BILLINGS -- Mark Wahl spent many years as a basketball coach before transitioning to the athletic director for School District 2 in Billings. After nine years on the job, Wahl was awarded the Montana High School Association Service Citation on Monday for his efforts in continuing success on and off the courts.
Wahl, the former Billings Skyview boys basketball coach, has managed numerous MHSA state championship events, including football, basketball, wrestling, soccer, tennis, golf and fine arts. He has spent time as an MHSA committee member, and is especially productive during February's all-class state wrestling tournaments at First Interstate Bank Arena at MetraPark, helping coordinate volunteers, mat setup and many other tasks that make the event run smoothly.
Wahl has also overseen numerous state championship individuals and programs during his tenure as AD in Billings, the most recent the Class AA girls soccer championship won by Billings West, defeating crosstown rival Billings Skyview, no less. He has also played a key role in Class AA's expansion, which includes changes to the scheduling and playoff formats of the league.
MTN Sports sat down with Wahl for our latest Sunday Conversation to discuss his coaching background, the challenges of overseeing three Class AA schools in the Magic City, and some potential changes to the classification in the near future.
MTN Sports: For those that don’t know, maybe give a little bit of background as to how you got from Helena, like you said, to now, here in 2020, sitting in this (Billings athletic director) chair?
Mark Wahl: “I started out as an assistant coach in the Catholic school system in 1983. I left in 1996, went to Skyiew, well I started at Senior but ended up at Skyview, and I was there for quite a few years. I went to Senior as an assistant principal, and then, this is my ninth year in the AD position for School District 2.”
MTN Sports: Is it crazy to think it’s been that long? We’re pushing a decade now as we get into this new decade.
Wahl: “It goes fast. Really fast.”
MTN Sports: When you think, or at least when I think of high school athletics, and maybe it’s from me having gone to college here and worked here, but one or more of those Billings schools was always going to challenge in any one of the sports in Class AA. There are expectations that come with that, pressures that come with that, but there’s a lot of excitement in the town that comes with it too.
Wahl: “I’m really proud of Billings. They support high school activities, our community really supports high school activities. They support the educational values that come with it, so while there are expectations to do well, there are also expectations to have our kids learn and grow. I think we do a great job of that. Our coaches are fantastic, and they keep their focus on those types of things.”
MTN Sports: What are some of the challenges of sitting in this (athletic director) chair? Maybe some of the differences and challenges from almost a decade ago until now? Everything continues to evolve and change a little bit.
Wahl: “The district is so big, so the challenges of trying to find coaches has magnified. The challenges of funding has magnified. Challenges of finding transportation and all that, it just gets a little bit larger when you’re trying to do it for three schools. Again, we have a great district, great support from our school board, great support from our superintendent and we have a great staff. Our activity coordinators work really well together. I think we’re a little bit unique in that we have a middle school program that we oversee, so we really run a program from sixth grade all the way to 12th grade, and I think that helps the success of our kids.”
MTN Sports: You talk about some of the great coaches, you’ve also lost some hall of fame type coaches over the last few years to some retirements. I think of the mustache club with (former Billings Senior volleyball coach) Jeff Carroll and (former Billings Skyview football coach) Ron Lebsock and (former Billings West football coach) Paul Klaboe, Ed (Kriskovich) with Billings West softball, everything he was able to do, (recently Vicki Carle of Billings Skyview volleyball) — when legends like that walk away, how challenging is it to try to keep that excitement, because with those young coaches coming in, you almost have to say, ‘Don’t be who you’re following in the footsteps of, be you and get the program to the next place.’
Wahl: “Exactly. Those guys were great. That was one of the real apprehensions with taking the job was, can you be effective at a job with people like that, because you want to do a good job for people like that. They were awesome. It was great to spend the time I was able to spend with them, not only as a co-coach, but as an athletic director. Just outstanding people. If you look back at all the kids they’ve developed and coaches they’ve developed, it’s just crazy. That was a challenge. Sad to see them go, but you’re right. We have challenges with our younger coaches in that, those guys all spent quite a few years as assistants before they became head coaches, so they had a good background. Our younger coaches aren’t getting that as much anymore, so that in itself is a challenge. That experience, dealing with all the things that come with coaching, is a challenge. We work real hard with all our coaches through that educational process.”
MTN Sports: Your son (current Billings Skyview football coach Nathan Wahl) is one of those coaches, how much fun has it been watching him try to grow in a different aspect of his life?
