By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern athletics director Byron Ophus did some serious scrambling Friday evening. No, he wasn't trying to pick up any last minute Christmas presents.
Instead, Ophus was desperately trying to contact the four finalists for the vacant Northern head football coaching position, and set up interviews for today and tomorrow.
"I can't believe I got them all here so fast," Ophus said. "I was still making calls to notify them on Friday at 6 p.m. I think it says a lot about the interest level these four finalists have for this job."
The search committee of Ophus, local businessman Mike Tilleman, faculty-athletics representative Carol Reifschneider, dean of the College of Technical Sciences Greg Kegel and starting offensive lineman Levi Wesche met on Friday afternoon to wade through the 25 applications and narrow it down to a group of no more than five finalists.
"It was very tough to get it down to four finalists," Ophus said. "It's going to be even tougher to narrow it down from four to one."
The four finalists chosen to interview are Helena Capital High School head coach Mark Samson, Whitworth College defensive coordinator Chris Casey, Adams State College special teams coordinator and defensive line coach Anthony Rosso and Ekalaka High School head coach Jeff Savage.
Havre High School head coach Troy Purcell was one of the applicants but was not among the finalists.
One thing that all four finalists share is past college coaching experience, which is something that the search committee was looking for.
"That was something that was really important for us," Ophus said.
"Of course we looked at wins and losses and football success," Ophus added. "But we also looked for a person that will make a positive contribution to the community and who also takes academics very seriously."
Samson is the most familiar name of the four. The Capital coach is one of the most successful coaches in Montana football. He took over as the head coach at Capital in 1997 and has led the Bruins to four state championships and a 70-7 record in that time.
Besides his success at Capital, Samson was also an assistant at his alma mater Carroll College for seven years.
Casey has been the defensive coordinator at Whitworth for the past 10 years. The Pirates, an NCAA Division III school in Spokane, Wash., finished this season with a 4-6 record in the very tough Northwest College Conference. Whitworth defeated Montana Tech 20-3 and fell to UM-Western 37-24 this season.
Before coaching at Whitworth, Casey spend eight years at Linfield College, a former NAIA football power that has moved up to NCAA Division III level and plays in the Northwest College Conference.
Besides being the defensive coordinator, Casey is also the strength coach at Whitworth.
Rosso is in his third year at NCAA Division II Adams State in Alamosa, Colo., coordinating special teams and coaching the defensive line. The Grizzlies finished this season with a 4-7 record. Rosso had a pair of defensive linemen earn first-team all-conference honors along with an all-conference punter and return specialist.
Rosso also had coaching stints at West Texas A&M and Bemidji State.
Savage was the head coach at Ekalaka this past season and led the Bulldogs to a 7-2 record, including an appearance in the Class C eight-man playoffs.
Savage has had extensive coaching experience, including stops at Valier, Charlo, Miles City and several high schools in Wyoming. Savage also spent a year at Carroll College during head coach Mike Van Diest's first year with the Saints.
"The reason his coaching past has been so itinerant is not because of his coaching skills," Ophus said. "He bounced around trying to finish up his master's degree and his wife was trying to get her degree."
According to Ophus, Savage was one of the main recruiters of former Carroll and Chester star Casey Fitzsimmons, who now plays in the NFL for the Detroit Lions. Savage also convinced current Minnesota Vikings placekicker Aaron Elling to go out for football during his senior year of high school at Landry, Wyo.
Ophus said Elling called on Savage's behalf earlier this week recommending him for the position.
The four candidates will meet today and Tuesday with the search committee. Casey met the committee this morning at 9 while Rosso was to interview at 1 p.m. Samson was expected to interview this afternoon at 4 while Savage will interview Tuesday at 9 a.m.
After the interview process, Ophus still has some background checking to do on the four finalists before a replacement is announced.
"I'd like to be very optimistic and say that we would announce before Jan. 1," Ophus said. "That would be very optimistic because the background checking could be difficult over the holidays. Optimistically, I'll say Jan. 1, but realistically it might not be until school starts back up on Jan. 14."