Havre Daily News
Twenty-nine years ago, a little known man named Roy Lackner took over the head-coaching job of the Big Sandy Pioneers girls basketball team.
Little did he know that he was about to embark on one of the most legendary coaching careers in Montana high school history.
For as long as he can remember, Lackner wanted to be a teacher and a basketball coach. And after serving a three-year stint in the Marine Corp, where he earned the rank of staff sergeant, Lackner decided to pursue his dream. So he left the military and went to the University of Montana in Missoula to study the game of basketball.
“I knew that I wanted to be a basketball coach,” Lackner said. “So I left the Marines so I could become a teacher. Because in those days you had to be a teacher to be able to coach.”
While he attended the University of Montana, Lackner learned the game under Jud Heathcote, a national championship winning basketball coach.
“I emulated Jud Heathcote, I took after him a lot,” he said. “He was an intense guy and he would get in your face if you didn't do something the way that he wanted it to be done.”
Then, in 1977, Lackner's dream became a reality when he took the job at Big Sandy, and as they say, the rest is history.
Lackner exploded onto the coaching scene preaching discipline and conditioning as his two keys to success. He set out to make sure his teams were mentally tough and intense. He was able to get the most out of his players by pushing them further and harder than they ever believed they could go.
“In the Marines you find out what discipline is. Things are done a certain way and that's how it is,” he said. “In basketball I believe the two most important things are discipline and conditioning. My girls don't show a lot of emotion, they don't get upset at themselves or at the officials because they know it's not their job. They are always in control out there.”
With his strategy firmly in place, the Pioneers began to win at an amazing rate. In Lackner's first two seasons Big Sandy went 42-4, earning back-to-back trips to the state tournament. After those initial two years, the wins just kept piling up and so did the trophies.
Lackner has led the Pioneers to an astounding 536-70 record as the head coach. The Pioneers have captured 22 district championships, 10 divisional titles, and two state championships under the legendary head coach. The Class C state championships came in 1986 and 1997.
“I always thought that I could have success,” Lackner said. “But, I never thought we would win as much as we have. It's amazing. What those girls have accomplished over the years is really incredible.”
Despite all of his success at Big Sandy, Lackner never seriously considered moving on or moving up in the coaching ranks like many coaches of small schools do. He did, however, step away from the team on two different occasions. Once from 1988-1992 and again in 2003.
Despite interest and offers from bigger schools and higher-paying jobs, Lackner showed the loyalty that is hardly ever seen anymore by staying with the school that gave him his first opportunity.
“I have had offers to go to other schools,” he said. “But I always had a commitment to someone that I wanted to help and I didn't want to leave them. I felt that I had a responsibility to help those players.”
The highlight of Lackner's career is undoubtedly his two state titles. The first coming in 1986 when the Pioneers completed a perfect 26-0 season and another title coming 11 years later when Big Sandy went 24-2.
But with all of the success also comes failure. Even for Lackner.
He admits that some of his best teams were the one's that fell short of winning the state championship. After all, Lackner has guided the Pioneers to 16 trips to the state tournament over the years.
“My favorite team was the 1986 team because that was the year I won my first championship,” he said. “But, I do regret not winning more state titles because we have had a lot of opportunities and we have lost a lot of close games.
“But, I don't think people realize how hard it is just to make it to state, let alone to win it,” he added. “So people might not think that 2-for-16 is very good, but making it to state that many times is an accomplishment on its own.”
The truly amazing thing about the Pioneers' run over the last quarter-century is that they have never had what people would consider a down year. The Pioneers have played in the district championship every year. Lackner has been the head coach and they have qualified for divisionals every year as well.
Doing that at a place like Big Sandy, where the talent pool is not nearly as deep as some other big schools, makes the feat even more amazing, and it only adds to the legend of Lackner.
“I think that's the most incredible part about it is that we have never had a bad year,” he said. “A lot of teams have a hard time putting together runs like that for five years and we have done it for over 20.”
Of course every great coach has had great players, and Lackner is no exception. But he has also taken a lot of girls and made them into players. He has molded them from raw talent into champions.
“The thing I like most, even more than the wins, is helping the kids be successful,” Lackner said. “I like taking a kid and helping them become a player.”
However, Lackner has been criticized by fans, parents and coaches for being too hard on his players. While it is true that Lackner is a very intense coach in games and in practice, he does not cross the line. He is a classy old-school coach who gets on his players, but in no way demeans them. Nor does he disrespect the game.
That simply isn't Lackner. He is tough on his players, but his players love to play for him and they, like their coach, love to win.
“I think what people on the outside see is different than what people on the inside see,” he said. “I am intense and fiery but I have never insulted a player or anything like that.
“I don't like to call time-outs during games, so I like to make changes while my team is on the floor,” he added. “So I have to communicate with them. If they hated it so much, they wouldn't put up with it. They are smart girls. They would tell me where to put it.
“I am a coach,” he continued. “I do what I have to do to prepare the team to win. That's my job and sometimes people don't like it, but I am only doing what is best for the team.”
Lackner is a controversial figure because he doesn't fit the cookie-cutter image we all think of when we think of a basketball coach. He has long hair and sports a beard. He certainly doesn't look like the coaches we all see on television every night, and maybe that is a good thing.
Lackner is his own man and he does things his own way, and that way continues to work. You don't win 89 percent of your games by getting lucky. The man knows how to win basketball games.
“It's been interesting to say the least,” he said. “It has also been frustrating at times. But, looking back at everything, if I could go back, I wouldn't change a thing.”