Keller takes Providence up on their offer

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This is what we’re going to do

Steve Keller, Montana Western’s former head men’s basketball coach, works up a play during a timeout at the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City. Within hours of losing a quarterfinal game, Providence College in Great Falls opened negotiations with the coach and hired him a week ago. Jerry Wolcott photo

He’s gone

Things were looking even better than usual these past couple of weeks for the University of Montana Western’s men’s basketball team.

Regular season co-champions of the Frontier Conference, the Bulldogs in mid-March made their fourth straight appearance at the NAIA national tourney in Kansas City, where they won in the first and second round to establish a new single-season program record for wins and take their second climb in the past six seasons to the elite eight of the 32-team competition.

Even in losing in the quarterfinals, the 27-8 Dawgs looked formidable, falling on March 17 by just four points to eventual tourney champs Graceland—with the promise of more good things to come at Western, which has three All-Conference players eligible to return next season.

Then, just five days later, the program got hit by an avalanche.

Steve Keller, the longtime UMW head coach who guided the Bulldogs to those lofty heights announced last Thursday that he would be stepping down after more than a decade at his post at Montana Western to take over the men’s basketball program at a Frontier Conference rival, the University of Providence.

“Yeah, the process went hard and fast,” said Keller of the successful efforts over the course of just a few days by Providence to lure him to Great Falls from Dillon, where he coached the Montana Western men for 11 seasons.

“I got the call from them about an hour after we lost in Kansas City,” revealed Keller of the initial contact that Providence made with him, shortly after his UMW team got knocked out of the national tourney.

“They offered me a job that I wouldn’t have to interview for, with a substantial pay raise,” revealed Keller, a veteran of nearly four decades of coaching in high school and college.

“They basically made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” added Keller, who said he would essentially be making three times as much at Providence.

“When you coach at our level and at the high school level for as long as he has, you’re certainly not doing it for the money. You’re doing it because you love it,” commented UMW Women’s Basketball Head Coach Lindsay Woolley.

“For him to get a nice payday toward the tail end of his career is well-earned and well-deserved.”

Still, Keller said he agonized over the decision.

“I wasn’t looking to move. I hadn’t finished what I’d started at Western,” explained Keller of his tenure at the helm of the Bulldog men’s basketball program that could have two All-Americans next season.

“The toughest part was meeting with the players,” said Keller, before pausing to collect himself and recount his meeting last week with his Bulldogs last Tuesday to inform them thatpending the wrapping up of final details of a deal with Providence—he would be leaving Montana Western.

“You build a bond. I know I’m tough on them sometimes, but I really care about them.”

Keller built more than close bonds with his players during his time at Montana Western.

“He did a fantastic job building our men’s basketball program. He’s done things no one has ever been able to do here, and to sustain it,” noted Woolley of Keller, who recorded a 231-124 overall record and 108-62 mark in the Frontier Conference and won three league titles during his time at Montana Western.

“That says a lot about his ability to coach and recruit, and how he’s consistently been able to find the right type of players to be successful here,” added Woolley of the four-time Frontier Conference Men’s Basketball

Coach of the Year honoree, who tutored Bulldog players to 11 NAIA All-American selections.

Keller took over a losing program at Montana Western in 2007 that had not gained an invitation to the NAIA tourney in almost two decades.

“It was a struggle early on,” admitted Keller of his first season at Western, when the Dawgs went 10-19 overall and finished sixth in the Frontier Conference.

“We were competing well by the end of the season, but still not getting wins,” remembered Keller, who pushed the Dawgs above the .500 mark in his second campaign.

In his third season in Dillon, the Bulldogs posted a then-school-record 25 wins and gained their first invitation to the NAIA tourney in 21 years.

Western went on to play in all but one NAIA tournament over Keller’s last eight years with the program, reaching the tourney’s second round a half-dozen times and its quarterfinals twice.

His achievements at Montana Western followed a stellar high school coaching career that earned the 1974 Custer High School graduate and hoops playing star induction into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005.

On his way to a 610-180 overall record as a coach in high school, Keller guided the Opheim High School girls basketball team to three-consecutive Class C state titles in the 1980s.

Keller went on to lead Helena High to three Class AA state titles in the 1990s, as well as helping the Bengal boys win the 1991 state championship as an assistant coach.

The following decade, the Rocky Mountain College graduate graduated professionally into the college game, serving as an assistant men’s coach for three years at Carroll College before being named men’s basketball head coach at Montana Western in 2007.

“I want to thank Mark Durham again. He hired me without an interview,” said Keller of the former UMW athletic director.

“And I just want to thank all my players, the community of Dillon and the administration at Montana Western. They were all so supportive through the last 11 years. It’s been a great experience,” said Keller, who said he plans on sustaining his many ties to the Dillon area.

“My wife is still teaching at Montana Western,” said Keller of his wife, Mary Kay, with whom he’s had five children—including Twin Bridges basketball coach Josh Keller and Rocky Mountain College Women’s Basketball Head Coach Wes Keller.

“We have developed a lot of friendships in the area that we want to continue,” said Keller, who will be returning to Dillon at least once a year to take his University of Providence players into Straugh Gymnasium for Frontier Conference basketball games against Montana Western.

‘It’s gonna be tough to come back and play, wearing the Providence colors, instead of the black and red of the Bulldogs,” admitted Keller, of his impending first away game in Dillon next season, guiding the team known before last season as the University of Great Falls.

“But at this point in my life, I’m getting older. It’s nice to get a big pay raise and keep doing what I love to do.”