Countdown to 800: How it All Began for Lady Griz Coach, Robin Selvig

Gather the three of them in a room today and you’d have more than 2,300 wins and enough conference championship rings, NCAA tournament watches and coach of the year plaques to supply a good-sized pawn shop.

But in the summer of 1978, Mike Montgomery, Tara VanDerveer and Robin Selvig had zero wins as college head coaches and none of the accoutrements that would later be the flash to the substance of their lives’ work.

That would all change in the ensuing decades as Montgomery coached at Montana, Stanford and now Cal, as VanDerveer went from Idaho to Ohio State to Stanford and as Selvig has remained 36 years at Montana and piled up 799 wins.

But in 1978 they had one thing that connected them.

Mike Montgomery, who was hired by Director of Athletics Harley Lewis, had just been named the Griz men’s basketball coach, replacing Jim Brandenburg, who was off to what would be a successful run at Wyoming, after spending two years as an assistant on Brandenburg’s staff.

The Lady Griz coaching job was open, right at the time the full impact of Title IX, which had been enacted in 1972, was being felt on college campuses. And a pair of applicants, who would one day become two of the most successful women’s basketball coaches in the history of the sport, interviewed.

Montgomery chaired the search committee that would hire the coach who would usher the Lady Griz into the Title IX era and, as it turns out, beyond. This is the story, through their own words.

Title IX was a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972. It guaranteed that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 

In 1972 Harley Lewis was Montana’s track and field and cross country coach. He would be named the department’s acting Director of Athletics on July 1, 1975. He assumed the position permanently in April 1976 and shortly thereafter dropped his coaching duties.

He was Montana’s AD until moving to a job at the NCAA in 1989.

Lewis: I think on the men’s side there was probably some fear that (Title IX) would have an impact on the opportunity of institutions to maintain a broad-based program for men. I also think there were some concerns about where we were going to find the money to add programming for women.

But I also think from an educational perspective that everyone was excited to be able to broaden athletic opportunities to both males and females in an equal fashion, so that they both had the same educational experiences.

VanDerveer: I don’t think anybody really understood it at the time. I remember seeing a sign that a fan had at one of the games at the AIAW national championship, but I didn’t know what it meant. I don’t think that anyone understood the incredible impact that Title IX would have.

Selvig played at Montana from 1970-71 through 1973-74. Montana began offering women’s basketball at the same time.

Selvig: I didn’t even know they had it going. They obviously were in the men’s gym (now Schreiber Gymnasium) and didn’t play many games. But no, I wasn’t aware of it.

Lewis: At that time the University of Montana had two separate programs. The men’s athletic program was set by itself and was its own administrative entity. The women’s athletic program was actually housed within the Department of Physical Education, so it was more of an academic subset than it was an athletic subset.

After a period of time, those two programs were joined.

Selvig: I think our administration was good. Women’s sports were coming, and they saw that it was the start of changing times. What I always say is that our administration went along with what was coming and tried to make the most of it. They didn’t do it kicking and fighting, which I think some places did.

It was going to grow one way or the other, because by law something had to be done. I give credit to Harley, because it was the right thing to do. Women weren’t getting the opportunity men were getting.

In 1974-75 the UM women’s basketball team was coached by Diane Westbrok and went 11-8. Barbara Eisenbarth followed in 1975-76 and led the team to a 9-13 finish. Eddye McClure coached Montana in 1976-77 and 1977-78 and went 11-27.

Lewis: When they combined departments, the political ramifications resulted in a fairly significant resignation from the women who were coaching the female programs at that time. As a result of those resignations, we had to hire coaches in many if not all of our sports.

The women who were coaching at that time also had a faculty appointment, and I think they were concerned that the general philosophy of athletic experiences for women was different than what it ought to be for men. There was a philosophical difference and resistance to that change.

VanDerveer (who played collegiately at IU in the early-to-mid 70s): Women’s basketball at that time at Indiana was run through the physical education department, so my coach was actually a graduate student. It wasn’t a full-time position for her.

When I went to Ohio State as a graduate assistant, the head coach was a professor in the physical education department. So it wasn’t anything like it is now.

After his senior season in 1973-74, playing under coach Jud Heathcote, Selvig remained on campus in 1974-75 to finish his degree. He also coached the men’s basketball freshmen team. VanDerveer graduated from Indiana in 1975.

Selvig: I think it was probably my junior year when I knew I wanted to be a coach. Basketball had been such a huge part of my life for so long, then I started thinking that it would be strange not to have basketball in my life. So it just seemed natural to coach.

VanDerveer: I majored in sociology (at Indiana), and I planned to go to law school. After I graduated, like a lot of kids I thought I would take a year off from school and travel.

