Selvig’s Career No. 2 on Big Sky’s “Greatest Moments” List

By JOEL CARLSON for GoGriz.com

The Big Sky Conference office suggested this article, an ode to the No. 2 entry on its “25 Greatest Women’s Moments” list, be titled “Death, Taxes and Robin Selvig.” But doesn’t that paint too dark a picture of the Lady Griz coach who just finished his 36th season, making him the third side of an unholy trinity, a grim reaper of the sideline? How about “Sunrises, the tides and Robin Selvig”?

But maybe the former is a better fit. After 821 wins and averaging a regular-season championship nearly two out of every three seasons he’s been coaching the Lady Griz, what is a more deterministic fate for a team than playing Montana? And what are box scores if not an ugly tax form: 34 percent shooting, 56 points and a reminder that your team is nowhere near the top one percent.

How he manages to do it year after year is the subject for another time. Are Montana kids, who have made up a majority of Lady Griz rosters the last 36 years, just better than the kids in other states, or is there something to what Bum Phillips, in his best Texas drawl, once said about Don Shula: “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”

Selvig player

Photo courtesy of University ofMontana

Instead this is an attempt to celebrate those 36 years as a moment. But what does that mean? How do you take 36 years, 821 wins, 23 regular-season conference championships, 20 NCAA tournament appearances and 20 conference coach of the year awards and reduce that to a moment? Wouldn’t it be like asking the coach to name his all-time favorite player or favorite team? It can’t be done.

Because what is that moment? His first win (69-48 over Montana Tech after an — ahem — 0-2 start)? Montana’s first regular-season title (in 1980-81, the Mountain Division of the Northwest Women’s Basketball League)? The Lady Griz’ first appearance in a national tournament (1981-82, vs. Wayland Baptist in the AIAW) or the first time making the NCAA tournament (1982-83, vs. Louisiana-Monroe)?

Maybe his first conference coach of the year award (1981-82, NWBL) or his team’s first NCAA tournament victory (March 18, 1984, No. 4 Montana over No. 5 Oregon State in a game Selvig says was probably the moment for his program)

Or maybe it was the day a decade ago that he opened his mail to find the Street and Smith magazine listing the greatest women’s basketball programs of all time and seeing his little ol’ Montana program sitting there at No. 7, keeping company with Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Connecticut, Stanford and Texas, among others.

Robin Selvig

Photo courtesy of University ofMontana

But maybe the moment was the moment that first had to occur before any of this could ever get rolling. Had it not, today Robin Selvig might be the most popular psychology and physical education teacher and girls’ basketball coach in northeast Montana and one of the winningest prep coaches in state history instead of one of winningest coaches in college history.

Do you know the story? How Robin Selvig, as a player at Montana in the early 70s, did not even know the school had the very women’s basketball program he would one day turn into a juggernaut, even though it practiced and played games just a few buildings down from the men’s team?

How after a year coaching the Griz freshman team and finishing his degree, in 1974-75, the Outlook native returned to northeast Montana and took over the girls’ program at Plentywood High for three years? And that he claims he could have done that for a career and still been perfectly content?

Or how in the summer of 1978, Selvig, Mike Montgomery and Tara VanDerveer — who today approach 2,400 career wins — had two things in common: They had zero of those wins, and they all converged in Missoula

The job interviews that were conducted and the decisions that were made set all three on hall of fame-level paths, and though one coach did not get the job she wanted, all are certainly pleased with how everything turned out.

Coach Robin Selvig

Photo courtesy of University ofMontana

At that time, to address the requirements set forth by the Title IX portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Montana Department of Athletics, which had been a men-only club, was taking on the school’s women’s programs, which had been operating within the Department of Physical Education.

The coaches of those women’s sports were on faculty appointments. Many were against the move, mostly because they thought the athletic experiences for women should be different than they were for men.

“When we combined departments, it 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,” says Harley Lewis, who was then UM’s Director of Athletics.

Enter VanDerveer, who was then the JV and assistant varsity coach at Ohio State and who saw the Montana job listing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Selvig. The pair became two of the four finalists for the program’s first full-time coaching position.

