On March 24, University of Montana athletic director Wayne Hogan notified Grizzly men's basketball coach Don Holst his contract would not be renewed. The Missoulian's Kim Briggeman sat down with Holst the following day. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
Talk about your reaction to what happened Sunday.
As I'm going to church at quarter to 11, Christ the King, I saw (Hogan) drive up to (President George) Dennison's house, drive up the driveway, and I thought they probably … would talk about what we had in store for the upcoming year. My thoughts were that, given the way we finished the season, we would get together and take this in a very positive way into the future, that he and I would sit down and really set some parameters and assist each other in the community, with the press, and unite, so to speak, in our efforts to continue what we did. I guess I was shocked. My staff was shocked, my players were shocked. I'm sure that a lot of people in the state were shocked.
Nice things were written about us and the team and staff by all of the newspapers and the media. In general people were embracing everybody the last few weeks and saying how we stuck it out. 'They stuck with it, never lost their focus.' People that are in the know around the West Coast, East Coast, people that are in the profession are stunned. Media from out of state that tried to contact me are stunned that … (I'm) the only guy of 64 or 65 teams in the tournament that was fired for (his) efforts.
How did Hogan present his reasons?
Oh, he said that we needed to win a lot more games this year, 'You're only just above .500, we need to get to the Sweet 16.' I said, realistically, with scheduling the way it is, we don't have a (December) tournament any more which you would pay for teams to come in and have a chance to get two home wins. We can't afford it. It'd cost us $100,000 to do it. OK, we don't have that, which my predecessors had, and I had to start with. We played a guarantee game on the road to bring money into the department, something none of my predecessors ever did. There are three opportunities to lose. Maybe if we didn't have those we might have had 19 wins, I don't know.
We've upgraded our schedule. We play Gonzaga not once in a while but on a yearly basis. We play Washington State on a yearly basis. Idaho, Reno, Tulsa, we had them. We played at Colorado. I thought we had a very good schedule that was one that you have a hard time winning a lot of games with. It's harder to get 20 wins right now.
I thought league was where it counted. Go into league and let's see where we could finish. We obviously wanted to win a conference championship, everybody does, but Weber State was favored to win it, and they placed third and they were out of it after two games in the tournament. We weren't the only ones who fell victim to some inconsistencies on the road and at home, the whole league was like that.
I said (to Hogan), 'To me I feel like I never was your guy. You didn't hire me. You guys were kind of forced into it.' He said something about, well, we thought the basketball staff was inbred. I took offense to that in thinking that Jud (Heathcote), and Brandy (Jim Brandenburg) and Monty (Mike Montgomery) and Stew (Morrill) and Blaine (Taylor) are all part of that, and if that's being inbred, then I'm proud of it. We kind of call it tradition here. It's something that every other staff would love to have.
I told him, 'Wayne, I've been a part of four of our five NCAA tournament appearances, under two other coaches and won one myself. Only four coaches have done that, and only one coach has won a game in it. That was Jud. It's something I'm very proud of. I said I can walk out your door and down the streets of Missoula and I won't have guys saying, well, you know they need to fire him, they need to get onto the next thing. I don't feel that at all.
What are you proudest of?
The thing that I'm proud of, with this group, is how they've conducted themselves for four years under my staff. We've never had any problems off the court in terms of police blotter stuff. They've not embarrassed our program in any way. We've had two academic All-Americans and may have a third this spring. We're going to graduate four of our five seniors last year and four of our five seniors this year. And isn't that what we're in the business to do? Isn't that part of it?
I've done it the right way. You know, it's funny. A junior college coach called me last night, who basically helped us get Brent Smith, Dan Trammel, and Victor Venters. And he was so stunned. He said you don't know how highly you are thought of down here. He said you guys have done a great job with the kids from California, said they feel at home up there. And he said, 'Coach, you know, I've never heard one bad word about you. Ever. In terms of your recruiting, you've never scammed anybody.'
And I said well, why not do it right? If it gets you fired, and I hope that's not what got me fired, but I certainly wasn't going to have it get me fired. I was never going to have anybody in the profession think less of me.