Wahl: “I’m real proud of him. I tell him all the time, ‘Be a teacher. It’s not easy to win, and when you don’t, the pressure is there.’ Probably a little more pressure for him. I went through it as a coach, and I think every coach goes through it at some point. But if you remember why you’re there — be a teacher, grow kids and the success will come with it. He’s on that path. He’ll stay with it. We’re not giving up on it just because it hasn’t gone well the last couple of years. There has been some growth, so we’ll see how it goes.”
MTN Sports: What are some of the things you the coach has taken into you the AD?
Wahl: “I think that’s the biggest thing, I went through nine years as a coach and couldn’t make the state tournament. Six of those nine years, we lost by three points or less in the playoffs. We had some tough losses. Part of that, when I thought about taking this job, I’m thinking, ‘Can somebody who couldn’t get to that state tournament do this job?’ It was an apprehension, but then I found out that coaches need a leader with that perspective to remind them that, we’re here for a lot of different reasons. Just because you don’t win the state championship doesn’t mean you’re not growing kids. Our coaches need to remember that all the time. So I try to encourage our coaches all the time, through the tough times, ‘Just remember to be a teacher.’”
MTN Sports: That many losses by three points or less? Which one of those stands out the most? There has to be one that just eats at you.
Wahl: “Oh sheesh. We were pretty good when I first started, with Kane Ioane and that crew. We lost two times in overtime to Great Falls High, those first two years. I thought, in both cases, we were good enough to get to Saturday night (at the state tournament), so those were tough losses. That happens, you live and learn right? Great kids to work with, regardless of what happened.”
MTN Sports: What do you appreciate most about being in this job and getting to work with some great people? I know those coaches, everybody else out there appreciates having you and having your experience, as well, so flip it around for me and talk about the appreciation you have.
Wahl: “It’s always fun to work with coaches who have such passion for kids. I think in this society and culture where winning is amplified, we forget how passionate coaches are about kids. Sometimes it’s distressing when you hear parents talk about kids and they, when things don’t go well for their kid, they attack coaches, sometimes. Sometimes I don’t think they understand how much passion and love those coaches have for their kids. That’s what I love about being around them, they’re not afraid of work. They’re not afraid of hard situations, and they’re not afraid to make decisions. Sometimes those things, you have to temper a little bit, but that’s what I appreciate the most about working with our coaches.”
MTN Sports: Changes in Class AA, perhaps still more to come with every meeting with the MHSA executive board, but the biggest one right now, throwing Belgrade into the mix, shoving Butte over to the Western AA, and in the very near future, we’ll see Bozeman II, Gallatin High School coming in. What’s the reaction been? From your chair, what have you seen? It’s a pretty big change, even the scheduling has been a different story.
Wahl: “It has, but it’s nice for so many years, we’ve always had to schedule the odd number of teams — 12, 13 or 14 teams — and it’s been difficult. Now we see some advantage of having two divisions of eight, with some real opportunity to schedule some things. It is a challenge, the transition has been a challenge. Trying to figure out, for example with football, how to run the playoffs. That’s all been a challenge, but we have a great group of ADs throughout the state. I think if you talked to a lot of them, we’ve done some good work in cooperation with our coaches to prepare for this time. I think next year you’ll see a pretty good schedule.”
MTN Sports: The football playoffs, there was a lot of, “Why did we take everyone? Why don’t we take four teams,” people saying you could have just taken Butte and Bozeman (to the state championship game). Everybody has an opinion on something like that, so how do you temper all those different voices that you guys in the AD positions hear?
Wahl: “It’s tough. Coaches are passionate, so when they don’t think their schedule is good for their kids, they speak their mind, and rightly so. That’s what you want from coaches. But you also want people who can work together and compromise, and that’s what we have. Taking everybody to the playoffs, I don’t think anybody wanted that, but we also want to make sure kids get games. We’re not going to sacrifice what’s good for all the kids just so we can run a great playoff system. That will come, I think in the next couple years, we’ll get that worked out. You’re right, no matter what schedule you have, someone isn’t going to be happy. We did make the change for next year that, we’re not taking everybody. We’re going to give No. 1 and No. 2 a bye in each division, conference I should say, and then No. 7 and No. 8 will be out. I think that’s partly because last year, those No. 1-versus-8 games were not great games.”
