MISSOULA — Jim Cissell was completely done with coaching.
After 22 years of heading the Little Grizzly football program, Cissell was ready to call it quits and step away from the game.
But five years ago, Valley Christian High School was starting up its football program for the first time and in need of coaches. So a friend reached out to Cissell, who was less than pleased to be asked for the job.
“I lit into him,” Cissell said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Didn’t you listen to what we were talking about? I’m done.’ But he said, ‘With the right fit, would you do it?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
So Cissell, 58, was approached by Valley Christian’s athletic director who was looking for an assistant coach to join then-head coach Shane Sander.
“I came down here and did the interview and it was supposed to take maybe a half hour and it went maybe two hours,” Cissell said. “We ended up talking about our faith and what our philosophies were and we kind of really gelled together.
“It was a godsend that I ended up here.”
He admits he didn’t know much about 6-Man football prior to taking the job. But five years after those conversations, Cissell is now heading the program as a first-year head coach after spending the previous four as an assistant.
“It’s new. I’ve had some really good coaches who mentored me throughout my years so now, you don’t have that guy where you go, ‘Hey you have to go talk to the coach,’” Cissell said. “Now you’re that guy and you have to make the decisions every day. It’s fun, it really is.”
Cissell even described it now as a “dream job” because he’s always wanted to lead a football program. He always wanted to be involved with the game in some aspect while growing up.
“I loved the sport from Day 1,” Cissell said. “I’m a (Nebraska) Husker fan and it’s kind of like Montana in some aspects because that’s all we had. Don’t have any professional football or baseball teams. The Huskers are what you had.
“When you come here, you’re either a Griz or a Cat. That’s kind of the way it goes so it was a natural fit when I got here.”
A self-described “G.I. brat,” Cissell grew up in Nebraska but has lived all over. He spent six years in the army and was living on the East Coast with his wife when the possibility of moving to Montana came up. His wife, Dorothy, is from Missoula and brought up the idea to Cissell about moving out West. A used car salesman at the time, Cissell said they opted to wait to save up some money, but eventually made the move to the Garden City in 1992 and have been here ever since.
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Sander, who started the football program at Valley Christian, stepped down after leading the Eagles for four seasons. The first three seasons of their existence, the Eagles made the 6-Man playoffs, but just missed out in 2018. After he stepped down, Cissell took over, much to the delight of the players.
"I always liked Jim as a coach. He's a really great guy," senior Josh Streit said. "The whole team's reaction was one of excitement. They were happy to hear it."
"It was good to see a familiar face knowing that we have someone who cares for us and that we can trust," senior Roman Becker added. "We all love him very much. He's an outstanding coach and a great man and he leads us very well. He's going to give us his all."
Sander gave Cissell some pointers on how to create schedules and other aspects of coaching to make the transition a little smoother, and away he went.
“He actually mentored me really well,” Cissell said.
Valley Christian’s road back to the postseason won’t be an easy one. 6-Man football numbers continue to drop across Montana and the 6-Man West was especially affected. St. Regis will co-op with Mullan, Idaho, again, while West Yellowstone moved up to 8-Man and Lincoln and Lima will not have teams. So the road trips are getting even longer as Valley Christian will have to travel to Harlowton, Gardiner and Geraldine-Highwood, all of which are four-hour drives one way.
Valley Christian, which actually plays its home games in Alberton, sports just 10 players, including five seniors. They began the season with 11 but one was lost due to injury. Four players are sophomores along with one freshman. Streit and Becker will lead the charge for the Eagles as seniors while sophomores Eyan Becker and Asher Beaudin figure to be major contributors, according to Cissell.
"At the beginning it was a little rough but I feel like the team is starting to gel really well together now," Streit, a two-way starting lineman, said. "I feel like we're starting to come together and work together as a unit a lot better. I think the team's going to be able to pull it together and do really well."
Streit said he believes the talent is there on Valley Christian this year to make it back to the postseason. For them, consistency and playing together will be the biggest keys if they want to get there. Valley Christian opens its season on Aug. 31 against Reed Point-Rapelje.
"We have a young team for sure so it's going to be a bummer leaving these guys after this year, but I definitely think we can overcome a lot of obstacles this year," said Roman Becker, a two-way skills position player. "We definitely have the talent, we just have to work for it."
He added, "I use (last year) as motivation because it's my last year here at Valley. Its been a great program with great coaches and teammates. I just want to give back to the community and show that we can bounce back better from last year."
And so far, Cissell is encouraged.
“I think it’s going well,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you wait for the team to create its own identity. I’m not going to try and mold them into what I want them to be. I want the team to mold themselves into what they can be.”