The indoor track on the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse floor was still a homecourt advantage for Rob Stark.
Sunday found the former University of Montana athlete and Montana State University coach shaking hands and conversing with those who had entered the Bozeman venue to tour the Southwest Montana Building Industry Association trade show.
“You know, I think Pat Donovan was Montana’s best athlete,” Stark said from his motorized cart, his mode of movement since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis some 25 years ago. “What do you think?”
Stark wasn’t bad himself. After starring in everything at Polson High School before graduation in 1970, Stark went on to a standout football and track career at UM. He was one of the toughest 400-meter intermediate hurdlers in the school’s history, and played safety well enough to earn an invitation to Green Bay Packers summer camp.
He was academically strong as well. Being on the same UM campus those same years I remember Stark as not only being a really nice guy, but a great magician as well. Hanging out in the lobby of Aber Hall one day, I was talking to some of the young women who lived in the dorm when Stark walked in through the south door that faced the University Center. With the movie star looks Stark possessed, he made me — and all the other guys in the lobby — disappear with a simple smile. We were suddenly invisible to every young lady at the scene.
Tournament month as been good for reminiscing, though sad with a good-bye or two as well. I talked to Stark and another Grizzly-Bobcat vet, Brad Huse, who has Oredigger beginnings. Also, I had the chance to chat with pure Griz Bill Schwanke.
Stark didn’t make the Packers roster in 1974, but he knew first-hand the athletic prowess of Donovan. They were contemporaries. Donovan competed for Helena Cathedral until the school closed as Helena Central, then moved into Helena High and helped the Bengals to the state Class AA basketball championship in 1971. Donovan went on to play on the Stanford defensive line in college football before having a long NFL career as a starting offensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys.
Anyway, Stark came back to UM and helped coached Grizzly track with Butte native Harley Lewis before taking over the Montana women’s track program in 1975. A year later, Stark was named head coach of the Montana State men’s track team in 1976 and held the position until retiring in 2000. He is, however, a frequent site on the MSU campus and still wears the smile as much as he does his ball cap.
His MSU track teams were a construction job, but he took the Bobcats from the dungeon of the Big Sky Conference to respectful contention, including a runner-up performance one year. His successor, Dale Kennedy, has taken the baton and run with it. Bobcat track is pretty good.
“Roy Robinson,” Stark said, smiling and shaking his head as he and I reminisced about the sports glory days of decades ago in Montana. “To be that good in two sports. Wow.”
He also talked about the 2012 Butte High-Bozeman championship football game in Class AA, and his dislike of traveling teams for youth sports.
“What an ending to a game,” he said about the Jake Dennehy field goal that secured the Bulldogs’ crown at Naranche Stadium. “You know, I’ve always thought Butte has had the best people.”
The sports world might never have met Rob Stark if traveling teams had been around 50 years ago. It would have been a shame.
“If you don’t have the money, you don’t get to play,” he said with sadness on his face. “It’s too expensive and that’s wrong. Sports used to be a way the poorer kids could compete with the richer ones. Sports leveled the field.
“My dad was a school teacher. There were 10 kids in my family. Summer came and we went to work. There was no playing any sports then.”
Stark asked about retired Montana Standard sports editor Hudson Willse and about the Butte sports scene, making it a point to mention Butte High football coach Arie Grey, who Stark coached in track at Montana State. He likes that Grey is the Bulldog coach because, as Stark said, there was a time that Butte coaching jobs were the best ones to have in the state.
“I always knew he’d do a good job,” Stark said.
Huse was in Butte to watch his sons play for Bozeman in the state Class AA basketball tournament a couple weekends ago. Adam Huse, a 6-foot senior guard, was a star on the team.
“He’s kind of a late-bloomer, kind of like me and my brother, Shawn,” Brad Huse said. “We were like that.”
If they’d bloomed any sooner for Missoula Big Sky when they were in high school, Brad and Shawn Huse (current Montana State-Northern coach) might have played college ball someplace else other than Montana Tech. They were big scorers for the Orediggers. Brad Huse is investigating all options for his son, while also mapping the path for his other boy, Drew, a sophomore.
