DICKINSON, N.D. -- Pete Stanton, a native of Baker, is in his sixth season as head coach of the Dickinson State University football team and was named the university's athletic director in May.
Dickinson played for the Blue Hawks in the 1980s and was named a first-team NAIA all-American in 1987. He was inducted into the Dickinson State Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004. Stanton then spent nine years as the head coach at Terry and two years as the head coach at Belgrade. He led Terry to the playoffs all nine years and to the title game on three occasions.
Stanton returned to Dickinson State in 2000 and began coaching the men's and women's track and field teams. He was named the NAIA Men's Outdoor Track and Field national coach of the year four consecutive years (2003-06) and led the men's team to national titles in 2004, 2005 and 2006. The men's team also had runner-up finishes in 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Stanton led the men's team to conference titles in track every year from 2003 to 2012.
In December of 2013 Stanton was named the 15th head coach in Dickinson State football history. He has led the Blue Hawks to four consecutive North Star Athletic Association conference titles and appearances in the NAIA playoffs each year.
Stanton recently sat down with MTN Sports to reflect upon his coaching time in Montana and at Dickinson State.
MTN: Obviously, you’re back at your alma mater where you played in the 1980s, Hall of Famer inducted in 2004. What are some of your favorite memories from those playing days?
Pete Stanton: “I think just playing on some really good teams with some incredible guys and a great coaching staff. We had teams that were really good. It was one of those things that every time we stepped on the field we were confident we were going to win football games, and we did that. Back at that time, the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, the higher seed didn’t really host, it was the higher bid. So my junior year we had a higher bid and hosted Carroll. My senior year we were No. 1 in the nation and Carroll outbid us and they beat us in overtime that year. A lot of great memories of playing and a lot of great coaches here, as well.”
MTN: Does that game against Carroll kind of stand out as one that maybe got away a little bit?
Stanton: "It does, it does. We led the whole game and they converted on two fourth downs on the last drive. Paul Petrino was the quarterback at that time. I think they scored with just under a minute left. We had left a couple opportunities out there. We had them fourth and really long on the drive, I remember that really well. They scored right at the end. I think in overtime, I think I remember them running around 12 plays from the 25-yard line. They were fourth down at least twice down there. That sticks out, just the battles that we had with them. Most of it was just the guys that I was around. The guys that played on that team, you look at guys like Mark Gibson, who’s Bismarck High’s longtime coach and won many state championships, and Mark Wandle and Huntley Project and Travis Olson and all those names. Guys that have gone on to be really successful in their careers."
MTN: Before you made your way out here you coached football in Terry, a little Class C town. Nine straight playoff appearances, three title game appearances, did you get the most out of those kids that you could?
Stanton: "So many great memories from Terry. The players that were there at that time were just really hard-nosed, tough guys that were fun to coach. They were intelligent players. The community was great to work with. We had parents that were really supportive. We were really successful. We weren’t able to win a state championship. We played in three of them, we lost to Wibaux once and Scobey twice. We just had a lot of good teams and lot of great memories. I think what stands out there is just the community. What a great community it was. It makes me really sad today to drive by knowing they don’t have a football team. You think of the memories that we had and all the playoff games that we played on that field were just some of the best memories I’ve had as a coach."
MTN: You coached track before you transitioned to football here at Dickinson, and you were extremely successful. Four coach of the year awards, three national titles, five runner-ups in about an eight-year span. You had some guys who made the Olympics there. How did you built that program in North Dakota, a track program, into such a dominant program?
Stanton: "It was tough to start. We didn’t have a lot of men or women on the team. On the women’s side, one of the first who really came and made an impact on the women’s side was Stacey Rehbein, who is Stacey Collins who is Sidney’s coach right now. On the men’s side, it really started with a couple Montana guys, too, at that time that were coming in. Aaron Johansen is one from Medicine Lake and Kevin McElvaney from Scobey. At about the same time we had reached out outside of the area and our university had some tuition help for those that were from a different country. We got a connection going with the Bahamas parent association, and at that time those guys weren’t eligible because of their core classes. We got a couple obviously impact guys in Derrick Atkins, and then Aaron Cleare and Trevor Barry. And then you look at all three of those guys, they were guys that competed at the world level and two of them placed at the World Championships. One of them had an Olympic medal on the Bahamas team. Then later we had guys like Ramon Miller, who was an Olympic gold medalist. He anchored the 2012 Olympic team. We were blessed to have those guys, but we also had a lot of good local guys. We had guys like Ross Walker from Killdeer, who scored a lot of points for us in those meets. Then the guys I mentioned from Montana. We had a great combination at that time. It was just a really special time. We were in the top two in the nation eight years in a row, which was just something that was special to be a part of. And then to win the national championships at that time. They don’t believe there’s a team from North Dakota that’s ever won a college track championship and we were able to win three. It was a really special time."
