with Lyle and some of those other folks up there in Harlem?
Shupe: “Lyle and I have been together for 30 years. He was there the same time I was. We coached football together and wrestling and track. I’ve known him for 35 years. It was tough for him to step down. It’s hard. It’s hard to stay away, and I have a hard time keeping him, ‘Just get back, dude.’ He’s still involved.”
MTN Sports: Last week, you were honored, recognized at the Northern B/C divisional tournament. What’s it mean to you get that type of recognition and build the camaraderie the wrestling community seems to have?
Shupe: “I was shocked to begin with, because I didn’t know any of that was coming. It makes you proud as a person and coach that you’re accomplishing what you want and people are looking at that and seeing it. I was pretty humbled.”
MTN Sports: Last state wrestling tournament as a coach. What’s the emotion, has that sunk in yet that this is the last time you’ll be down there on the mats?
Shupe: “Not really, no. It’ll probably hit me Monday, I guess.”
MTN Sports: Will you be back next year as a fan?
Shupe: “I should be. I’m hoping to be, yeah.”
MTN Sports: What does retirement hold for you?
Shupe: “I don’t know yet. I like to golf, so I’m hoping I’m going to spend some time on the golf course if, of course, my wife lets me get out of the house.”
MTN Sports: How long you been married?
Shupe: “Twenty years.”
MTN Sports: Does she call the shots?
Shupe: “I let her think she does. Yeah, she does.”
MTN Sports: Anything else you’d like to say about your career or this weekend, in particular?
Shupe: “I just thank all the other coaches for putting up with me, because I have a strange sense of humor. They put up with me, I guess I could say. I’d like to thank everybody and all the kids I’ve coached. It’s been a good ride, and I’m pretty happy.”