(Editor's Note: Some dialogue has been omitted for length)
GREAT FALLS-- If you're a coach in Montana, chances are you've come across Don Olsen.
Olsen took over for the late Ralph Halverson as executive director of the Montana Coaches Association in 2013, and he and his wife Marian have been running the association and its annual multi-sport clinic ever since. Don had a lengthy coaching career, mainly in Chinook and Jefferson (Boulder). Two of his most memorable highlights include coaching the Sugarbeeter boys to a state basketball title in 1986, and the girls to a 1994 track and field state title. When he's not busy with the MCA, Don can be seen officiating local prep sports.
MTN Sports sat down with Don and Marian to discuss the MCA Multi-Sport Clinic, Don’s coaching career, and the challenges coaches face.
MTN Sports: What were your overall impressions of this year’s clinic?
Don: I thought the clinic went very well. Again, any time you’re dealing with that many people and that many speakers and that many coaches coming in, there’s always a few hiccups but they were minor and my right-hand person here—a lot of them have to do with registration and things like that—and she does an excellent job with things like that.
Marian: It went great. We have an amazing crew. Once we get to the clinic, everybody knows their job and they jump in and they do their best to keep me in line. It’s an amazing feat that they do at the clinic.
MTN Sports: Can you give me a timeline of how long you two have been in charge of the association?
Don: “We started in 2013, so this would be our seventh clinic. It’s been a fascinating journey. While I’ve been on the coaches association board for a lot of years, I never dreamed that I’d be in this position. In 2013, longtime director Ralph Halverson called me, and we knew his health wasn’t great, and he told us he wouldn’t be able to do it anymore and said, ‘Don, you’re going to have to take over.’ And I started dropping a lot of names as fast as I could, and he listened for a little while, but he was always a difficult gentleman to say no to, and he eventually said—I won’t quote it exactly—but I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it for a year.’ And again, that was seven years ago.
MTN Sports: And so it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.
Don: It has. It’s like any job. You kind of create your own monster. The more you do, the more you’re able to do. And the more respect I have for what Ralph did over the years, and his daughters, and helping him put this together, because it’s one of the best in the nation, without a doubt. He set the bar high, and we’ve tried to continue to keep it there.
MTN Sports: Can you speak to the influence Ralph Halverson had, not only on the clinic, but on the coaching community itself?
Don: I don’t even know how to describe it. When I go to conventions with longtime directors, Ralph’s name comes up quite frequently. The high esteem that he was held with, and continues to be, he was just a professional in all aspects. And he wasn’t a high tech guy. So everything was written in notebooks. He just did a phenomenal job and had a phenomenal memory. He could tell you, when a name would come up, he might be a little upset with that person because they didn’t come to the clinic in 1992, and he would remember that. He was fun to work with, he was great to work for. His life was the coaches association and he did a tremendous job.
MTN Sports: What are the benefits of being in the MCA?
Don: One of the biggest benefits is the contacts you make with your peers. Certainly the clinic itself, there’s things you learn: X’s and O’s, philosophy, things like that. But to be able to rub shoulders with some of the longtime greats. I still remember my first years coming to the clinic and I was just in awe of some of the coaches within the state that you were able to talk to. And they would sit down and they would talk to you and you can’t put a price on that. Like the commercial said, ‘That’s priceless.’
MTN Sports: There were quite a few national coaches of the year from our state this year. How impressive is that to run a ceremony where people are getting recognized on a national level?
Don: It’s very impressive and very humbling at the same time. All three of those coaches would tell you it’s a humbling experience because when you go back to that national convention and you hear those accomplishments of those finalists in each sport, it’s just mind-boggling. The number of wins, the number of years, and the success they have. Every one of our coaches was deserving of that award, because they belong in there with those other seven finalists.
MTN Sports: It seems like every year, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony adds more names that make you say, “I can’t believe they weren’t already there.” What does that say about the coaches we have in Montana?
Don: There’s a lot of coaches that have dedicated their lives to helping young people be better. We can talk about the success on the court, on the football field, on the track, on the wrestling mat. It has more to do with developing relationships with the athletes they’ve had and helping them to be productive members of society and better young men and women than when they came into the program.
Marian: And longevity. That’s really huge with the Hall of Fame. They really devoted their life to it, and it’s great to recognize them for that.
