GREAT FALLS — Steve Keller is one of the winningest coaches in Montana basketball history.
First at the high school level, Keller guided the Opheim and Helena High girls to a combined six state championships, ultimately racking up 610 wins as a high school coach, according to his University of Providence bio. He entered the college coaching ranks in 2004 and became the head men’s basketball coach at Montana Western 2007.
Keller compiled a 231-124 record at Western, leading the Bulldogs to the NAIA national tournament eight times. He left Western last spring to take over the program at the University of Providence, where he is nearing the conclusion of his first season with the Argos.
Keller, who was a standout player at Custer High School in the 1970s, sat down with MTN Sports for this week’s Sunday Conversation, discussing his playing days, his coaching career and his recent heart attack scare.
MTN Sports: Let’s go back to the Custer days a little bit and your upbringing and getting into athletics and whatnot. Was it like what they say, those old cliches about on the blacktop growing up all the time, in the barn maybe, whatever it was. What was it for you?
Steve Keller: “I had a court outside. Kids don’t, they won’t play if they can’t get in the gym these days. Back then, we had to play outside, we had to shoot the ball, adjust it to how the wind was blowing that day. I grew up on a farm and ranch, so I started at 5:30 in the morning and working until at 8:30 at night. I always managed, I’d be out shooting in the dark at 10 o’clock at night with a flash light shined on the net. Great days. When I was in grade school, I knew I wanted to be a basketball coach, so I was a student of the game. I did stats for the varsity coach and they didn’t even do stats. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything.”
MTN Sports: Offensive guy, one of the top scorers in Montana’s history. Does that translate into your coaching? You want to be that offensive guy on the coaching side of things?
Keller: “A little bit. I always tell people we never had the 3-point line back then, either, or got to play five years as some kids this day and age. I think the thing that I learned is, the best players play, no matter what grade they are at that level, so I carried that into the (Class) AA level. I carry it now, and I tell them all the time, ‘If the freshman’s as good as the senior, the freshman’s going to play, because they’re going to be back for three more years.’”
MTN Sports: Let’s jump to Opheim. Learning under a great, first of all. Then when it became your program, the three championships up there. What do they have — a couple kids in high school anymore? It’s kind of dried up up that way.
Keller: “I started under Loren Baker. I was one of those guys that thought I knew everything when I came out, so it was great. I learned so much from Coach Baker. I give him credit for any successes I’ve had, because that’s where I learned. We worked well together, and we had great teams up there. After he went to (Montana State-Northern) and won in the women and won in the men, I took over that (Opheim) program. We played four straight years in the state championship and won three. I had some pretty good girls, I had two girls that played college basketball. Great experience. It jumpstarted my career a little bit and helped me get the Helena High job.”
MTN Sports: Helena High — and you talk about Loren going back and forth with the men and the women — what are the challenges of having to go, back then at least, back and forth between the boys and the girls programs?
Keller: “It’s not as hard as it is now, because they’re in the same season. Back then, the girls were in the fall and the guys were in the winter. I did both at Opheim for five years, I did both at Helena High for five or six, I believe. Loved it. That’s what I knew. I coach the girls the same way I coach guys, and some people don’t think you can do that. I’ve actually had more success coaching girls. I’ve got six titles in girls and none in boys, as coach (Providence assistant coach) Mike McLean reminds me every day in practice.”
MTN Sports: We found the video of you hobbling around (while coaching at Helena High). We’re going to show it in this Sunday Conversation, so we might as well explain the backstory of what happened.
Keller: “I had an ACL surgery over the Christmas break, and I come back and tried to coach on crutches. I didn’t know if I was going throw one of those crutches at the referees or try to trip them, so I got in a wheelchair and sat in a wheelchair. I should do that right now, because I think I coach better sitting in a wheelchair than getting up all the time.”
MTN Sports: From the high school levels, Montana Western, the success there? In a place like Dillon — Montana, Havre, Dillon, some of these places that are a little more spread out, they always talk about maybe challenging to get kids to want to go there. You were able to do that, you were able to win there, the national tournament runs. Looking back on that career, what stands out with the Bulldogs?
Keller: “Well, what got me started on that is, ( former Carroll College men’s basketball coach Gary Turcott ) hired me as a volunteer assistant. I worked three years for him, and I learned a lot from him, so that helped me get the Western job. Mark Durham just hired me. The first couple years, it was rough. I think we were 10-19 the first year, then 15-14, then we went on a run — eight out of nine years getting that team in the national tournament. We only didn’t win a game at Kansas City one year out of there. Just got it going, and the people in Dillon were great. I loved Montana Western. It was just a hard decision to leave there, but I got the call (from Providence) and I love it here now.”
MTN Sports: Our phones blew up a little bit with, ‘Here’s something you may want to look into.’ And all of a sudden, we find out that that was the rumor and all of a sudden that becomes official that you’re coming up here. What was the hardest part about leaving, and what’s been the most exciting part about being here?
(Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on Feb. 20 prior to Providence’s final regular-season games against Montana Western and Lewis-Clark State.)
Keller: “Just the relationships you had and the program was going. We had a lot of guys back and probably would’ve for sure had a chance to win our league. But we’ve got more opportunities (at Providence), we’ve got more scholarships. Our administration is behind us 100 percent, we’ve got great athletic directors in Doug Hashley and Dave Gantt. They’re ex-coaches, so I think that helps, too. I like the progress we’ve made. We’re 17-10 currently, and we got tough games this weekend. But if we can somehow get to 19, 20 wins, we’ve got a shot to go back to Kansas City. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do, is get to that national tournament.”
MTN Sports: Tournament time, high school tournament time. It’s Christmas right now in February and March. For you guys as recruiters and trying to get an eye on those next-level prospects, how much fun is it for you guys to bounce around, having to drive through the snow and all this stuff, but getting a chance to see if any of these kids, you get to see them in person and see if they would be a good fit for the program?
Keller: “I love tournament time in Montana, high school basketball. I go whether there’s anybody, we don’t have anybody we’re looking at or not. I try to go — (Feb. 21) I’m heading to Butte, I try to hit three state tournaments once they come around. I know so many people and have developed so many relationships over the years, it’s great to see people. It’s just a good time of the year. Boys, girls, it doesn’t matter to me — I was here watching Belt and Box Elder play (in the first round of the Northern C girls basketball divisional tournament on Feb. 20).”
MTN Sports: You talked about Gary Turcott, talked about Loren Baker, we talk about Steve Keller — these coaching trees. Yours has a couple of your own kiddos in it. How much fun is that, to watch their careers over time and continue to expand and do great things?
Keller: “It’s harder watching your kids coach than it is coaching yourself. They’ve both been very successful. Wes is the women’s coach at Rocky Mountain College, and they’re having a great year. I think they’re 18-10. Josh is at Twin Bridges, and I’m going there to watch them play (Feb. 21). They’re 21-0 going into the first round at the divisional tournament in with Arlee and Manhattan Christian, of course, who have been there the last two years. Just proud of those guys. And then I had a lot of guys who have played for me. Jordan Overstreet’s at that tournament, he’s the women’s coach at Ennis. Mike Petrino was here today. Nobody knows that Mike Petrino was one of my assistants. Chris Mouat at Northern was one of my assistants. Coach Turcott’s got a big tree. Like I told you before, we have big coaching trees because we’re getting old.”
MTN Sports: You talked about, it’s harder to watch your kids coach. Do you see yourself in either one of them? Who’s more like you?
Keller: (Laughs) “Wes is more like me. They’re both very intense, but Wes and I always got to try to get the last word in, and that doesn’t work with the refs all the time. You would think I’d learn that eventually. I apologize to all the refs — nothing personal, I yell at all of you equal opportunity.”
MTN Sports: A little scare earlier this season, obviously, to have to take a step back and kind of evaluate things. ( Keller suffered a heart attack in mid-January ) We had a chance to talk with you, Tom Wylie chatted with you a little bit afterward, but what goes through your mind with something like this? You want to see this team continue to succeed and all that, and you want to keep doing it no matter how old you are, but relaxing a little bit? Maybe don’t yell at the officials as much?
Keller: “I’m working on it, but it’s a work in progress. I’ve been coaching since 1978, so there’s 40-some years of stress, and the stress builds up, I guess. That’s what they say. I’ve been fortunate, been close to hospitals that had it. I have six stents now, and I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can. I love what I do, and it’s my passion.”
MTN Sports: If you’ve been coaching for 41 years, that puts you around 55 years old, so how much longer do you see yourself doing it?
Keller: (Laughs) “Well, I kind of promised Doug Hashley that I would stay until Jaxen (Hashley) got done. Jaxen’s had a great year, and he’s a freshman, so we’re looking at three or four more years. I just don’t know what I would do if I’m not coaching. I’m going to say that, at least three more years. We’ll see how it goes.”
MTN Sports: We’ve watched you golf, we know that’s not in your future in retirement. I’m going to ask you the hardest question last here: Just looking back on these four-plus decades, what stands out the most? At any of these stops, any of these championships, any of the national tournament runs, any of the coaches that you’ve kind of taken under your wing and are now on their own, what really stands out about this career that you kind of want it to be remembered for?
Keller: “I think the thing that I like is how a lot of the players don’t understand at the time what you’re about and why you’re so tough on them. They get it when you’re done. My biggest thing — and I got a text from one of my players last night about how he hadn’t had a father figure in his life for a long time, and he appreciated me taking that role for him. All these coaches stay in contact with me and call me, so that’s what’s important to me. I know everybody thinks it’s wins and losses, and it is important to win for me, but those longterm relationships are so important to me, especially at this point in my age.”