MTN: This is your sixth year now as head coach of the Dickinson State football team. Four consecutive playoff appearances, four consecutive conference titles. How have you embraced just building your own program here?
Stanton: "It’s been a lot of fun and I think the first thing is the support we’ve had. The support we’ve had from the people in Dickinson, and we have a group of former players that have been very supportive and our administration has been very supportive. It’s been 20 years now and when I came back in 2000 and coached and coached at that time guys like Nick Walker and Jace Schillinger, Kylan Klauzer, we had a lot of great teams in the early 2000s. Then I was an assistant coach, the linebackers, up until 2013. We had a rough couple years in 2012 and 2013. We just weren’t a great team at that time. We had good kids who were hard workers, but we had a long ways to go. Starting in 2014 it’s just been a fun process. Of course played for a Hall of Fame coach in coach (Hank) Biesiot, who I have a ton of respect for and is one of my mentors, and we changed up as far as things we did offensively, but we really didn’t change our attitude or the way we went about it. It’s been a process. It hasn’t been an easy process, but it’s been a good process. I think we’ve made some really good strides, obviously, not just winning conference championships, but last year going in and winning a playoff game, and not only winning a playoff game, winning a road playoff game against a team that had beaten us pretty handily the year before, a team in the GPAC. We made some good strides and we think we’re on the right path."
MTN: How were you able to flip that so quick? The team was struggling just years before you got there.
Stanton: "I think just culture. I think really the culture and just recruiting. We went to recruiting a lot earlier and really went into the, obviously, Bismarck to Billings area and everywhere in between is really the core area. With our mindset that we wanted to create a family culture that guys were excited about playing in and that were going to get treated well and that we’re going to get as many good players as we can on top of it. That’s obviously been a key. We have coaches like Jace Schillinger and Nick Walker, who I mentioned, that are part of the staff that do a great job recruiting some of those guys to the program. The guys we have right now in coach (Russell) McCarvel and coach (Jason) Their and coach (Michael) McGuire, all those guys just embrace the recruiting part of it, and I think that’s just so key. Then obviously getting the core of our team, we have 80 guys from Montana and North Dakota on our team, and that’s been a process. We didn’t have those numbers four or five years ago and that’s been a big part of our success."
MTN: You recruit Montana kids so well. You mention Scobey, or Sidney or Savage, you get the eastern schools, but you get kids, you pull from the western part of the state, as well. How are you able to pull those kids out of Montana to come over to North Dakota when there’s four NAIA schools right there in state?”
Stanton: "It’s a lot of work and obviously the Montana schools do a great job of recruiting there, too. For us, for a lot of the eastern Montana kids, Dickinson is the closest school and I think that’s part of it. I think part of it, too, is the tradition that we have and the facilities that we have. And we have a lot of connections in Montana, too, with a lot of our former players are out in Montana as coaches and administrators and have been very successful. There’s still never guarantees there. What we try to sell to those guys and emphasize to those guys is, we’re just going to treat you right and we’re going to put you in a situation where you’re going to be part of a family and part of a culture and hopefully be successful. There’s no givens and no guarantees, but I think those guys understand that. The guys we recruit from Montana are just salt-of-the-earth, hard-working guys that understand what it takes to be successful. That’s always going to be a big part of our recruiting. We have over 40 guys on Montana from our team. Understanding I’ve coached 8-Man football, I came from Baker, I understand where Scobey and Plentywood and all those places are and the make up of the people in all those places. We’re able to connect our program and our coaching staff to a lot of the Montana guys and we’re really fortunate to have them."
MTN: When you play schools from Montana, do the Montana kids have a little extra chip on their shoulder, they want to go out and prove something?