MTN Sports: The guest speakers you guys bring in… pretty impressive resumes on some of them. What does that do for registration and getting people excited to come to the clinic? What have you noticed?
Don: Having a big name is great. And it is a draw, without a doubt. I think some of the higher-profile speakers that we’ve had, and they’ve been outstanding over the years. And while they’re good to listen to and they may be a draw, I’m not sure they always have the most to give to our high school coaches. Dick Vermeil, a couple years ago, was outstanding. As fine a gentlemen you’d ever want to meet. And certainly everything that you read about him is true in a positive way. It was a great presentation. But while it was interesting, I’m not sure how much the football coaches could take back, or any of the coaches could take back and put to work for themselves. But he is a draw. Anytime you have a big name, it is a draw.
You can’t say that’s the case all the time. This year, Kenny Harrison, an Olympic gold-medalist in the triple jump had an outstanding presentation. He had the track coaches out on the track in the 90-plus degree heat, and was demonstrating everything that he thought a high school athlete needed to do to excel in the long and triple jumps. That would vary on the name.
MTN Sports: With new schools coming in — Bozeman, East Helena, Lockwood— what kind of opportunities are new coaches getting in Montana?
Don: I don’t think the opportunity to coach in this state has every been greater than it is now. I don’t know of a school district that is not looking for coaches, and looking for good coaches. With the new schools coming up, that just expands the coaching community and is another great opportunity for that to happen. But whether we’re talking about those larger schools that are splitting or even a small Class C school in rural Montana, every school that I know of and every district I know of is looking for good people to invest in their youth in that community.
Marian: Those people who are willing to do that, it’s a big sacrifice. It pays big benefits but it’s also costly.
MTN Sports: What are some of the challenges that coaches are facing right now?
Don: At national conventions and in our state, dealing with parents is always an issue. A lack of officials for the various sports is an issue. Sometimes we think Montana is isolated and it’s the only place that has those problems, but that’s not true. It’s nationwide. All those issues. Some of those obviously come with the territory and you do the best you can, but I would hope every coach would come in with their eyes open and understand that that just comes with the territory. It’s something that they’re going to have to deal with. That’s the world we live in today.
MTN Sports: Could you give a brief timeline of your coaching career?
Don: I went to Simms High School. Graduated from there in 1969. Went to Western Montana College. That’s where I met my beautiful wife and friend. We were married in 1974, and that same year my first job was out in Ritzville, Washington. I wasn’t planning on leaving the Big Sky Country, but that was the job that came up. And we took that job and it was one of the best moves I ever made. I got to be mentored by a tremendous coach out there by the name of Denny Humphrey. He was a hall-of-fame basketball coach that taught me a lot. I was like a lot of young coaches right out of college, thinking I had most of the answers, but I realized soon I didn’t even know what the questions were. So I benefitted from that and was able to rub shoulders with coaches at Washington State, and just make some really good friends and connections. Then I knew it was time to get back to Montana. In ’79, we moved to Chinook up on the Hi-Line and became a Sugarbeeter. We were there for 20 years. And then in ’99, we moved down to Boulder and were there for nine years.
MTN Sports: What were some of the highlights of your coaching career?
Don: There’s so many. First of all, the relationships that we developed over the years. In Washington, I was just blown away with the quality of basketball. We were a B school there. The Class B in Washington has a 16-team state tournament in the Spokane Coliseum, which is a phenomenal event, it’s every year. And we were fortunate enough to be a part of that tournament for most of the years we were there. Just a remarkable event. Coming to Chinook, when we got there, Chinook hadn’t experienced a lot of success recently. I was fortunate to have some good players and move through. We had a pretty good year that first year, a little down. There was a group of freshmen that came through. I’m going to mention a few names: Matt Molyneaux, Scott Friede, Brad Tilleman, those are names that are familiar to the athletic world here. Bill Nicholson, Sam Sheppard, there were a lot of good ones. They were the first team, when they were seniors, that came within a hairbreadth of making it to the state tournament. To come out of the Northern B, we always felt that if you came out of the Northern B division, you’d probably represent the division well at state. Then a couple years later, in 1986, we were able to do that. I was able to coach some kids who were state champions in basketball, and that was certainly a highlight. In Boulder, the last year there, getting to the state tournament was a tremendous thing. Whether we made it to the state tournament or to the divisional tournament, which we did quite often, it was the relationships over the years that we developed…that we were fortunate to develop.
