Don’t pull the rug out on coaches after three years

Don’t pull the rug out on coaches after three years

Saturday marked the 34th anniversary of Butte Central’s boys’ basketball team winning the Class A state championship.

The Maroons beat Billings Central in a 76-73 overtime thriller at the Butte Civic Center.

This coming Saturday is another day we should remember. It will be the 34th anniversary of the great Mickey Tuttle sitting on the rim at Adams Fieldhouse in Missoula after his Bulldogs beat Great Falls High 53-50 in the championship game of the Class AA State tournament.

That win, by the way, is why we have a parade in Uptown Butte every March 17. Some people don’t realize that.

The anniversary of the team we should be focusing on, however, is the 2002-03 Butte High boys’ basketball team. The 15-year anniversary of those Bulldogs’ losing out in the playoffs passed without a mention on Feb. 24.

That is the team that should forever remind us to never get rid of a coach after three seasons.

At Butte High, we currently have two basketball coaches who just finished their third season at the helm of the Bulldogs. So far, neither of these coaches has taken the team to the state tournament — yet — and that isn’t sitting very well with some of the fans who think they have power.

Some fans and boosters have even been mumbling that they would like Butte High boys’ coach Luke Powers gone.

That this nonsense isn’t coming from the activities director who is his paid to make those kind of decisions shouldn’t give you too much comfort.

Such whispers about a program can do a ton of damage, even if the coach isn’t fired.

Sure, the Bulldogs went 3-17 this season. That includes two losses at the Eastern AA Divisional tournament in Butte.

If you are judging purely on the record, you would say that the Bulldogs had a horrible season.

We don’t, however, live in a world of black and white. If you watched the Bulldogs this season, you notice they only had one senior go out for the team.

You’d also notice that, judging by the size of the competition, too many of the Bulldog players met the height requirements of the Lollipop Guild. All those 6-foot-10 players dunking so easily at the Richardson Gym during the divisional tournament were not wearing Butte High uniforms.

If you really paid attention, you would know that the Bulldogs were a fun team to watch all season long, especially when Butte High upset Bozeman, the eventual state tournament runner up.

You also noticed that, like the first two years under Powers, the Bulldogs got better as the season went along.

That’s where the 2003 team comes in.

That year, Butte High placed seventh out of seven in the Western AA. They then went to Missoula Hellgate for the “Toilet Bowl” matchup of the Western AA playoffs between the Nos. 6 and 7 teams.

Butte High fell 49-48 on a controversial ending.

In the weeks following that tough defeat, the calls came to fire coach John Thatcher.

His 6-15 record and a third-straight losing season just wasn’t good enough. Plus, some on the school board didn’t like the way Thatcher coached — even though he was coaching exactly the way they hired him to coach three years earlier.

Thatcher was brought in because Butte High wanted a coach who wouldn’t be pushed around by parents, then he was on the chopping block because he wouldn’t be pushed around by parents.

Butte High’s record stunk that year, but the Bulldogs didn’t. Every loss, it seemed, was a heartbreaker. The Bulldogs had a chance to win about 10 more games, but they couldn’t get the shot to fall when they needed it.

Like the 2017-18 Bulldogs, Butte High’s 2002-03 team got better every week.

Nobody liked playing the Bulldogs because they took everybody to the limit. They also exposed a lot of weaknesses of their opponents.

Still, Thatcher was nearly a goner a few weeks after his third season ended, even though he had the full support from the AD.

Butte High’s players went door to door to ask their school board members to keep their coach, and after a crowded, tear-filled (not by Thatcher) school board meeting, the players got their wish.

The next year, Butte High was in the state championship game with Thatcher on the bench.

That weekend, Downtown Missoula looked like Uptown Butte on St. Patrick’s Day. Butte High’s crowd dwarfed Bozeman’s as the Bulldogs beat Bozeman 58-52 in the 2 p.m. game on Thursday.

By Friday night, half the Fieldhouse in Missoula, by then renamed the Adams Center, was full of Butte High fans as the Bulldogs knocked off Billings West 40-35.

On Saturday night, the arena was filled to the rim, and other than a small strip of Great Falls Russell fans, the place was a sea of purple.

The Rustlers beat Butte High 53-45 that night, but tournament still ranks as one of the best things I have seen as a sportswriter.

When I see Colt Anderson, I don’t immediately think about his days with the Eagles, Colts and Bills. I remember him first as shut-down defensive guard for the 2003-04 Bulldogs.

That was the beginning of a great run for Butte High basketball.

The 2005-06 team was Thatcher’s best, and, in my opinion, the Bulldogs would have won the state title that year if it wasn’t for a cheap shot taking out Tyler Gilder in the tournament opener.

Butte High was back in the title game in 2007, this time losing to Billings West in front of huge Butte crowd in Billings.

Four five or six years, the Bulldogs were the best show in town. The Civic Center was packed for every home game, and Thatcher’s teams usually made sure the crowd went home happy.

Had the school board went through with their plan to pull the rug out from under Thatcher in the spring of 2003, all of that fun might not have happened.

Powers is the fourth coach to lead the Butte High boys since Thatcher retired after the 2010 season, and he is the only coach who lasted more than two years.

No matter the sport and no matter the level, changing coaches all the time doesn’t lead to success. Just look at the Raiders and Browns.

A high school coach should be guaranteed at least four years, if not more, to build a program. Realistically, the coach should get six years, but we don’t live in realistic times.

During the 2018-19 basketball season, the Butte High boys’ and girls’ programs will have something they haven’t had in several years. They’ll both have good numbers in all four classes.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the beginning of a program. In the Class AA, you don’t generally go to state tournaments without a solid senior class. For instance, this year’s state boys’ champion, CMR, had eight seniors on its roster.

Next year, Butte High’s boys’ and girls’ teams will have a great shot at going to the state and competing once they are there.

Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll mark the anniversary of one of those 2018-19 teams winning it all.

If you’re willing to pull the plug on either coach after three seasons, though, it wouldn’t be a good idea to start making any plans for a parade.

— Bill Foley, who loves a good parade more than most, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on Email him at Follow him at

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