I ran out of money and went home (to Niagara Falls, N.Y.) at Christmas and began studying for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). My sister was playing on a basketball team in high school, and they needed a coach, so my dad volunteered me.

I was living at home and living for free, so he told me, you’re going to go down and help coach your sister’s team. That was kind of how I started.

Selvig, who also interviewed for the Butte High job, was hired at Plentywood High to teach psychology and physical education. He was also hired to coach basketball, just not the team he thought he was getting hired to coach. VanDerveer went to graduate school at Ohio State.

Selvig: I had originally thought I was taking the men’s job when I went to Plentywood. But the coach there, Zoonie McLean, longtime coach, good friend of mine, decided to coach another year.

I think they thought Zoonie was going to retire, but he decided not to. So the superintendent asked if I would be interested in taking the women. I think the girls’ program had been in place for two years, and I think they had won one game in two years.

But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That obviously helped me in getting this job, though it might not have made a difference at that time.

VanDerveer: I was the assistant coach at Ohio State, a graduate assistant, but the only one. Plus I had the JV team that I coached by myself. I’ve only coached two undefeated teams. One was my JV team at Ohio State. The other was the Olympic team (in 1996).

Brandenburg, who was an assistant for six years under Heathcote and had coached Selvig, left Montana for Wyoming following the 1977-78 season. Montgomery, who had been an assistant under Brandenburg for two years, was promoted to the open position.

Montgomery: I’d been appointed the head basketball coach, but the only way they could do that without going through a search was to make me the director of basketball.

Lewis: We did that for a specific reason. The state of Montana always was restrictive on how we could pay our coaches and what kind of contracts they could work within. Every employee at the University of Montana at that time was under a one-year contract.

We felt in Mike Montgomery’s case that his administrative abilities were strong and that he should assume a greater overall role in the basketball program, which would include both the men and women.

At the time, educationally speaking, we felt there might be an opportunity for the coaching staffs to interact more and be able to learn from one another. We attempted to create an overall basketball environment where the coaches worked together in developing practices and scheduling to best benefit their programs.

Montgomery: As a result of that, one of the first things I became responsible for was hiring the women’s basketball coach. We had a search committee made up of the women’s athletic director, Sharon Dinkel, Harley Lewis and myself. But essentially I was the person in charge.

Lewis: When we started to evaluate where we wanted to go with women’s basketball, I asked Mike to essentially guide the search for a new basketball coach.

Selvig: I can’t remember who called me. It might have been Jim Brandenburg or maybe Harley, just to make me aware that it was open. Zoonie kept his job at Plentywood for three years. I was also the assistant boys coach, and we had good teams. I was happy coaching where I was coaching.

VanDerveer: There was a physical education convention that I attended, and they had jobs listed in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I put a resume together and started sending it out.

Montgomery: I was 30, maybe 31, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know at that point in time. Jud called me on Robin’s behalf, and Jud, of course, was a very strong figure in Montana. So obviously he had an influence.

We were looking for somebody who understood the University of Montana and had a passion for it.

Lewis: Hiring coaches is not always going to be successful. Some coaches, when they come in, take to their setting very, very well and become very successful. Other coaches don’t do so well and don’t last long.

Every time you hire, you hope you hire a coach who is capable and has the ability to stay at an institution for a very long time. If they do that, that means they are doing an outstanding job.

Montgomery: We narrowed it down to four candidates, one of whom I’d actually known and played against in college, two young ladies who I didn’t know, and then Robin, who I’d known a little just from him being a former Montana player. Those were our four candidates.

Lewis: Without question, we had very, very good candidates.

Selvig: There was a little bit of a concern about me getting the job, because I was one of Jud’s guys from an earlier era, and Monty had just gotten the job. I remember that I had to sell myself to Monty.

There also may have been some concerns that I was looking at the women’s job as a way to get the men’s job, but I wasn’t.

Montgomery: That never crossed my mind. For one reason, Robin was younger than I was. The second reason, he couldn’t beat me at racquetball, and you can tell him I said that. And the third thing, he didn’t say very much back then.

Lewis: No, not at all. In fact Mike was very much a proponent of Robin and pushed very hard for him.

Selvig: I’d gotten it going a little bit at Plentywood, and I just told them I was going to work my ass off as a coach. I just sold myself that I loved this place and wanted to coach the women here. And I was coming out of coaching women, so it wasn’t like it was a he’s-never-done-that type of thing.

I don’t know if it helped me get the job, but I maybe had some credibility because I’d played here. Maybe they thought I would be a connection for the fans, like maybe people would come check us out because they could identify with the coach.

I think that helped get us going early on in attendance. But if we didn’t win a bunch of games, I don’t think that would have made any difference.