Stanton: "They definitely get very excited. Anytime we play Rocky, we've played Montana Tech a couple times in the playoffs, they get very excited. I think mostly because they know those players. They understand those guys are maybe guys they played with in high school or played against in high school, so our Montana guys get very excited. We have guys from Montana from every level on our team. Football is football, and we have a couple 6-Man guys that will be playing a lot for us this year and a couple 8-Man guys, as well. We just want to one, go find good football players, but the important thing is we want really good people and really good students and good students. We get so many of those guys from Montana and they embrace coming over here and embrace playing the Montana teams when we get a chance to do that."
MTN: The smaller-school kids, the 6- and 8-Man kids that come over, what’s the adjustment period like for them that first year?
Stanton: "It takes a while just as far as the different schemes and the things that they have to understand, but one of the things that plays into their advantage is a 6-Man guy, he has to be able to tackle people and he’s done that before. We always point that out to some of our 11-man players and say, ‘This guy had to go out and make a lot of plays. He didn’t get to come out of the game. He was on the kick team and he also had to go tackle people.' We know with those 6-Man players that we’ve had from Montana and the 8-Man players that we’ve had from Montana and all the guys, not just how well-coached they are, but they come in here and adapt very well. It takes a while, but they understand football and play really hard. To me, if you play really hard and do all the right things, you’re going to have a chance to be successful."
MTN: How big a part of the success that you guys have had the last few years is all of the Montana kids coming over?
Stanton: "No question a lot of really good players from Montana. You look at guys on our team right now. Tyger Frye ends up setting our single-season reception record last year, a guy from Billings Senior, and he’s done a great job for us. Blade Miller from West starts for us, Eric Spring from West, guys like Paxton Miller, who’s a 6-Man player from Savage that’s been a big part of it. Last year Jaylen Hendrickson. I could go on and on. They’ve just been a huge part of our success. Guys that you can count on, you can trust. They’re guys that aren’t going to be late for a meeting. They’re guys that aren’t going to be getting in trouble. They’re guys that are just going to come and do the right thing, get on the field and have fun. They represent themselves, their parents and their community very well."
MTN: You just had the interim AD tag recently removed, how hectic has that made life for you?
Stanton: "It’s very busy. It’s extremely busy, but it’s been fun, too. We’re fortunate we have a couple other athletic directors in coach (Kristen) Fluery and Russell McCarvel, who is a Glendive native, that give me a lot of help. I just want to not only see our football program do well, but we want all of our programs at Dickinson State to do well. That’s just been a big part of it, is I just support all the programs. We try to get that connection with so many of our great alumni all throughout the area and through the region. I think of when we go play a football game in Rocky how many Dickinson State fans are there that are alumni in that area. It’s been fun. It’s been a lot of things to do, but it’s a situation, doing the athletic director and coach, yes it’s busy, but there’s something new and fun every day. You never think of it as work. You get here, you do your thing, you get to be around a lot of people, it’s just been a lot of fun."
MTN: You’ve been out here for the past 20 years. Do you see a return to Montana, whether it to be to coach football or track, or just to retire?
Stanton: "Dickinson has been just a great place. It’s a place that, obviously I went to school here. I thought when I left it would be one of the only places at the college level that I’d go back to. I think being in Terry, I’d still be happy if we had a football team in Terry coaching there. I was in Belgrade for two years and enjoyed it there. I planned to be there a long time, but the opportunity came up and went well. Now that I’ve been here for 20 years, it’s just happy to be here. Like I said, it would be different if we were in a place that didn’t care, but so many people here care and the community cares. It’s fun to be a part of, and that’s what it’s about. If you’ve had fun doing it and had some success and like what you’re doing, then just stick to it.?
MTN: So 20 more years here then?
Stanton: "I don’t know about that. I don’t know about that. We’ll see what happens about that. That’s something I don’t even think about, to be honest. How much longer you’re going to go and what you’re going to do, I’m just thinking about what we have to do today, whether it’s in the athletic department or whether it’s in our football program, what do we need to do today so that we can be successful. That’s really a thing that I preach to our guys all the time, too. Being successful is such a process. People want to go out and they want to win championships, and they want to do this looking out at the end of the season, and I think it’s wrong to do. I think it’s got to be a day-by-day thing. There’s going to be some ups and downs, and that’s part of the process, is just grinding through that process and being successful. I take it one day at a time."