The most successful high school girls' track and field coach in Montana history has announced his retirement.

Joe McKay, named the national girls' coach of the year in 1999, stepped down Saturday as head coach of the Kalispell Bravettes after watching his squad place third at the state Class AA track meet in Great Falls.

McKay coached track at Kalispell for 35 years, including 28 seasons as head coach. Under his leadership, the Bravettes won 12 state championships, including six in a row in 1991-95, and eight in 10 years capped by back-to-back titles in 1998-99. Kalispell also placed second twice and third six times.

"It's something I've been thinking about since last fall," said McKay, 64, who retired from teaching six years ago. "I just wasn't as fired up this spring, and I knew it was time."

"It's been a great experience," McKay added. "I was lucky enough to coach some great kids. I also had the chance to work with a coaching staff that I feel it is the finest in Montana."

McKay said he informed the track team of his decision after the meet Saturday.

"They took it better than I did," he said.

"I told the coaches, it was kind of tough today. A couple times I had to go and walk around to regain my composure. Things will go on - they always do."

McKay was inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1991. He was named the national girls' track coach of the year by the National Federation Interscholastic Coaches Association in 1999. He'll be inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame this summer, only the sixth Montana coach to be so honored.

A Nebraska native, McKay was a track standout at Chadron (Neb.) State, graduating in 1962 and coming to the Flathead Valley five years later.

McKay taught physical education in the Kalispell school system, and also served as head coach of the high school girls' basketball team for a dozen seasons, posting a 194-74 record (.724), before concentrating on track starting in 1984.

"Joe was a great communicator, both with kids and parents," said Kalispell boys' coach Dan Hodge, a colleague for 29 years. "He's also been a great organizer. He took care of the all the little things, so that his athletes and his staff could do their best."

"For years, my goal was just to equal or place higher than his girls," Hodge added. "I was driven by that. But you look at what Joe has accomplished, and it's overwhelming."

Russ Pilcher of Missoula Big Sky, another longtime coaching rival, said McKay commanded respect, as a coach and as a person.

"It was fun," Pilcher said. "One thing about Joe, he was always cordial. He always had time to ask about your family, how things were going."

The fact that Kalispell is the state's largest high school didn't hurt, of course, when it came to recruiting athletes for the track program.

"Whatever advantages they've had in that way, it still takes the right person at the top," Pilcher said. "They won state meets they weren't supposed to win, and that's a tribute to Joe."

Rial Cummings can be reached at 523-5255 or by e-mail at rcummings@missoulian.com.

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