Last Wednesday, word spread of the passing of Sam Jankovich, the former Butte High football coach who went on to national prominence.
Three days later, we lost John “Hoot” Gibson.
It seems almost unfathomable for a town to lose two legendary figures in such a short span. It also seems so unfair.
“Legend” truly is the best way to describe Jankovich and Hoot. They are two men whose names will be mentioned around here for years to come.
The two men were very different, yet they are so similar in that respect.
No other town could turn out the likes of Jankovich and Hoot, and no two men embody their hometown more than them.
Jankovich first made a name for himself as an athlete for the Bulldogs, captaining the 1951 state championship football team. A decade later, he won the first of his two state titles while coaching the Bulldogs.
After four years roaming the sidelines of Naranche Stadium, Jankovich moved on and became a household name well beyond the Mining City.
Jankovich is arguably the most successful sports figure the town ever produced. That is saying something, too, since Butte also turned out Sonny Lubick, Sonny Holland, Bob O’Billovich and Jim Sweeney, just to name a few.
Jankovich put the sports programs at Washington State and the University of Miami on the map.
He was the man who built “The U.” As the athletic director, Jankovich oversaw three Miami football championships under three different coaches — Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.
He is responsible for the making of two 30 for 30 documentaries on “The U.”
He was so successful in Miami that Victor Kiam — the man who liked Remington razors so much he bought the company — hired Jankovich to run the New England Patriots.
Through it all, Jankovich was always a Bulldog and a Butte rat at heart.
He said just that when he made what was his last public appearance in his hometown on a Sunday afternoon in March of 2018. The night before, Jankovich was enshrined in the Montana Football Hall of Fame in Billings.
“The best job I ever had was coaching Butte High,” Jankovich said at a gathering he put together so he could thank his supporters in Butte. “I wouldn’t change that experience for anything.”
A look into his eyes told you he was telling the truth.
Jankovich credited growing up in the Mining City for turning him into the man he was.
“There’s no way you can grow up in this setting and not be a better person,” he said. “You can take the man out of Butte, but you can’t take Butte out of the man.”
Gibson was a man who should be the subject of a 30 for 30, or maybe even a major motion picture.
For so many years, the simple mention of the name “Hoot” would strike fear into even the toughest men. For decades, Hoot held the unofficial title as toughest man in the toughest town.
His fighting record is one of legend, yet it seems hard to believe for those who met him over the last couple of decades. To those who knew him, Hoot was the nicest man they knew.
It does not seem possible such a sweet man could have ever thrown a punch, yet scores of old timers would certainly beg to differ.
Without question, Hoot’s legacy will be about fighting — fighting for people who cannot necessarily fight for themselves, that is.
Hoot is, after all, the founding father of the Butte Wrestling Club, which was so instrumental in all those wrestling titles at Butte High and the one at Butte Central.
He helped bring local, state and national tournaments to Butte, and he was known for taking on every possible duty to make sure the tournaments were put on in a true first-class manor.
He routinely helped raise money for young wrestlers to travel to regional and national tournaments they could have never gone to otherwise.
When the Montana East-West Shrine Game came to town in 2010, Hoot was one of the most instrumental men in making sure the event was a huge success, and he was not even a Shriner.
That year alone, he sold more than $20,000 in advertising for the game. He even sold a program ad for the Montana game while attending the NCAA Wrestling Tournament in Omaha, Nebraska.
Bruce Sayler, who used his power as sports editor of The Montana Standard to get Hoot press credentials for the NCAA Tournament and for one tournament in Bulgaria, said it best in explaining Hoot’s unreal ability to raise money to help others.
“People loved Hoot,” Bruce said, “and those who didn’t were afraid to say ‘no’ to him.”
Jankovich was enshrined into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame in 1991.
He was the first coach in Butte High history to lead to state championship seasons in which the Bulldogs were unbeaten and untied.
He was known for being tough on his players.
As Jankovich, then 83, wore a walking boot and moved with the help of a walker last March, he joked how some of his players would love to get a look at him suffering in pain.
“If I was coaching today,” Jankovich joked, “I’d probably be in prison.”
Most of those players, however, will tell you that they loved Jankovich. They knew he made them tougher than their opponent.
Hoot was also tough. He was so tough that he survived a fall of more than 60 feet while working on his 50th birthday.
His biggest soft spot was for others, so much so that his life was dedicated to it. He was like Moonlight Gram, though he might punch your lights out.
He should have been inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame years ago for his selfless work that contributed to success for so many young athletes.
Hoot took joy from seeing others find success, even if he did not know their name. He cheered for the Butte High Bulldogs at wrestling meets, but appreciated the accomplishments of any wrestler he watched.
And if he could raise a few bucks to help any of them, he did it without hesitation.
Over a span of four days, the Mining City lost Sam Jankovich and Hoot Gibson. They are two men who helped make Butte what it was yesterday and what it is today.
Their legends will live on forever.
— Bill Foley, who couldn’t survive a fall of 6 feet, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Check out his NFL picks every Thursday. 2 comments