MTN Sports: (Bozeman athletic director) Mark Ator and I were chatting about that, so six to the playoffs in football next year from each conference, and then it’s flip-flopping where the No. 1s and 2s get byes, but will the East play the West in that first round? Or will it be East vs. East?
Wahl: “I think in the first round it will be East vs. East (and West vs. West). And then we’ll make another decision as to how to move on from there.”
MTN Sports: Travel obviously plays a part, and a lot of things go into it.
Wahl: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
MTN Sports: Divisionals has been another thing that we’ve started to see in Class AA, and again, there are opinions and voices about it — it’s nice to have tournaments, as some of those kids don’t get to make it to state. At the same time, it’s been some of the top teams that were making it to state anyway. What have we seen there? There’s still talk about expanding that to other sports and doing away with some of their typical Class AA playoff formats.
Wahl: “Right. I think the playoff formats all came because, trying to run divisional tournaments with just six or seven teams just isn’t easy. So when you have eight, they’re much easier tournaments to run. I think that’s what stimulated the idea to go back to divisionals. I would have loved to have divisionals when I coached basketball. When you lose that playoff game, feel like you’re good enough to come back and get to state, you would love to have them. It’s about opportunity, about promoting your sport. I thought we had a great divisional basketball tournament last year in Great Falls. I’m looking forward to this one at MSU Billings here coming up. We’ll see how they go. They’re more expensive, in some cases, but we’ll see.”
MTN Sports: Is there any one thing, I’ll put you on the spot a little bit here, is there any one thing that you could change about anything that’s Class AA related in Montana, maybe just athletic related in Montana, is there one thing you’ve been pushing for the past nine years? Maybe it’s something new coming up where you’re trying to get everybody else on board?
Wahl: “That’s a great question. I’m not sure what that would be. The travel’s the hard thing, and that’s not going to change. It’s just the way Montana is. I like the way we’re going. I think it’s great to see a couple more Class AA schools. We’ll have to make some decisions about some sports coming up, I think. We’ll see how it goes. Soccer is probably one of them, but we’ll see.”
MTN Sports: I wasn’t hoping you would answer with this, but it made me think of it — the neutral site championships in football. There are two sides to it, obviously, and they both have pros and both have cons. It would be awesome, but at the same time, still plenty of challenges with it. Is that something you could ever see happening in the state of Montana? There are a lot of people that would like to.
Wahl: “I get that. I get creating the atmosphere. If we had a dome stadium, that might be the way to look at it. My struggle is, we work really hard within our community to promote the turf field. Our community pays for that, and it would be hard to say, ‘You pay for that, and your team gets to host a state championship, but you don’t get to be here.’ We ran (girls) state soccer here with the new playoff system, and that was an incredible atmosphere for our kids, probably the biggest crowd a soccer game in Montana has seen. With those neutral site fields, you don’t get that. But who knows, if you had a dome stadium maybe it would be a different discussion.”
MTN Sports: Final couple of questions, is there one thing that you’re most proud of working with the rest of the ADs in your tenure that really stands out? Something where, “That was a good thing we were able to get implemented.”
Wahl: “I think the schedules that we’ve been able to put together, and the transition we’ve made over the last three years. We knew it was coming, we knew we had to do some good work. Our meetings have been extremely difficult, long and difficult, because we have to deal with every sport. One of the things I’m proud of, I think we give our coaches, coaches will probably tell you different, but I think we give them a lot of input. Whether they know it or not, we consider that input when we talk about things. I’m not sure there’s one thing, but I think working together over the transition to 16 teams has been a good deal.”
MTN Sports: Anything else? Anything we’re missing out on?
Wahl: “I don’t know. I still get frustrated, there, I can think of a thing I would like to see is state track in Billings. Right? We’re working on a new stadium, trying to work with the Metra and trying to get some land out there. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t like the fact that we can’t run a state track meet here in Billings. State wrestling has been awesome, but state track grinds me. They run the Top 10 in Laurel, and Laurel is great, but it just frustrates me that we have to go over there. Facilities. I don’t think Billings has seen a new thing since, well West High got a weight room a few years ago, probably 15 years ago. In terms of a new facility, new gym or something, we don’t have it. Our field, I should say, Daylis Stadium."
MTN Sports: Daylis would be about the closest thing that I can think of.
Wahl: “It’s probably the closest, yeah.”