What are you feeling?
I didn't sleep at all, and I took calls till 1-2 in the morning. Then all day long media from all over the state (call), and then the things you have to address, the boosters that want to do something.
I've given this university 15 years. They've been quality years. I have six championships that I've been a part of, more rings than anybody that's ever been here. And I'm proud of that. I mean, it's not the way I wanted to leave. You kind of feel like, watch out, don't let the door catch you in the backside before you get out.
I really feel that the people of Missoula, and this university, the faculty and students, state of Montana, I think they really, really do appreciate what this Grizzly basketball team accomplished this year. They really do. There's just too much outpouring to tell me otherwise, and I can dwell on that and know that it's not a majority.
Hogan characterized the program as "mired in mediocrity." He just fired the coach that took (the Grizzlies) to the NCAA tournament. What kind of environment will the next coach come into?
You know, there's so many fools out there that think this head coaching is a heck of a deal. We all aspire, if we've been an assistant, to be a head coach at this level. This is a hard job, this is a job that prepares you for a top job like Stanford, because you deal with the press on a daily basis. Most of the people in our league don't have those kinds of responsibilities. So it's a hard job, it's an energy job.
If I were coming in here I would be a little nervous about it. … We have the perpetual one-year contract that cost me three players this year, three recruits that we were recruiting, and other people come in with five-year contracts and more. It's not that you're trying to give me the security as much as you're trying to secure your program. And that hurt, that we didn't get those three kids. I think you're scrambling to try to avoid that question.
One of the legacies that I was hoping to address … is let's try to get the students back in the game. Why don't we try to get them back in their seats that they've had for years and years and years until we reopened the arena? We've alienated them. And why not try to deal with this intersession? Is it really worth the time and money we're spending on it? How many students are attending it? I don't know all that, but it hurts … the six weeks they're gone, from the 20th of December until almost the first of February.
You talk about attendance. We've done everything we could. We promoted like crazy. I think they've done a wonderful job of promoting and trying to make people aware. But when you have football playoffs that go to December 15 at home - and Joe is one of my best supporters, and I am his too - we avoid all those days that they have, those weekends. So there you're taking away from attendance, and you take the students away from attendance. You start taking the dollar and spreading it thin. It's a hard deal.
We led the league in dunks and blocked shots and we had guys that could wow you. Dan Trammel, Ryan Slider, David Bell … It wasn't our players' (fault). And even if we were inconsistent, we had games that were wonderful to watch this year, and then we culminated it with a great tournament.
How long have you been coaching?
I've been coaching 26 years, maybe 27. A lot of years. A lot of levels. I've been in junior high girls basketball, college girls, high school girls, high school boys, college men.
Would you consider going back to one of those other levels?
Boy, I don't know. That's a tough one. I can't answer that. Because I was just there, playing those guys (pointing to a TV, which is showing a jubilant locker room scene for the Oregon Ducks). I think of all the things that were said (at the NCAA tournament in Sacramento); that were a pretty neat deal. I was there Saturday night afterwards, not wearing any Griz gear, and guys came up to us: "Wow, you guys just did a wonderful job. Wow, what a great performance. Well-prepared. Coached 'em up." You know, they recognized who you were and it was a pat on your back. It really did the ego good.
They just wowed about the whole thing, felt we just had a class act.
Was your meeting with Hogan the first this year?
Yeah, I'd say so. Last spring when they were going through (the task force), I said great idea, let's do it. But we never sat down and went, 'OK, you've gotta do this and do this.' We were just kind of bantering back and forth, and I said I thought we were going to be decent, recruiting's going great and we'll finish it up here pretty quick. That's the way I saw it. I only had one actual evaluation, and that was after the 2000 season, that I've actually sat down and gone through with him.
That's not an every-year thing?
I thought it was going to be, but it didn't end up being. It's kind of funny. I just actually signed this year's contract last week. So actually I wasn't under contract.
Why was that?
I have no idea. It had been signed the week before by George Dennison and I handed it back. That was for the year I just finished. Guess I shouldn't have signed it.