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Robin Selvig at peace in retirement after long years at Lady Griz helm

Longtime Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig is making up for lost time in retirement, spending long days with family and friends. (GoGriz.com)

When he awoke on Tuesday morning, before the sunrise, because even in retirement some things don’t change, Robin Selvig had options. His garden would need its daily tending. So too his backyard pool, now more than 30 years old but still being enjoyed by a new generation of kids.

The regular group he golfs with most mornings at Canyon River would soon be arriving at the course, ready to play hole to hole, a little something on the line on each one, just to keep it interesting and the banter flowing.

But on this morning, the Hall of Fame coach — in theory if not yet in actuality — set all those options aside in favor of … breakfast with his family. You see, his son and granddaughter were in town, visiting from Southern California, and that made them Robin Selvig’s top priority, the only focus of his attention.

It sounds pleasant, so normal, right and wholesome, Rockwellian, but it wasn’t always like that. He knows it, knew it all those years he was coaching too, but that doesn’t mean he could do anything to change it. It’s hard to go against one’s nature.

Down the valley from his Rattlesnake home that morning, on campus, the Lady Griz basketball program was preparing for the second day of one of its three summer camps.

Had Selvig rolled out of bed on Tuesday still employed as Montana’s women’s basketball coach, his mind would have been gripped with thoughts of camp, of recruiting, of his program, everything but three-year-old Sofia, who wanted nothing more this week than to sit down to breakfast with Grandpa Rob.

He likely would have been out the door and headed to the office before anyone else in the house had stirred. Because even a camp for mostly elementary-school-aged kids needed his full attention, didn’t it?

Of course it was that level of dedication and commitment — Lady Griz: 24/7/365 — that provided the foundation for the program that Selvig is known for building. Part of him, that which is hardwired, needed it to be that way. It was the only way he knew how to be.

But another part of him — the side that often lost out when the two came into conflict — didn’t want it to be like that. He understood the need for balance but had a hard time finding it or actually putting it into practice.

“Even when you did things with your family, it wasn’t like you were all there, and I hated that,” Selvig says today, sounding free of a heavy weight. “I wanted to be able to see my kids and granddaughter and actually enjoy it. The most important things in life, you don’t want to screw them up.”

Sofia wasn’t the stated reason Selvig retired a year ago this month, after 38 years coaching the Lady Griz to 865 victories and 24 conference championships, but she’s emblematic of the change he knew needed to be made.

He wasn’t going to be able to be the person he wanted to be at that point of his life as long as he was the man he was, one always driven to distraction by his basketball responsibilities, things that wouldn’t end until he made a clean break of it.

Coaching — or more specifically, overseeing a program — was going to consume him for as long as he allowed it to run his life. Have your doubts? Here is something he could set his watch by: Go on vacation, and after three days, he had to get back, “whether it was Italy or Arlee,” he says.

To find peace, to discover some balance, he had to get out of the only profession he’d ever known.

Former Lady Griz head coach Robin Selvig won 24 league championships in his 38 years at Montana. (GoGriz.com)

To an outsider, Selvig made it look easy. After nearly four decades of success, his program appeared to operate on cruise control. If there was hard work and stress, wouldn’t it have come back in the late 70s and 80s, when he was first getting things rolling?

Oddly enough, those were easier, simpler times, he says. The calendar, not so filled with recruiting and other commitments, allowed for a better and healthier work-life balance.

As the years and seasons rolled by, the program kept humming along. But the work to sustain that success became more and more, which multiplied the stresses, because in Selvig’s world, everything fell on him. It became more and more weight to shoulder.

It’s just the nature of most head coaches to do the heaviest lifting, to give the most, often to a fault. Urban Meyer stepped down as football coach at Florida after the 2010 season, after the pressure of the job landed him in the emergency room the year before with chest pains. He was 45.

And if you think comparing the football coach at Florida with the women’s basketball coach at Montana isn’t apt, you’re using the wrong metrics. It’s not the amount of stressors that come with each position, it’s about how deeply they’re internalized, and both coaches, Meyer and Selvig, went all in.

Another case: Former Utah women’s basketball coach Elaine Elliott stepped down after the 2009-10 season. Her plan was to take a one-year leave of absence then hopefully return one year later, refreshed and rejuvenated, ready again to take on the challenges of running the Utes.

She couldn’t do it. A year later she held a press conference to announce her full retirement from coaching. “It’s a big load and a lot of stress,” she said about her job. “It is just time.” Selvig said similar things last July at his retirement press conference.

Elliott tried, essentially, to take a sabbatical, something that’s common on university campuses for professors. It’s designed to be a time away, for reflection and renewal, a break from the routine to pursue new interests, with the expectation that they’ll come back better than ever.

Coaches and professors are both teachers of young people, but that’s where the similarities end. Take a semester break and a professor misses a group of students passing through their class. It’s easy to jump back in and start anew with a fresh set of students and a new semester, like they never left.

A basketball program is always ongoing, without a stop. Players in, players out. Seasons end, and a coach better already be preparing for the next. And the one after that. And the one after that.

As Selvig ate lunch on Tuesday in downtown Missoula, he looked good. Fit and trim and in his mid-60s, it appeared like the year away from the program might have been just what he — or any other tired coach — might need to give it another go.

And that’s where the idea of sabbaticals for coaches ends, because the only way to get out of the cycle is to step away completely, not take a hiatus.

“Certainly a break from the everyday stress of it would be good, but if you’re coming back, you’d want to be involved in recruiting. You’re going to want to know who you’re going to be coaching next year,” he says, knowing the stresses of the job don’t go away when a coach leaves the office for the day.

“I don’t see how you could not be thinking about it. It’s a great job, but it’s always with you. I know that I was too stressed. I maybe didn’t have to be that way, but that’s how I was. You’re so consumed by it that it’s hard to let go. There isn’t a natural break.”