(One of the other two finalists: Pat Dobratz, who later succeeded VanDerveer at Idaho and had a six-year record, from 1980-81 to 1985-86, with the Vandals of 142-39 and split her 10 head-to-head meetings with Selvig and Montana.)

Not that the job came without risks, because who knew where women’s collegiate athletics, and women’s basketball in particular, was headed?

Robin Selvig. Photo by Austin Smith

Photo by Austin Smith forMakeItMissoula.com

“There was a decision to make. The money was barely more than I was making in high school, and it wasn’t like anyone knew this was going to be a fast-growing deal,” Selvig says. “But it looked like women’s basketball was going somewhere, and I just wanted to coach.”

Montgomery, who recently retired after successful runs at Montana, Stanford and California, was the Griz men’s coach at the time. He’d just been appointed to the position after two years as an assistant under Jim Brandenburg, who had left Montana to take over at Wyoming, when Montgomery was asked by Lewis to head the search to find Montana’s new women’s coach.

No one could have known the success three of those applicants would have as head coaches, but Selvig was holding all the right cards. He had spent three years coaching girls in the state. And he loved the University of Montana. The other applicants could spuriously make that claim. Selvig had already proved it.

“High school girls’ basketball was becoming a big deal in Montana,” Montgomery says. “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.

“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.”

Montgomery made the call, Lewis signed off on the decision.

UM Lady Griz Head Coach Robin Selvig

Photo by Austin Smith forMakeItMissoula.com

“We felt with his Montana connections and his Montana roots that Robin would serve us very well,” Lewis says. “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.”

VanDerveer, who played at Indiana when that program, too, was part of the school’s PE department, was going to be hired somewhere. It just wasn’t at Montana. She interviewed that summer at Colorado, Idaho and Montana, the last two on the same trip. Montana went with Selvig, Idaho went with VanDerveer, and the rest is history.

VanDerveer spent two seasons at Idaho and five years as the head coach at Ohio State before moving on to Stanford. She led the Cardinal to national championships in 1990 and ’92 and has been to 11 Final Fours.

She certainly would have led Montana to some success, but it’s doubtful she would have just finished up her 36th year coaching the Lady Griz.

“Tara would probably say it worked out well for both of us,” Selvig says. “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.”

Robin Selvig Featured

Photo by Austin Smith forMakeItMissoula.com

VanDerveer, who still remembers how struck she was by the beauty of Missoula, agrees that the school made the right move when Montana selected Selvig. “It’s been a great fit for Robin, and it was a great decision when they hired him.”

“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,” Montgomery adds. “It would be pretty unique that you would have people who have done that well in one job search.”

Results under Selvig came quickly and were almost comical: winning his first 23 meetings against Montana State; going 13-13 and 19-10 his first two years, then reeling off 18 straight 20-win seasons, 29 overall; going 78-1 at home during one particularly dominant stretch of the 80s; winning the first 65 games against league opponents once the Big Sky Conference began sponsoring women’s sports in 1988-89.

Selvig 800 career wins

Photo courtesy of University ofMontana

And because of what he’s done and what he’s built, and because he claims he sees no end in sight, the on-court moments will continue. And then there will be larger moments.

There will one day be a retirement from coaching. Probably a trip to Springfield, Mass., for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

And certainly one day future Griz and Lady Griz teams will play on Robin Selvig Court, because if Jiggs Dahlberg gets building naming rights for 222 wins, what does — dare we suggest? — 900-plus wins get a guy?

The Big Sky Conference certainly would have been worse off had Selvig not gotten the Montana job in 1978, or if he had opted to join Jud Heathcote at Michigan State when Selvig’s former coach at Montana offered him a job back in the early 80s, not long after Heathcote and Magic Johnson led the Spartans to the 1979 national championship.

The league would have been worse off, but how many women’s basketball coaches over the last three-plus decades would have been spared the annual question from their athletic director: Why can’t you do it like that guy?

AustinSmith_MakeItMissoula2

Photo by Austin Smith forMakeItMissoula.com

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