Montgomery: In Montana, (high school) girls’ basketball was becoming a big deal. That was one thing Robin had going for him. In Montana, everybody knows everybody and everybody knows the top players. Robin knew all the gals and all the coaches.

Lewis: We felt with his Montana connections and his Montana roots that Robin would serve us very well. The mission of the University of Montana was — and hopefully still is — to give Montana residents the first shot at being involved in intercollegiate athletics, and we felt Robin would fulfill that role.

I think we made a pretty good hire.

Selvig: There was a decision to make. The money was barely more than I was making in high school, and it wasn’t like I knew I was getting into a fast-growing deal, but it looked like women’s basketball was going to go somewhere, and I just wanted to coach.

Montgomery: Nobody knew for sure. It was haphazard at best. You didn’t know what was going to happen.

Tara: I interviewed at Colorado, Idaho and Montana. That was really the beginning of fulltime coaches in the women’s game. I interviewed at both Montana and Idaho on the same trip. I just remember how beautiful Missoula was. I loved it.

Montgomery: As good as the other applicants were, particularly the two ladies who were involved in the search (VanDerveer and Pat Dobratz, who later succeeded VanDerveer at Idaho and had a six-year record of 142-39, from 1980-81 to 1985-86, and split her 10 head-to-head meetings with Selvig), you just felt that Robin had such a strong feeling for the state and the people in the state that he would be a good fit.

Lewis: Would Tara have stayed at the University of Montana, or would she have ended up at a place like Stanford regardless? My guess is she would have had the motivation to move up like she did.

VanDerveer was hired at Idaho, where she spent two seasons. She spent five years at Ohio State before moving on to Stanford. She led the Cardinal to national championships in 1990 and ’92 and has been to 10 Final Fours.

Selvig: Tara would probably say it worked out well for both of us. She was going to do well, but we probably had different types of goals.

Tara obviously had some goals of winning national championships, and that’s not unusual. I’m a Montana guy, and I’ve always known I have a good thing going here.

VanDerveer: I loved it at Idaho. Beautiful place, great, great people. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. But when the Ohio State position opened up, that was kind of a no-brainer career move for me.

Selvig: My first year when I took the job at Montana, it was just starting to get going. I mean, we had 12 fee waivers to give. It was probably more like a club team. Then we started to add a little money to it.

I think the atmosphere was good for it to grow. We weren’t treated the same as the men for quite a few years. We took a backseat, because that’s just how it was. We didn’t push for too much too fast. But it wasn’t long before that was happening in terms of budget and facilities.

Montgomery and Selvig both spent the first eight years of their head coaching careers at Montana, until Montgomery left for Stanford following the 1985-86 season. During their final four seasons working together, Montgomery and Selvig both led their programs to four 20-win seasons.

Selvig: I didn’t know Monty (when I was hired), but he ended up being a good friend of mine. Mike is a heck of a coach. I felt I learned a lot from him.

Montgomery: I look back at those times fondly, especially the arguments we had about politics and religion and everything else.

Selvig has stayed true to his original calling. In his first 35 years at Montana, he has produced 33 winning seasons, 28 20-win seasons and 25 national tournament appearances, 20 of which have been to the NCAAs.

Lewis: Once he got ingrained at Montana, Robin became a fixture. His work in women’s athletics has benefitted the University a great deal. What a great service he’s given the school and the state. You’d love to have that kind of a success every time you hire someone.

Montgomery: I don’t think you could predict anybody having the kind of success Robin’s had, or Tara for that matter. It’s extraordinary what she’s done at Stanford, and it’s extraordinary what he’s done at Montana.

It would be pretty unique that you would have people who have done that well in one job search.

Selvig: Once I got into the job, there were some men’s (coaching) changes (at Montana), and my name would always kind of come up, but I never seriously thought about it. To me that would have been telling the women that I was moving up, like I was getting some kind of promotion, and I never could have said that.

Jud did call me about an assistant job at Michigan State one time, but I wasn’t interested. Once I got into it, I was engrossed in this program. I wanted to see if we could get it better.

Montgomery: I don’t think he’s ever really considered doing anything else. I think he loves what he’s doing, and I think he loves the lifestyle. He’s very, very comfortable with where he is and who he is.

So many of us in this business are fickle and always looking for the next thing, and Robin has never been that way. You’ve got to admire when someone has such a clear idea of what they want to do.

VanDerveer: It’s been a great fit for Robin, and it was a great decision when they hired him.

Montgomery: If he’d been interested, all he would have had to do was say he was interested in any number of jobs around the Pac-12 or wherever, but that’s just not something he’s wanted to do. You admire that, and sometimes you’re envious.

He’s comfortable, all his friends and the people he cares about are there, and he knows exactly what he needs to do to win, and that’s a pretty good situation.

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