Havre Daily News Sports Editor
With two extremely qualified finalists for the women's basketball head coaching position and a search committee struggling to decide between the two, Montana State University-Northern athletics director Byron Ophus posed one question: Which coach was the best fit for Northern? The answer: Chris Mouat.
Mouat, currently a Rocky Mountain College assistant basketball coach, was named the new Skylight basketball head coach on Thursday afternoon, beating out Bill Wilson, the former head coach at Upper Iowa University. Mouat will replace former coach Mike Erickson, who resigned on May 16 to take a job at Hardin High School.
"We really felt that there was something about Chris that made him the best fit for Northern," Ophus said.
The search committee took their decision to Northern chancellor Alex Capdeville, who called Mouat and offered him the job.
"I was elated," Mouat said late Thursday evening. "It's the biggest phone call, the biggest day in my professional life. I can't wait to start this new chapter in my life."
Mouat, a Helena native and graduate of Helena High School, has been with Rocky since 2003, where his duties have included on-court instruction, scouting, recruiting, game management, and overseeing the entire junior varsity program. Rocky's JV team plays between 18 and 20 games a year against junior varsity teams and junior college teams from Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota. He also serves as the school's sports information director and assistant athletics director.
It's that experience in the Frontier Conference that was one of Mouat's biggest assets to the committee.
"Being familiar with the teams and players in the conference was a big plus," Ophus said. "However, the offset was that he doesn't have any head coaching experience at the varsity level in college."
Mouat began his coaching career as an assistant coach in the Helena High boys and girls basketball programs in 1993. He spent five seasons coaching in the boys program and four in the girls program. During his time at Helena High, the Bengal boys finished second at the State AA tournament twice, and the girls won the AA title in 1997.
In 1998, Mouat took the head girls job at Butte High School, where he coached for four seasons. He also did double duty for two seasons, coaching the boys JV squad.
He moved into collegiate coaching at Montana Tech, where he was the assistant women's basketball coach for the 2002-03 season, before moving to Rocky.
One of his biggest tasks will be trying to repiece a Skylights' team that has fallen apart in the offseason, even before the departure of Erickson. Leading scorer Jessi Reome was not asked back to the team and transferred to Central Washington University. Fellow starter Michele VanDyke and key reserve Kristi Pullin have also left the team, while redshirts Laura Keaster and Sheena Darlington transferred to the University of Great Falls. There was also talk that the starting backcourt of Jaci Heny and Camille Gardner are wavering on coming back.
After accepting the job, Mouat spent the rest of the day on the phone, trying to contact the returning Skylights and the handful of players who are unsure about coming back
"I've been in contact with a few of the players, but I'm trying to track down some of the others," Mouat said. "It's kind of tough because it's so close to the Fourth of July holiday. All I am really trying to do is let them know that they have a new coach and tell them a little bit about myself and let them know that this is a fresh start here."
One of his players, junior Jena Heggem, already knew about the hiring without being contacted. Heggem was the team representative on the selection committee. She was pleased with the committee's decision.
"I think he's going to be a really good coach for Northern," Heggem said. "He's got a great personality and is easy to talk to, which is something that was important to me."
Mouat hoped to meet with all the returnees and unsure players face-to-face, whether that happens remains to be seen.
"I feel like I am at my best when I meet with someone in person," Mouat said. "I just want them to understand that the slate is totally clean here. It's a new beginning with me."
Regardless of who comes back and who doesn't, Mouat will hold them to high expectations both on and off the court.
"I ask for excellence from my players and my program," he said. "I expect excellence in the classroom, excellence on the court and excellence in the community."
Academically, he sets the very lofty goal of having a team grade point average of 3.5 every semester.
"It's something I like to push for," he said. "It's not unrealistic. Our kids will go to class, sit up front and let the teacher know they are there by participating."
On the court, Mouat's goal is to return Northern to a national program which means competing for a Frontier Conference title and an NAIA national tournament berth every season.
"There is such a strong tradition of winning here at Northern," he said. "I really think that it's a very attainable goal. It's not going to happen overnight, but it's not that far away. We'll be in the hunt this season."
Mouat also expects his players and his program to be visible throughout the community, whether it is going to elementary schools to talk to kids or being approachable on the street.
"We want to maintain the support that Northern gets from the community," he said.
In the immediate future, Mouat will run the traditional Skylights basketball camp that runs from July 18-22. He is hoping to get as many of the players back to work the camp as possible.
"I really feel like that is important to get them all here together so we can start building that trust with me," he said.
Further into the future, Mouat hopes to implement a junior varsity team for the program. After serving as Rocky's head JV coach the past three years, he has seen the benefits.
"From what I've seen at Rocky, a JV program can take marginal players and develop them into potential varsity players," he said. "We've had at least six girls come through the JV team that have made significant contributions to the varsity. It really boosts enrollment and it could be a great way to incorporate more local kids and give them a chance to play college basketball that they otherwise might not get."
Mouat is tying up some loose ends in Billings and hopes to be in Havre permanently as soon as possible. It's his first college head coaching job and he isn't about to sit still for a moment.
"I'm just excited to get going," he said. "When I started coaching, my plan was to someday be a head coach in college and I really wanted to stay in Montana. This is just the perfect situation for me."