By JOEL CARLSON
MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION
For 38 years, the players who have made up Montana’s women’s basketball teams have given their longtime coach the best they had. After nearly four decades of giving them the same in return, Robin Selvig is longer convinced he can keep it up.
The coach who won 865 games and built the Lady Griz into one of the most consistently successful programs in the nation, announced his retirement on Wednesday afternoon.
Befitting a man who, because of his program’s success, was always in the spotlight — but never needed it nor ever sought it out — he has no desire to take a season-long swan-song tour around the Big Sky Conference, no need for a winter of endless eulogies. His final day in the office will be Aug. 31.
As hard as it is to believe, Selvig, who went from late-70s pioneer to legend over the course of his career; who became synonymous with the Lady Griz and was the department’s reliable presence as other high-profile coaches came and went, has coached his final game at Montana.
The sands of time stop for no one. Not even giants of their profession.
“Over 38 years, there weren’t many days I wasn’t excited to come to work, but I’ve started to lose that excitement,” said Selvig, who turns 64 next month. “The players have always given me their best. When you wear down a little, you start to wonder: Can I still give them my best?
“I don’t like that question, and I don’t like that feeling. I don’t like not being fired up for next year. The players deserve me at my best, and I don’t know if I have the energy to keep doing it. There are mixed feelings, but I think the time is right.”
The search for Selvig’s replacement — it is the school’s first job opening for a head women’s basketball coach since 1978 — is underway.
Selvig, a unique combination of sideline passion and histrionics and off-the-court modesty and caring, was at the top of his profession for 38 years, and the sport of women’s basketball, the University of Montana and the dozens of players who worked their way through his program were the beneficiaries.
His teams produced 36 winning seasons, 31 20-win campaigns, 24 conference championships and 21 NCAA tournament appearances. Twenty-one times Selvig was voted by his peers as his conference’s coach of the year.
Under Selvig, Montana was dominant across three different leagues — first the Northwest Women’s Basketball League, then the Mountain West Conference, then the Big Sky Conference –and those teams turned Missoula and Dahlberg Arena into places no opposing school wanted to visit.
Playing in front of some of the nation’s most dedicated fans, Montana went 511-61 (.893) at Dahlberg Arena with Selvig as coach. Winning begat a following, which led to more success, which produced an even larger fan base. It was a mutual love affair, the result the envy of nearly every opposing team.
In all, there have been nearly 150 letter winners, some separated by nearly 40 years, but with Selvig as godfather they are all part of the same sisterhood, from his first team’s leading scorer — Linda Deden Smith — to his final team’s — Kayleigh Valley And all the players in between, from starter to reserve.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate to experience the things I have with the people I have. I’ve been blessed,” Selvig said. “Your lives become intertwined, and that’s what makes it a family. You’re invested not only in coaching them, you’re invested in them when lots of things are going on in their lives.
“Those relationships are as special to me as anything. What we shared will never change or be taken away from us. Sharing young women’s lives for four or five years, that’s where the rewards come from. I’ve been lucky I got to share that with them. It’s been special.”
Selvig, a four-year member of the Griz men’s basketball team in the early 70s, was hired by Montana in the summer of 1978, at the age of 25, after coaching high school girls’ basketball in Plentywood for three years following graduation.
He arrived six years after the passage of Title IX, when the effects of that federal legislation finally started trickling down to college athletics.
Taking over a program that had won 11 games the previous two seasons, when it still operated more as a club sport within the physical education department, Selvig got to work building what would become a dynasty.
He would give all the credit for Montana’s success to the players who passed through his program. They would shake their heads and say it was mostly about him. Instead, they did it together, winning six NCAA tournament games, playing in 27, and putting Montana on the women’s basketball map.
In 2005, validation: Street and Smith’s ranked the Lady Griz No. 7 on its list of the Greatest College Basketball Programs of All Time, behind Tennessee, Connecticut and Stanford, among others. When that’s the company you keep, and you’ve done it at Montana, you’ve accomplished something special.
Selvig did it — he would probably say because of it — with loyal assistants at his side, all of whom played for him, which made the family even tighter. Annette Rocheleau spent 32 years on Selvig’s staff before retiring three years ago. Shannon Schweyen just finished her 24th year, Trish Duce her 22nd.
And while Selvig may have, as he says, finally burned out, he leaves his successor a healthy program. His last four teams, after all, combined to win 91 games. But the work required to maintain that success finally became too much. Because it’s so much more than just practices and games.
“This has nothing to do with the players. They’ve always been great and fun to be around. That’s what I’m going to miss. But every job has its good parts and bad parts, and the bad parts started outweighing the good,” he said.
“I would feel guilty if I couldn’t look the girls in the eye because I knew I wasn’t able to give them my best.”
He admits he’s a bit anxious for what life has in store for him going forward, “because for 41 years I’ve been a coach. That’s been my identity,” he says. He’ll go from coach to full-time husband of faithful wife Janie and father of two, but all those former players, those bonds, will never go away.
That transition will start soon, when he turns his attention from his Lady Griz family fully to his own, something coaching — with its expectations of always being there for others, its months of road trips, its growing calendar of commitments — never allowed him to do.
His son Dan is in his third year of residency in San Francisco. His other son, Jeff, along with wife Mariana and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Sofia, live in California and are moving from Venice Beach to Thousand Oaks next month, right about the time classes are starting at Montana.
“I look forward to being able to see my boys and my granddaughter a little more. At the end of August, Jeff and his family are moving, and we’re going down to help out. We’ll babysit Sofia. Maybe paint a wall or two. If I was coaching, I wouldn’t be doing that,” he said, with relief, no longer sadness, in his voice.
Just know this: He’s a Lady Griz for life. He’ll still go to the games, though he’ll sit high up in the stands, partly to conceal his yelling, mostly to give the new coach the distance they need to start their own legacy. He may not be involved, but the investment is still there, too much to ever fully withdraw.
Selvig was often asked over the years, as most longtime coaches frequently are, to reflect on everything he’s seen, everything he’s experienced. What was his most memorable game? Who was his best player? Can he talk about everything his program has accomplished for a 30-second sound bite?
And he answered just like every other coach has responded to the same line of questioning. I’m only concerned about this year’s team and what we have to do to be our best. I don’t have time to reminisce. Maybe when it’s all over.
That time has finally arrived. Robin Selvig, after giving 38 years of his life to Montana and the Lady Griz, will finally have a chance to sit down and take a breath, to mentally rewind and play back nearly four decades of memories, from where it started to where it ended, and all the moments in between.
When he does, maybe he’ll finally understand what all the fuss has been about. Maybe he’ll see what we see as we watch him ride off into the sunset after putting an end to a Hall of Fame-worthy career: There goes one of the best coaches who ever lived.