Meyer found one, but he had to leave Florida and spend a year removed from coaching to find it. He resumed his career at Ohio State in 2012, but not before signing a contract that he would take better care of himself, make football less of a priority. An agreement not with Ohio State but with his daughter.

So, yeah, it hits close to home. Really close. And Selvig isn’t the only coach who’s ever struggled with it.

“You’re always thinking about something going on with the program,” he says. “You wake up, and you’re thinking about it. For 365 days a year, you’re a coach. I don’t know how you can forget about your job.”

That’s why March 1, 1985, was one of the worst days of Selvig’s life, even though his Lady Griz would post a 31-point win at Montana State. Or January 23, 1997, a 32-point home win over Sacramento State. Or a 37-point home win over Eastern Washington in early January 2007.

Selvig had 1,151 worst days of his life, one for every day his team played, even if Montana ended 865 of them with wins.

Selvig loved the game itself. He loved his players and every team he ever had. He loved the competition. He loved the support Missoula provided. In essence, it was himself that drove Selvig into retirement.

The coach became famous for his in-game intensity, something that seemed to come out of nowhere once the ball was tipped. But that fire was lit long before then. Restless sleep the night before. Full days with nowhere for the mind to go before a night game, picturing the worst possible outcomes.

Read a book? Maybe make it a page before focus drifts to the opponent. A nap? Good luck. Pacing became a Selvig trademark, unable to even sit still 10 hours before tip. And that was before an exhibition game against Montana-Western. Now multiply that by 30 regular-season games every year.

“Game days are the worst days of a coach’s life. At least they were for me,” he says. “I wish I could have made myself be different.

“Every other coach probably doesn’t react to everything like me. I don’t necessarily like the way I got crazy in games. I don’t like that I worried about every game. I tried to tell myself, you’ve won a lot of games, you don’t have to sweat every game, but it doesn’t work like that.”

It was his nature. And it wasn’t going to change until he finally stepped away from the game. It’s why he looks so refreshed these days. He relieved himself of a huge burden last July. A lot had to be sacrificed, but so much was gained.

“There is a whole bunch I miss, but there is a whole bunch I don’t miss at all,” he says. “I still find other things to worry about now, but it’s not the constant.”

In a way, Selvig’s golf game reveals a lot. Back when he was hired at Montana, in the summer of 1978, the men’s team was being coached by Mike Montgomery. He had an assistant named Stew Morrill.

It was a different time in the profession for all of them.

“I was at the (Missoula Country Club) when I first got here, with Monte and Stew,” Selvig says. “At that time we could play more, before coaching became more work in the summer.

“I was down to a 9 handicap at one time, but then I didn’t golf for 20 years. There just wasn’t time in the summer to play very much.”

He has the time now. Four days a week he and his small group gather at Canyon River. He dreams of getting his handicap down again, but the experience is just as important as the scores.

“It’s been really good. I’m not playing very well — I’m a 25 handicap now — but it’s a fun group,” he says. “I still keep thinking I’m going to start playing well. I hit some good shots, then wonder, why can’t I hit all good shots? That’s the hook and frustration of golf.”

Basketball provided the same thing, both hook and frustration. It was a sport he decided he wanted to coach his senior year playing for the Grizzlies under Jud Heathcote.

The hook was always the same: the players. If that’s what 90 percent of the job entailed, he’d still be going, laughing off any talk of him finally retiring, seeing no need to because he still enjoyed what he was doing.

“I loved being around people who wanted to compete and play together toward a goal,” he says.

As if on cue, in the middle of lunch on Tuesday, down the sidewalk came Skyla Sisco, walking her dog. Selvig and the 1998 Big Sky MVP started up an easy conversation, one based on deep familiarity. Once coach and player, now just friends for life. Another reminder of why he started coaching.

“If you really don’t love working with the kids, you’re in the wrong business,” he says. “That’s what you have to zero in on. Even when things got tough or we lost a big game, when I walked into the gym and saw the ladies, that was always a pick-me-up. They were always fun to be around.”

Sisco departed and Selvig brought up a two-point loss to Texas Tech in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, when — and he thinks he has this right — Sisco’s late 3-pointer went in and out. The chance to advance was lost. There is some history he’ll just have to carry forever.

If his players were the hook, the frustrations were the attendant stresses of the game, mostly worries of his own making, like his unreasonable pregame concern that his team might get shut out. Even more than 800 wins later.

Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden once lamented, perhaps with a side of jealousy, that then Florida coach Steve Spurrier coached out of confidence, while he, Bowden, coached out of fear. Selvig can totally relate.

“I wish I wouldn’t have been that way. It was the worry before, when you’re totally consumed, that made it hard,” he says.

“It’s funny, because whether we won or lost, I was fine with the outcome afterwards, but not in the lead-up to it. I had a great fear of losing, but if we lost, I was fine with it. It’s silly, I know. If the players hadn’t been so much fun and such great kids, it would have been really tough.”

Now there is so much to do, missed experiences to make up for. Trips to Southern California to see Jeff and family. Trips to San Francisco to see Dan. Done with his three-year residency, he’s starting three years of work toward his specialty in gastro-endocrinology.

Just recently, there was a five-day vacation to Deadwood for an extended Selvig gathering, two days longer than anything he could have handled before.

For the first time, Robin Selvig can be there, fully present for all of it. No more worries about what’s going on in the Lady Griz program in his absence. He can finally embrace a side of life that got shortchanged before. Finally he is at peace.

So if you want to be thankful for him, again, let it be for this: He did what he always asked of his players, to sacrifice a little bit of themselves for the good of the program. Of course, he only asked for four years from them. He gave 38 years of himself.