Bill Speltz: With sadness and eternal optimism, we turn the page on Montana Lady Griz basketball

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Montana coach Shannon Schweyen hugs Madi Schoening after pulling her out in the waning stages of a game two years ago. After 28 years of coaching with the Lady Griz, Schweyen will not be on the bench next season.

MISSOULA — Fourteen years of covering the Montana Lady Griz have left me with a deep sense of compassion and admiration for the program.

If that’s being a homer, so be it. I’ve been called worse.

The greatest player in Lady Griz history lost her job as head coach Wednesday. Taking over for the John Wooden of mid-major women’s college basketball, Robin Selvig, you could argue Shannon Schweyen was staring straight up a steep slope from the start four years ago.

Injuries to key players in Schweyen’s first season didn’t just hurt her team for that season. They reverberated for years.

Schweyen never seemed to catch a break. Even this season — one she coined the first in which “everyone was healthy” — she started two players that needed surgery in Sophia Stiles and Abby Anderson.

No one is making excuses here. Shannon had four years at the helm and some might say that’s too long to go without a Big Sky Conference title when you’re the most popular program in the league.

But there is no arguing the Big Sky is much harder to win than it was even five years ago. Montana State’s Tricia Binford, Idaho’s Jon Newlee and Idaho State’s Seton Sobolewski are all masterful coaches.

The emails and texts came pouring in Thursday morning, most of them asking me why Schweyen was offered a two-year deal in Boise only to have it pulled this week. At the risk of over-simplifying, Schweyen was losing too many players that still had eligibility remaining.

It’s ironic really. Two non-starting athletes entering the NCAA transfer portal in late March might have been the tipping point. If one decided to stay, this maybe never happens. If Montana beats Northern Arizona in its tourney opener, this maybe never happens. 

The umbrella term that covers most everyone that left the Lady Griz program under Schweyen is non-starter. Players that felt they deserved more playing time. It’s not really that much different than eighth grade basketball, only the meddling parents are much more intense on the Division I level.

Ah, it’s all water under the bridge now. Schweyen is gone but she’ll always be Lady Griz royalty to this sports editor, sitting atop the mountain with her old coach, Selvig.

In the final analysis, none of the main characters in this scenario were wrong Wednesday. Montana athletic director Kent Haslam is not a big meanie. He simply believes there’s room for Lady Griz improvement on and off the court.

He’s been right before you know. He hired Travis DeCuire and he’s the one that brought back Bobby Hauck in the face of local skepticism.

Always remember, Selvig was a one-in-a-million master at making diamonds out of lumps of coal. He consistently won titles with mostly Montana players.

That may be a pipe dream now. At a time when budgets are tight, Montana women’s basketball needs to expand its recruiting area. Find a way to get more athletic and maybe bring in a pure shooter from a foreign country — kind of like the ones I’ve watched burn the Lady Griz in recent years.

A good foundation is in place. Stiles, Anderson and Shelby Schweyen are long, athletic players capable of doing great things, assuming they opt to return. Jamie Pickens is a force in the paint, assuming she opts to return.

The next coach needs more than just a clear understanding of basketball. The coach needs to have thick skin to handle meddling parents and a salesman’s personality to sell non-starters on staying at a time when leaving is easy.

Why, do you suppose, did Montana State dominate the Big Sky this past season? Well one big reason was league MVP Fallyn Freije, who didn’t like playing for North Dakota and transferred to Bozeman.

It’ll be interesting to see if Haslam stays in the Lady Griz family when he hires a new head coach. The first name that comes to mind for me is Katie (Baker) Faulkner, who has logged extensive experience as an assistant at Oregon State, Colorado State and Wisconsin.

On the other hand, Haslam probably wants someone with proven head coaching experience on the DI level. Would Northern Arizona’s Loree Payne, a Havre native, consider coming back to her home state? Would someone like Idaho State veteran coach Seton Sobolewski, a master at getting the most out of his players, consider changing colors from orange to maroon?

It was hard to keep from tearing up talking to Schweyen Wednesday night. Her heart bleeds maroon and she’s dedicated her professional life to the Lady Griz.

But soon our thoughts will turn to the future and what it holds for the proud Montana women’s basketball program.

Haslam strapped a heavy load to his shoulders by opting to go a different direction. Now all he has to do is find someone capable of winning championships.

Anyone know what Selvig is up to these days? 

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.


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