BILLINGS — Nate Harris knew it would be a gamble.
He wanted to be a head basketball coach. That was the plan when Harris started on his path.
“I wanted to be the one who makes the final decision, not a suggestion,” he said.
And having put in his time, Harris was ready for the next step.
But as he looked over the coaching landscape, Harris knew he needed to take a different route to reach his goal.
He had already interviewed at five different schools, coming up short each time in the process.
“You finish second or fifth during the interview process and you wonder what you have to do to get a chance,” said the Ronan native.
Like working a chess board, he took a step back in the NCAA division hierarchy so he could eventually make a big move forward.
In June of 2018, Harris left Montana State, a successful Division I women’s basketball program, to become an assistant coach for Angelo State, an even more successful Division II women’s basketball program located more than 1,400 miles away from Bozeman in west Texas.
“It was a calculated risk,” Harris acknowledged.
By April 1 of 2019, he was the Rambelles’ head coach.
The decision paid off large.
But he had his reasons for, what appeared from the outside, a strange move.
Harris had spent four seasons as an assistant coach with MSU and the three previous to that with Montana State Billings.
Primarily in charge of the defense for both programs (“Which is kind of funny. Ask anybody I played for, I never played a lick of defense,” the former Montana Tech player said with a good laugh), both teams enjoyed success during his time on the bench.
The Bobcats won back-to-back Big Sky Conference titles, playing in the NCAA Tournament in 2017. The Yellowjackets won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division II Tournament in 2014.
“Since I’ve started coaching, I’ve worked for fantastic people and had great experiences,” Harris said of working with Tricia Binford at MSU and Kevin Woodin at MSUB, along with coaching stops at Fresno Pacific and Montana Tech.
But after seven seasons, and NCAA Tournaments at two levels, he was no closer to being a head coach.
Knowing Binford was firmly entrenched in Bozeman (“Tricia’s a great coach. I see her there another 15, 20 years,” Harris said), he needed to find an alternate route.
Through friends, he got connected with Angelo State which had become a launching pad for other coaches. Harris was banking on that continued trend.
Kevin Baker was the Rambelles’ head coach for two seasons and parlayed the winning into a similar job with UTEP.
Renae Shippy took over Angelo State and kept winning.
“I knew Renae was a rising star in this business,” Harris said. “And that I could possibly position myself to become the next head coach. I thought maybe it would take a couple of years, not happen after one.”
Harris and his family — wife Elise, along with daughters Henley, Harper and Hollyn — traded the mountains for the wide west Texas landscape.
“My wife is so supportive,” he said. “When the chance came up, she said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ “
The couple is expecting their fourth daughter this September.
Shippy guided the Rambelles to consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division II South Central semifinals. This year’s team finished 26-6, losing to eventual national champion Lubbock Christian in the second round of the regional.
Shippy resigned on April 1 to return home to Missouri. Harris was hired as the head coach the same day.
He inherits a team that has posted 26, 23, 26 and 24 victories the past four seasons.
“It is a change and it’s stressful,” Harris said of settling into the warmer seat. “I’m inheriting a program that needs no rebuilding. We just have to build with personnel.
“The buck stops here. Everything in this program is now your responsibility. You want to do everything the best we can to help these young ladies. Give them the best opportunities for what they want to work for … give them the best way to chase their dream.”
Along with adjusting to a new role, Harris and his family are adjusting to new surroundings. San Angelo is a city of 100,000 in west Texas. The average summer — June, July and August — is hot and muggy with temperatures consistently in the 90s.
“We miss the mountains, but we don’t miss stepping outside and it being minus-10 in January,” he said.
Angelo State is a member of the Lone Star Conference, which is expanding to 18 teams this season. For basketball, the league will be divided into three, six-team groups. The Rambelles are in the same group as defending national champion Lubbock Christian and perennial powerhouse West Texas A&M, which also advanced to the regional semifinals a year ago.
The Belles play in the Junell Center, a state of the art facility.
“This is a great situation,” said Harris. “We have great support from our administration. This is a program that can be competitive at the national level.
“I want to make sure this ship is going in the right direction.”
And while confident in his abilities, Harris admits to having his moments.
“I had a panic moment recently,” he said. “I wrote a list of all the things I want to get done by August. I better get going.”