Schweyen

Shannon Schweyen is the greatest player in Montana Lady Griz history and symbol of the program's decades-long dominance. She also was head coach as the program fell into relative mediocrity.

BOZEMAN — Were this an average program, with an average tradition, a new coach handing five players their walking papers would merit little more than a knowing shrug.

A new coach means new staff. And new ideas. And new players.

Especially in this zany free-agent world otherwise known as the Year of the Transfer Portal.

So why all the social media angst over new Montana Lady Griz basketball coach Brian Holsinger’s decision to trim the five (a sixth left on her own), notably four Montanans?

The answer begins and ends with the name Schweyen.

The jolting dismissal of popular locals Jordyn and Shelby Schweyen — daughters of Shannon Cate-Schweyen, the most prominent symbol of Lady Griz days-of-yore dominance this side of Robin Selvig — marks the end of an era that dates to the modern-day genesis of women’s college basketball itself.

It’s bad enough that Holsinger is an outsider at a school renowned for its legacy hires in the revenue triumvirate of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball (his two years as Montana Tech head coach notwithstanding). To understand how reaching beyond the branches of the Griz coaching tree has resonated with the fickle faithful, see Bob Stitt, football, and Pat Kennedy, men’s basketball.

In choosing Holsinger, UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam invited the instant ire of the fan base’s provincial sector by passing on interim coach Michael Petrino, yet another sprig on the coaching tree.

Even so, the outsider narrative is just the half of it.

In Holsinger's one harsh swoop, we also witnessed the abandonment of a formula that endeared Montanans from border to border and fueled a loyalty and passion matched by few programs nationally.

Selvig, who won an astonishing 865 games in 38 Hall of Fame seasons guiding what was once ranked the seventh greatest women’s program ever, built his powerhouse from kibbles and bits on the shoulders of Montana girls.

They were named Shannon Cate and Greta Koss and Cheri Bratt and Lisa McLeod and Katie Edwards and Mandy Morales and LeAnn Montes and Carla Beattie and Malia Kipp and Simarron Schildt and Colleen McNally and Cheryl and Juliann Keller and … the list goes on and on.

They were from Billings and Malta and Kalispell and Great Falls and Lewistown and Box Elder and Philipsburg and Browning and East Glacier and Ovando and Turner and … the list goes on and on.

Montana girls shot baskets day and night at hoops nailed to barns, on frost-heaved outdoor reservation courts and in dimly lit gyms with the dream of wearing the maroon and silver.

A Lady Griz pipeline from Malta to Missoula flowed with talent like oil from the Bakken.

Though it was increasingly clear even in the final years of Selvig’s reign and more so in Schweyen’s four-year tenure that the Montana-centric model was no longer viable — due largely to a meteoric talent rise and proliferation in women’s basketball — Lady Griz faithful clung nostalgically like a Luddite cradling a rotary phone or tapping a Royal typewriter.

That included Shannon Schweyen, whose final roster in 2019-20 featured seven Montanans.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, where Montana State’s Tricia Binford was emerging from the Lady Griz’s massive shadow, the 2020-21 squad listed two Montanans — Kola Bad Bear of Billings and, significantly given that the last name appears twice on UM’s all-time roster, Lexi Deden of Missoula.

Binford hears her share of muttering for the scarcity of Treasure Staters, but nothing muffles dissent like winning with good people whether they’re from Montana or Monrovia.

Especially when you’re 7-1 against the Lady Griz after three decades where any 15-point loss was a moral victory meriting a fire-truck ride down Kagy Avenue.

Schweyen’s habitual and perhaps stubborn adherence to the tried-and-true Lady Griz formula is understandable, and injuries certainly dogged her regime, but the source of the dynasty’s rise is also probably the reason for its fall.

It’s long been a quaint provincial notion that the Montana and MSU football and basketball teams can and should win the Big Sky Conference with homegrown talent as anchors, but that’s no longer realistic. The Lady Griz did it when their sport was a novelty and/or an afterthought.

Those days are gone and aren’t coming back.

What seems a heartless business decision by Holsinger has driven that point home with painful clarity.

Perhaps the abrupt philosophical shift is best summed up by the recent signing of Lisa Kiefer of Germany. That's one more international scholarship player than in Selvig's entire tenure.

Sure, the optics are awful. Holsinger will have an even shorter leash than fellow outsiders Kennedy and Stitt, if that’s possible. Some boos and empty seats at Dahlberg Arena come November won’t be a shock because those offended most are also those who’ve been most loyal.

But Holsinger is paid to win, and if he thought he could do so with those five players they’d still be Lady Griz.

Email 406mtsports.com and Lee Montana newspapers Executive Sports Editor Jeff Welsch at jeff.welsch@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @406sportswelsch

Load comments