By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
After 30 years of coaching, Montana State University-Northern head football coach Walt Currie wants to see what all the fuss over hunting and fishing is about.
At Wednesday night's MSU-Northern football awards banquet, Currie announced to his team that he is retiring, following Northern's 1-9 season.
"Guys, some of you many know already, but this is my last official event as the Lights head coach," Currie told the group of 60 players. "I'm retiring from coaching. I'm going to start fishing and hunting in the fall and see what it's all about."
There haven't been many autumns where Currie hasn't been on the football field. The St. Ignatious native was a standout high school player for the Bulldogs before earning a degree in secondary education at the University of Montana in 1969.
Immediately after his graduation, he began his coaching career at Hermiston, Ore., where he coached football and wrestling until 1977.
That year, Currie moved to Havre to take over the Blue Pony football and wrestling programs. His stint in Havre lasted 10 years and featured three East-West Shrine Game coaching appearances.
Currie returned to Hermiston in 1987 to continue coaching football and wrestling until 1991, when he returned to Montana to guide the Great Falls High wrestling program for the next seven years.
In 1998, Currie was brought to Havre to coach a newly resurrected Northern football program, which had been absent since 1971.
Starting out as a club sport in 1998 and its first year in the Frontier Conference in 1999, the Northern program slowly progressed, trying to build a foundation.
"We wanted to increase the enrollment of the school and build a program," Currie said. "I think we did that. We've made some major strides since I've been here. We've beat every team in the Frontier Conference except Carroll. We were a bunch of upstart kids who played hard and forced everyone in the league to get a little better."
The process of resurrecting the Lights football program as well as attracting recruits to Northern and Havre would have been a daunting task for anyone to perform.
"Walt Currie was the right man for the job to get this program started," said Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville. "He had a lot of good school contacts and local contacts in the town. And he came in and did it with a much smaller budget than I think he even anticipated."
One of those contacts, local businessmen and former professional football player Mike Tilleman, was instrumental in bringing Currie to the program and has since been one of its biggest boosters with his annual Legends for Lights fund-raiser.
"I was on that first search committee six years ago," Tilleman said today. "Of the 63 applicants we had, Walt Currie was the right choice. There wasn't anyone else as well known in the community. He was able to raise money and get businesses to donate time to the program. We couldn't have found anyone else, for what the job paid, to do what he had to do."
Said Currie: "It was the biggest challenge I've ever had. We didn't always have the talent that other schools had, but we had good kids who worked and competed hard."
Capdeville credited Currie with bringing in quality students and people to his team, noting that Northern had more Montana players than any other team in the Frontier.
"One thing that Walt believed in was a concern for academics," Capdeville said. "He put a lot of emphasis on recruiting Montana kids and kids that were good students. Not everything is measured in wins or losses."
In his five-year tenure, Northern experienced limited success on the field. With the exception of the 3-3 record as a club sport, the Lights had a 10-42 record in their five years under Currie as an official sport.
This year's team, which featured only a handful of seniors and a plethora of freshmen, fought its way through a tough 1-9 season, but showed glimpses of potential with a 29-22 win over Montana Tech on Sept. 27 in Butte.
"We gave a lot of kids the opportunity to compete in football," Currie said. "There is plenty of potential returning for next year."
Tilleman echoed that statement: "Somebody's going to get a chance to win next year because Walt has a lot of good, talented kids."
There was much speculation surrounding the end of this season, with rumors that the Northern administration was pushing Currie to resign. Capdeville said today that Currie was not asked to resign.
Said Currie: "I think it was maybe time for a change for the program and for myself."
That change must be swift, according to Capdeville, who along with athletics director Byron Ophus will begin immediately searching for Currie's successor.
"I'd like to find someone within a month at the latest," Capdeville said. "We need to do it as soon as possible to send the message to recruits and the current players that there is some stability in the program."
Ophus, who is in his first year as AD at Northern, said he doesn't have an exact timetable or process for the actual search.
"There's no exact time frame," he said. "I'm kind of new at this, but I do know Rocky already has interviewed five coaches a week or two after their coach resigned. We want to get moving on this."
Ophus said that a search committee most likely will be formed and Capdeville indicated that he would help Ophus with the process.
As for possible candidates for a successor, Ophus said he didn't have anyone in mind.
"I really hadn't given it much thought until Walt told me he was retiring," he said. "I'm sure we'll be doing some cold calling and asking around. I think we'll have plenty of interest in the job."
Tilleman said he would gladly be a part of another search committee, stressing the importance of the program to Northern.
"MSU-Northern is our biggest asset in the community," he said. "We need to continue to increase enrollment and take the attitude of building programs like football to attract more traditional students."
The rest of Northern's coaching staff remains in coaching limbo. The assistant coaches' contracts are also up at the end of year and Ophus said there are no definite plans to renew them.
"They were Walt's staff," Ophus said. "Like Walt, their contracts will be honored until they are up, but like Walt, their contracts will also expire. That's not to say what would happen when a new coach is brought in, or if anyone on the staff applies for the head job."