By Bruce Sayler
The Frontier Conference men’s basketball plot will certainly thicken if new Montana Tech head coach Adam Hiatt can author an Oredigger turnaround.
A consistently winning program in this century would be novel.
Hiatt will be the latest in a string of Montana Tech mentors to try to write, er, right, the Orediggers to bigger win column numbers. Hiatt was, himself, an All-American college basketball star in NAIA at recent Frontier Conference member Westminster. More recently, he was a successful coach at the Salt Lake City school that left the Frontier after the 2014-15 season for NCAA Division II membership. The Griffins are now in the Rocky Mountain Conference.
Hiatt chose not to go with them and opted to sit out a year waiting for a preferred opportunity to open. He said it did when the Montana Tech vacancy occurred. Hiatt knows patience, but he knows accomplishment as well. His sideline is writing action adventure books. One, “Stone of Truth,” has been published and another, and one he finished and fine-tuned the year off from coaching. It is titled “Shadow Game” and is in the editors’ hands, he said. “You have to do something on those long bus rides,” he reasoned.
The Bonners Ferry, Idaho, native played two years at Westminster after two years at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho. He led both teams in scoring while achieving high postseason honors. Hiatt’s senior season at Westminster, 2003-04, saw him score a school-record 809 points on his way to be becoming the Griffins’ career high-scorer.
He began his coaching career as an assistant at Idaho under George Pfeifer. Prior to entering the college ranks, Pfeifer was a Montana high school coach, who directed the Hardin teams of the early 1980s that featured Jonathan Takes Enemy. Pfeifer also coached Lewis-Clark State of the Frontier Conference before moving on to Idaho.
Hiatt joined his alma mater and his Westminster coach, Tommy Conner, on the Griffins’ bench in 2008, then succeeded him in 2011 when Conner was hired as top assistant by Larry Krystkowiak at Utah. Krystkowiak formerly coached Montana and went on to NBA stints before taking over at Utah. Krystkowiak also played for the Griz and in the NBA. He played high school ball in Shelby and at Missoula Big Sky. So, Hiatt’s hiring is not without Montana connection.
“When I was with coach Conner at Westminster and we’d take those bus trips through Montana, we’d talk about what Montana towns we’d like to live in,” Hiatt said. “I always picked Butte.”
Now, he’s done it for real.
He is bringing his wife of 11 years with him and their four children — two daughters, aged 9 and 4, and two sons, aged 6 and 2. “My family and I are looking forward to being a part of the community,” Hiatt said Wednesday to a group gathered for an on-campus meet-and-greet.
He compiled a 73-48 record in four years at the Westminster helm. His coaching stands third in winning percentage and fourth in victories at the school. His teams went 32-27 in the Frontier Conference. His last team advanced to the NAIA National Tournament.
Athletic Director Chuck Morrell said Hiatt wasn’t necessarily targeted immediately for hire, but that his application came in early and brought high attention from those involved in the search. “He applied early and he was definitely somebody we had our eyes on,” Morrell said. The school did not need to fill the position via a search process that involved public interviews or naming of several finalists, according to an explanation from the state. The nature of it being a non-tenured, year-to-year position is why, the state office said.
Morrell said Montana Tech was seeking a coach who would embrace the academic pursuit of the athletes, would develop the basketball culture and had the ability to adapt to the rigors of Frontier Conference play. Hiatt was unable to recruit less than a 3.5-GPA student under the Westminster requirements, and athletic scholarships to the private school were almost non-existent. He played and coached in the Frontier previously, so has deep familiarity.
“Coach Hiatt has the character and toughness the search committee wanted,” Morrell said. Hiatt said he checked off a lot of boxes when he looked at Montana Tech, meaning there were certain elements he, too, was looking for in his next coaching position. “It’s a chance to be part of another elite academic institution,” he said, ticking off his list. “Great facilities, which can be really important in recruiting student-athletes. The community. My wife and I are both from small towns. Though we’ve been living in Salt Lake City, we’re not city people. “And, it’s an opportunity to build something special.”
Morrell said Hiatt will be paid a yearly salary of $64,000. The hiring remains dependent on Board of Regents approval.
“We need the right type of player,” Hiatt said. “The culture is the identity, what you’re known for. What I want us to be known for is a blue-collar work ethic, toughness, discipline, putting away the me in favor of the we, teamwork — I want us to lead the conference in assist-turnover ratio, effort, preparation, recruits, character, home-court advantage and community service.”
Hiatt said he wants his recruits to be serious about life. He said he wants the home-court advantage to be so important that “teams are going to dread coming to Butte to play.” He said he wants to see so much effort from the players that “we’ll give ourselves a chance to win every night. “I want us to play with joy and passion.”
Hiatt said on KBOW Overtime Wednesday night that his year away from coaching was a kind of sabbatical in which he went to games, visited coaches, assessed players and mostly just learned more about the profession. His travels took him all over the west.
Hiatt is succeeding Patrick O’Herron, who headed the program for three years before Montana Tech announced it would not be renewing his contract. The Orediggers were 8-22 this past season after a winning, 15-13, 2014-15 campaign.
“It’s a tough business,” Hiatt said, also acknowledging that Montana Tech’s academic requirements add to the difficulties of maintaining athletic successes. “A positive is they have diversified the program more. But I think the academics will be one of our strengths (of the players). The (ultimate) right fit is the Division I kid who wants to be an engineer. The kids who are good student-athletes are good for coaching.”
He agreed that the student who is serious about trading athletic talent to the school in exchange for the top-notch education, instead of dreaming about the next level of basketball, would be the ideal recruit for the program he envisions.
Installations are the priority, first, of course. Hiatt had yet to meet his team as of Wednesday, though he acknowledged he has been watching “a lot of” video since applying for the job. “We definitely lost a point guard,” he said, referring to Jalen Coates’ recently announced decision to transfer. “We need shooting. We need depth in the front-court. I don’t know yet what will happen with the rest of the team, either.
“I don’t think we’re that far away (from winning). We need more size. Mostly, we have to really improve our shooting. You see a lot of styles and defenses in the Frontier and so you have to make teams guard the perimeter.”
The coach said he hopes to hire a lead assistant coach soon, and would also like to have a graduate-assistant type of coach on the bench to help with the duties. “A young coach, preferably a recent Montana Tech player,” he said. “And, I’d like to have John Thatcher involved with it, too.”
Hiatt said he is looking for some youth to go with experience for his staff. “Recruiting will be big,” he said. “We’ll need to have the energy and stamina to sell this product.”
Then, the coach and author hopes, a new chapter, maybe even a bestseller, will be written in Montana Tech basketball history.