As soon as I looked at the Butte Sports Hall of Fame plaque for the 1991 Butte High football team, I knew I had made a major goof.
Assistant coach Dan Lean jumped off the picture at me the split second I pulled the plaque out of the bubble wrap.
Right there in the front row of the team photo was Mr. Lean, and he was sitting next to head coach Jon McElroy. When I saw Mr. Lean, I started to panic.
It was two days before my first induction ceremony as executive director of the Hall Fame, and I had already blown it.
The list of assistant coaches on the 1991 state championship team that I had, for some reason, didn’t have Mr. Lean’s name.
There was not enough time to have another plaque made before the banquet, and I was kicking myself because I should have known better.
Of course Mr. Lean was an assistant on that team. Of course he was. That’s what he did.
And he did it well.
He was the consummate assistant coach behind so many great Butte High teams.
Mr. Lean, who passed away following a tragic accident last week, coached alongside McElroy for his entire 18 years as head football coach at Butte High. That included 118 wins and three state championships.
He was there to assist Pat Foley for all 161 wins of his 12 years as leader of the Bulldog boys’ basketball team. Mr. Lean was an assistant during the 1984 state championship season. He was part of the 1988-89 and 1989-90 teams that lost three games in two seasons.
“Everything we accomplished he deserves as much credit as I do,” Pat Foley says. “He used to give me tips on the bench, and I very seldom went against it.”
McElroy says Mr. Lean was a positive influence on the players and his fellow coaches.
“He was fair and honest with the kids,” McElroy says. “He treated one kid just like he did the other kid. He was a good coach and a good guy, and most importantly, he was a good friend.”
I never played for Mr. Lean, but he was one of the best teachers I ever had. I had him for trigonometry my junior year at Butte High School, and I quickly learned to appreciate his fair and straight-forward approach to the classroom.
You did your homework in Mr. Lean’s class because, well, you had to. There was no detention for failing to turn in an assignment, but you would lose five points off the next test for every homework assignment you didn’t complete.
The key to math — at least for knuckleheads like me — is doing the homework.
I learned trigonometry so well from Mr. Lean that my college trig class was the easiest ‘A’ I ever earned, and I am far from a math whiz.
One of the first things I quickly noticed about Mr. Lean as a teacher was that the chair to his desk was almost completely unnecessary. He stood in front of the class and taught trigonometry from the second the students were seated until the bell rang.
To say Mr. Lean wasn’t flashy would be a major understatement. He was so monotone that I swear you could hear call for Ferris Bueller at the beginning of every class, and the 55-minute period sometimes seemed like 6 hours.
It is also an understatement to say that the tax payers — and students who wanted to learn — got every penny’s worth when it came to Mr. Lean.
“He was an amazing person,” Foley says. “He was a worker. That’s what he was. He was a worker. He just taught and taught.”
Whether he was in the classroom, on the court or on the field, Mr. Lean was a teacher. He made the students, athletes and fellow coaches better.
He was also a contributor for the Bulldogs on the track.
“He never coached track, but he helped at every track meet,” longtime Bulldog track coach Charlie Merrifield says. “He was there at every meet. He was a head of the finish line.”
Getting inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame was old hat to Mr. Lean. His selection with the 1991 football team was at least his fourth trip into the Hall.
He went in with the 1977 and 1981 Butte High state champion football teams and the 1984 Bulldogs basketball team.
Mr. Lean never had the honor of becoming an individual inductee like McElroy, Foley and Merrifield, but he certainly helped many players and coaches get fitted for their Green Jacket.
His contribution wasn’t always celebrated, but it was recognized. Even more, Mr. Lean was known for his friendship.
“He was a good man,” McElroy says. “He was one of those guys who was a good friend. That’s the important thing. He is going to be really hard to replace as a friend.”
Foley also coached with Mr. Lean when they were both assistants under Larry Ferguson. He says in all the years with Mr. Lean, he can’t remember a single fight.
“He was a really good friend to me. We were really close,” Foley says. “I am so brokenhearted.”
The last time I saw Mr. Lean was, fittingly, at Butte High School. It was five days before he died, and Mr. Lean was at the school to watch his grandson wrestle and to support the Bulldogs.
I’m so glad I went out of my way to shake his hand. “Hi Mr. Lean, the Bulldogs look pretty good today,” I said.
Butte High had just beaten up on Kalispell Glacier, and the Bulldogs were getting ready to take on defending Class AA state champion Kalispell Flathead.
“Yeah,” Mr. Lean said with a laugh. “We’re going to see just how good in a minute.”
When I learned of Mr. Lean’s untimely death, forgetting his plaque was not the first thing I thought of. Instead, I remembered how he laughed as I profusely apologized to him in the minutes leading up to the banquet.
That’s when I realized my panic was all for nothing.
Mr. Lean didn’t care one bit that he had to wait a couple of weeks for the plague with his name on it. He didn’t dedicate his life to teaching and coaching because he wanted Hall of Fame plaques.
He did it because, well, that’s just what he did.
— Bill Foley writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74