Jim Sampson, who guided the Missoula Hellgate boys' basketball team to a State AA title in 2005, has been fired by the school, the two sides confirmed Tuesday.
Sampson just finished his eighth season with the Knights, leading them to a 6-15 record and a sixth-place finish in the Western AA. Hellgate failed to advance to the state tournament for a fifth consecutive year after losing to Kalispell Flathead in a playoff game on March 4.
The decision to dismiss Sampson, however, came down to more than just wins and losses.
"Jim did a nice job at Hellgate," said the high school's new principal, Russ Lodge, "but we're trying to give as many head coaching positions in our program as we can to teachers that are in our school building. We're trying to work in that direction. Jim's a good basketball guy, but if you can get a coach that's a teacher in the building, that strengthens the program."
Sampson, who until recently was employed at an insurance company in town, said that is the same message that Lodge gave to him during a 5-minute meeting the two had at the school last Tuesday. Not that it helped ease the pain.
"You don't want to be where you're not wanted," Sampson said. "But the big thing for me was the timing. We have kids coming back and a lot more kids coming into the program now."
Sampson said he was excited to work with next year's team, which was returning the Knights' top three scorers from this past season, as well as the talent coming in from some good-sized younger classes.
"Whoever has them will be a really good, sound team," Sampson said. "The pieces are in place."
The last time all the pieces were in place for Hellgate was the 2004-05 season when the Knights went 19-4 en route to the school's fourth boys' basketball championship. Hellgate beat Billings West 55-49 in the State AA title tilt at the Billings Metra that year.
"I always wanted another one," said Sampson, who had championship rings made up after the season. "I sat through the growth periods trying to get there again. It's all about talent. Say all you want to say, but you gotta have talent. It makes you a better coach. And we were finally getting there. We've been projecting toward this next year with where our classes were; the numbers ... that's the only disappointing thing. We had the chance to go out and do what we're capable of doing."
The '05 campaign was Sampson's only winning season with the Knights. He had an overall record of 74-98.
"It was not a win-loss thing with Jim," Lodge said. "We're going in a different direction. We were fortunate to have him when we did, and I think he knows that. It's just something I decided to do."
Sampson was an assistant coach at the University of Montana before taking over at Hellgate. He was on Don Holst's staff that was fired by UM after the 2002 season. Sampson and his stylish suits moved just down the road that next fall, taking over the Knights after longtime head coach Eric Hays retired. Hays, who still teaches math at Hellgate, guided the school to three titles in 25 years, but is not being considered for the head coaching vacancy, Lodge said.
"I can tell you he's not a candidate," he said. "He's done his time."
Lodge said there are a handful of retirements in the building that may open up a position for a teacher that is also a coach. Also, Hellgate girls' basketball coach Sue Habbe turned in her resignation, Lodge said. He hopes to have both of those jobs filled by June.
"That's another opportunity to get a teacher-slash-coach in the building, and that's what we're trying to do," Lodge said, "It's not just basketball. It's across the board. Now I'm not saying they're not doing a good job, they are, but if I get an opportunity where I can get somebody in the building I think we have to look at that. That's what we want to do."
"It is what it is," said Sampson, who will consider other coaching jobs while searching for a full-time gig as well. "(Coaching) is a whole lot different than your livelihood. That said, for me (getting fired) affects other people more than it affects me, like the younger coaches I have worked with. ... I feel good about where we are and what we did, but it's also tough not to be able to help out other people as much as I wanted to.
"The only thing people are going to miss about me," Sampson said, "is the suits."
Nick Lockridge may be reached at 523-5298 or email@example.com.