BILLINGS — Walking onto the field last Saturday as Rocky Mountain College’s back-to-back Frontier Conference championship teams from 1998 and 1999 were inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame, Jeff Lewis took a trip back in time.
For Lewis, the head coach of those history making Battlin’ Bears, the journey took too long.
“I think it’s well overdue,” Lewis said during halftime of Rocky’s homecoming game against Montana Tech at Herb Klindt Field. “That era, to me, was the greatest era of Rocky football. It’s still unmatched, and it was unmatched before.
“Those guys deserve this so much, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
That’s not to say Lewis, 52, isn’t appreciative. He absolutely is. He’s just a little biased: These newly minted hall of famers are still his guys.
In a coaching career that spanned 30 years and eventually led him to a higher-profile and higher-paying job as an offensive coordinator in NFL Europe, Lewis’ time at Rocky, he said, represents the zenith of it all.
“This school is a great place. It was probably the best football of my life,” said Lewis, who was just 27 when he was named Rocky’s coach after the 1996 season. “I stepped up to the next level, and I still cherish those years. I really do.”
Last week marked Lewis’ second hall induction at Rocky. He was also included as an individual in 2007 for his coaching exploits. In four years as head coach (1997-2000), Lewis forged a 27-14 record — a winning percentage of .659. But the 1998 and 1999 seasons were the pinnacle.
In those years, the Bears lost one conference game and went 18-4 on the way to consecutive league titles. In 1998, Rocky went 9-1, reached as high as No. 2 in the NAIA poll and made the postseason for the first time in the program’s 88-year history. The following year the Bears went 9-3 and won in the playoffs for the first time.
Utilizing a spread offense, Rocky led the NAIA in passing three times under Lewis. Quarterback David Short led a skill-laden unit that also included running back Jarod Tocco and receivers Chris Horn, Dennis Short, Darrell Hirsch and Toby Winters.
Horn went on to catch 33 passes in two NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
A stout linebacker corps propped up the defense: Luke Twibell, Ted Reiter, Mike Andy and Kory Anderson.
When Lewis joined Rocky’s staff as an assistant in 1996, the program was in the throes of a 41-game losing streak. He helped make those difficult years a distant memory.
“That run was incredible,” Lewis said. “There were so many firsts in school history, and I think that’s what stands out the most is all those first-time things for the school.”
The program came back down to earth a bit in 2000 with a 5-5 mark, and after that season Lewis stepped down to join the staff of the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe under head coach and friend Bart Andrus, who preceded Lewis as Rocky’s coach in 1996.
The Bears didn’t win another Frontier title for 19 years after Lewis departed.
Lewis coached for four seasons with Amsterdam before suffering through what he described as football burnout, and then stepped away from coaching altogether.
He spent the following 14 years in Billings. For 11 years he was employed at the Ted Lechner Youth Service Center on the south side of town. For three years after that he drove a bus for MET Transit.
Six years ago Lewis relocated to his hometown of Tooele, Utah, where he found the itch to coach again. Lewis spent four seasons — two as head coach — at Tooele High School, his alma mater. He also coached for two years at a cross-county school, Stansbury High, as an assistant.
This year, Lewis is again out of coaching but is working at what he said is his “dream job,” teaching physical education at Tooele Junior High School.
Living roughly six hours from Las Vegas, Lewis said he has become a Raiders fan and has plans to attend a couple games this season. He already took in the BYU-Arizona game at Allegiant Stadium on Sept. 4.
Right now, being a fan feels just right for Lewis.
When asked if he has plans to return to coaching, Lewis said, “Not at the current moment. But if opportunity knocks, you never know.”
No matter what the future holds, Lewis will cling to the memories he and the Battlin’ Bears cultivated as a team in the late 1990s — an unprecedented run of success for the program.
“When you come back here, it feels like yesterday. It really does,” he said. “You see the faces and the kids that you coached, it all comes back.”