“Adam will play somewhere next year,” Brad Huse said. “We just don’t know where yet.”
An interesting tribute moment prior to the consolation final of the state tournament came in the introduction of players. The format calls for the players to be introduced in alternating fashion, one from one team, then one from the other and so forth.
Adam Huse was the first Bozeman player introduced and waited at midcourt to shake hands with the first Missoula Hellgate player to be introduced. It turned out to be Tres Tinkle. They’d been boyhood friends as their dads were assistant coaches under Larry Krystkowiak at Montana. When Krystkowiak left in 2006 for an NBA job, Tinkle’s father, Wayne, was promoted to head coach, and Huse moved on to MSU to take the Bobcat reins from retiring MSU coach Mick Durham.
Tinkle enjoyed such a good stint with the Grizzlies that he was tapped to replace President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, as the head coach at Oregon State. Tres Tinkle will play for his dad there. Brad Huse produced double-digit numbers of victories every year he helmed the Montana State program, through 2013-14. He left the job and the Bobcats averaged 1.4 wins a month this last season.
When my wife met Schwanke she gave him an accusatory look from across the table at a football banquet in Helena and said, “So it is you that I have to blame.”
“Grizzly Bill” Schwanke was known as well as any sports reporter in the state when he called the Jud Heathcote-coached Montana basketball teams for KYLT Radio in Missoula in the 1970s. So, when I was asked to do stats for him and under his NCAA tutelage for a couple of broadcasts while I was still in school, I jumped at it. I really wanted to do this for a career, but needed to know if it was going to happen for me.
So, in the spring of 1973, I traveled with then UM sports information director George Fultz to the Big Sky Conference track meet in Moscow, Idaho. I was reporting for the campus newspaper, the Montana Kaimin and Fultz was stringing for the Missoulian newspaper. University of Idaho classes were out for the year and so I splurged on the tiny expense money The Kaimin could afford and stayed in a dorm two nights, $3 each night.
It wasn’t just track we were there to cover. Conference golf and tennis championships were also being decided. All events were basically on the UI campus, but it was a lot of ground to cover, especially for events that went two days, all day long.
I met up with Fultz and Schwanke, who had made the trip for his radio position, at the tennis courts and we decided to divvy up the assignments. Schwanke took the golf, Fultz went over to the track and they gave me the tennis. Golf and tennis coverage meant we hand-copied all results off the leaderboard and bracket postings.
Schwanke and I then went over to the track and met Fultz and we all pitched in on the several events of that competition. We traded back and forth what we had, shared information and passed along tips.
The days were long and a little stressful. This then-20-year-old was having a blast.
I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Schwanke has been a UM sports publicist and he had been the sports editor at the Missoulian right out of university. He then switched over to radio and through the years has kept up with the changes. He has worked for a number of radio stations, gone back to the paper and done some work and has even reported in the more modern online media products. He spent a little time as an assistant athletic director at UM, too.
However, for years in MIssoula, including the whole time I worked for the Kaimin, and later at the Missoulian, Schwanke was Grizzly Bill and a popular personality in Missoula. He also announced the American Legion baseball games over the P.A. at Campbell Park, which has since been turned into a soccer stadium for the UM women’s team.
He encouraged me in pursuit of my career so many times.
Schwanke, too, was at the state AA tourney in Butte a couple weekends. It was his last tournament, he said.
“Tired of packing this equipment around, more than anything, I guess,” he said after pulling out a chair and sitting next to me for a short time on press row at the Civic Center. “Six decades is long enough — especially doing it for six decades and I’m not even 70 yet.”
He looked good and happy. It’s a microphone going quiet, though, that will be a loss to Montana sports fans. I truly hope he enjoys a nice, long retirement.
Bill Schwanke cannot possibly know how many people he inspired to play football, basketball, go to school, go to games, root for their schools — or encourage in their chosen work, even sports reporting.
He’ll miss it, inside the sports scene, I think.
It might miss him more, though.
— Bruce Sayler has covered sports in Butte and Montana for nearly four decades. Follow him on Twitter.