End of and Era: Annette Rocheleau Hanging up Her Whistle

By JOEL CARLSON for GoGriz.com

The nation’s most experienced women’s basketball coaching staff is breaking up. Annette Rocheleau, who has been with longtime Montana coach Robin Selvig as a player or assistant coach for all but 13 of Selvig’s 798 career wins, has announced her decision to retire.

Rocheleau won’t officially retire until Dec. 31, but over the next six months she will be performing other duties for the program while transitioning out of her hands-on coaching role.

She won’t be on the floor when the team opens practice in early October and won’t be on the bench when the team begins its season Nov. 10 at home against MSU Northern.

Annette Rocheleau

Annette Whitaker Rocheleau

Rocheleau joined the Lady Griz as a transfer in 1979-80, Selvig’s second season at Montana. After playing for two years, Rocheleau became Selvig’s part-time assistant and junior varsity coach. She moved into a full-time coaching position in September 1983.

Selvig completed his 35th season at Montana last winter. Thirty-four of those involved Rocheleau, two as a player, 32 as an assistant. She was at Selvig’s side for all 20 of the program’s NCAA tournament appearances and was a player or assistant coach for all 23 regular-season conference championships.

“It’s never a good time to leave,” Rocheleau said. “I’m bummed I’m not going to be able to coach the kids we have coming in, and I love all the girls we have coming back, but if you are going to look at that every year, you’ll never find a good time to step away.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but her swan song turned out to be a memorable season. Montana won 24 games last year, the most since 2008-09, and the Lady Griz won the Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament championships.

Rocheleau’s final game with Selvig and the Lady Griz turned out to be Montana’s NCAA tournament game against Georgia in March in Spokane.

“I feel good about my decision,” Rocheleau said. “I’m getting out at a good time. Everything is going awesome. It’s just hard to say goodbye to something that’s been a part of your life for so long.”

The genesis of her retirement plans began, of all places, in Grand Forks, N.D., in early February and came to a head in early March when Montana was on the Northern Arizona-Sacramento State road trip. While she was on the road, Rocheleau’s husband, Kevin, and son, Ty, were at the state basketball tournament in Great Falls.

“I looked at (Lady Griz radio color commentator) Dick (Slater) and said, ‘What am I going to do in the next couple of years if Ty is playing in the state tournament and I’m sitting in Grand Forks?’ ”

It wasn’t a hard sell to convince Selvig, who helped raise two sons while facing the demands of being a Division I basketball coach. “About February every year, every coach in the country thinks, Why am I doing this? Annette has a family, and you miss a lot of things when you’re a coach,” he said.

“She’s got a daughter who is on the Montana soccer team and a son in high school. Her husband retired last year, and at some point you start to weigh things out.”

Despite Rocheleau’s departure, Selvig will still retain an experienced staff going forward. Assistant coach Shannon Schweyen will be in her 22nd year next winter, Trish Duce will be in her 20th. Rocheleau’s position will not be filled until after next season.

Not surprisingly, the winningest coaches in the game have all enjoyed the loyalty of a faithful assistant. Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (894 wins) has had Amy Tucker at her side the last 28 seasons, the same length of time Chris Dailey has been on the staff of Geno Auriemma (839 wins) at Connecticut.

Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont., December 6th, 2012.

The winningest active coach in Division I women’s basketball, Sylvia Hatchell (908 wins) of North Carolina, has had Andrew Calder at her side the last 27 seasons.

“Having that kind of stability is obviously a plus,” Selvig said. “As a head coach you have a known commodity. It’s someone who understands the program and understands you. And that’s comforting for a head coach.

“You aren’t changing pages every year, so you don’t have to spend time every season teaching someone new your system.”

After Selvig went 13-13 in his first season in 1978-79, he decided his team needed the program-changing talent of a player at Wenatchee Valley (Wash.) Junior College. Rocheleau was just finishing up her second season at the school, but she wasn’t the player Selvig had his eye on.

“We were recruiting a big girl, Jill Greenfield, who turned out to be a good player for us,” Selvig said of the player who would be the Lady Griz’ leading scorer and rebounder the next two seasons.

“There was a good little point guard on that team as well. She was quick and heady, the prototype point guard who could handle and pass. But her best quality was that she knew to throw it to Jill.”

Rocheleau, who at the time was Annette Whitaker, adds, “They weren’t that much interested in me. They wanted Jill, but Rob gave me the opportunity to walk on. I thought it was a beautiful university, so I spent every penny I had that first quarter.

“I found a spot on the team, and Rob gave me some money, so I stayed here for two years.”

Selvig’s assistant coach during Rocheleau’s playing days, Sara Novak, left following the 1980-81 season, which created a perfect scenario for Rocheleau, who still needed to student-teach before she could earn her degree and move on to the next phase of her life.

“I wanted to be a high school coach and teacher. The opportunity to be Rob’s assistant fell right in place so I could finish my school and get some money,” she says. “After that first year I found out I kind of enjoyed the coaching part of it.”

In Rocheleau’s first season as a coach, Montana advanced to the AIAW national tournament. The Lady Griz lost to Wayland Baptist in a game played at Berkeley, Calif.

The next season produced the team’s first trip to the NCAA tournament, a loss at Louisiana-Monroe. The following fall Rocheleau became the program’s first full-time assistant.

“At first none of us had any idea where (women’s basketball) would lead,” Selvig said. “It was a little chancy when I took the job. It wasn’t like it was going to be a for-sure thing at the time, but it’s grown and grown to where it is now.”

And Montana was on the leading edge of the movement. The Lady Griz drew more than 4,000 fans for their NCAA tournament home game against Oregon State in 1984 — a seminal moment in the program’s history according to Selvig — and in 1987-88 and 1988-89 Montana ranked sixth nationally in home attendance.

The 1987-88 season began a stretch of 10 NCAA tournament trips in 11 seasons for the program, and that success led to opportunities elsewhere for Rocheleau, who interviewed for a handful of head-coaching jobs between 1986 and 1992.

“When I went and looked at other places, I realized what I had here, with the fan support, the NCAA tournaments and everything we were doing. Not everybody had that,” Rocheleau said.

“It would have been fun to be the boss, but I don’t have any regrets. I think I would have been a good head coach, because I would have known enough to put smart people around me, but coaching is not a very stable job.

“Once I got married and started having kids, stability seemed to be more important than moving up the ladder, and we liked the lifestyle we had in Missoula.”

For Selvig, who will pick up win No. 800 next November, the book remains open, but the chapters that had Rocheleau as one of the story’s lead characters have come to an end.

“She was a big part of Lady Griz basketball for 32 years,” Selvig said.

Montana Sports Information  —  GoGriz.com