Marian: I learned early. I watched coaches wives. And I saw that the ones who stayed home were not very happy wives. And so I followed his teams, and I packed up my kids and we went. So I looked forward to tournament every year, our kids grew up in the gym. And that’s a highlight, something that we all loved. And then the relationships too with those kids, and now we’re watching their kids and grandkids play. It’s just good memories. People were good to our family and it was a good life.
MTN Sports: You played football at Western (Montana College) correct?
DON: I went out for football. To say I played might be a little bit of an overstatement. I did go out for spring ball. Sonny Holland was the coach the previous season. There was a new coach that came on named Jim McKeever. I felt I had a decent spring. That following fall, I was working road construction. We were building an interstate from Dillon toward Butte. When football practice started, the money at that time was more attractive than going back to the football program. If I had to do it over, I may make another choice. But that was the choice I made at the time, so I didn’t go back.
MTN Sports: Does playing a college sport or being in that environment have an influence on you later when you become a coach?
I don’t think, whether I played or whether I didn’t play in college, I don’t think that’s as big an influence as your high school experience was. Those high school coaches are working with young people during the most formative years of their life. There was a quote by Billy Graham, and we have a poster of it, that says, ‘A coach affects more lives in a single year than the average person does in a lifetime.’ And I think most of those influences, the most critical influences happen during the high school years.
MTN Sports: It seems like you got lucky, Don, but what makes a good coaching spouse?
Don: The support that she has shown over the years by making an effort to go to those events and be there, even though it’s not always a lot of fun. I know it’s hard to believe but occasionally someone in the stands questions the coach. Not only what they’re doing at the time, but their intelligence and their ancestry as well. A coach has to have a thick skin, but so does a coach’s wife, maybe even more-so to be able to sit in the stands and here some of those things. And also being at home knowing that dad’s not going to be home for supper. He’s going to be late. He’s going to be gone early in the morning. For her, or any coach’s wife, that’s a sacrifice. I appreciate it a lot.
Marian: It’s comical because I grew up in a totally non-athletic family, and so I was probably the most ignorant person in the stands. And that was to my benefit, because when people had questions about why he did something, I didn’t know that he did it. It was good. One of the things that Don did that made it really workable for our family is, he had a very short lunch hour, but he always came home for lunch. We didn’t ever get breakfast together and sometimes not supper, but we always had a quick sandwich together at noon. It would’ve been easier for him to stay at school, but he made that priority for us. I was a little jealous when the kids got older and they decided they wanted to come home for lunch too, because I didn’t get him to myself, but that was a good thing.
MTN Sports: You mentioned some difficulties coaches face right now, but what advice do you have for young coaches or officials looking to get into the profession?
Don: While they’re issues that you have to deal with, those are minor. That is not why you get in the coaching profession. You get in the coaching profession because, number one, you want to have a positive influence on the young people. And the second thing is the love of the sport you’re coaching. Especially in the smaller schools, you may be coaching more than one sport, and the second sport may not be your favorite. But that competition, if you’re a competitor, maybe that allows you to pretend you’re a high school kid again and experience the adrenaline rush of the competition, regardless of whether it’s football, basketball, wrestling, track and field, swimming, whatever it is. That you enjoy the thrill of victory. Maybe not so much the agony of defeat, but you also understand how to deal with that. Being able to do that is just a lot of fun.
As far as officials in the state, the shortage of officials, not in every sport, but in many of the sports. I know from speaking to different officials in different pools. I can speak to football because that’s what I’m doing now. None of us in the football pool are getting any younger, and it’s very difficult , it seems like, to recruit some of the younger people to take that up. And I understand that. When you’re a young man, you’re raising a family, working a job about 40 hours a week. Working five days a week, then you come home, then as an official you just say goodbye because you’ve got a game that night, or a game on Saturday or Monday night, and what time then do you spend with your family? If they choose to spend that time with family, that’s the right choice.
MTN Sports: Are there any solutions to these challenges facing coaches and officials, or are you doing any outreach to increase recruiting to people interested in taking that next step?
Don: I think we’re always interested and encouraging. I’m not the only one that does this, but any coach or previous coach that sees a young person that is interested in the game, has a heart for people, has a heart for youth, and a heart for the game, that’s an opportunity to jump in and make a difference. And I think that’s what coaching is all about. Making a difference.