BILLINGS — It was 100 degrees in Yuma, Arizona, when Ken Blankenship drove north in November 2012. He reached Montana a couple days later, and snow was falling.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, what did I get myself into?’” Blankenship told 406mtsports.com Friday. “But once we made it through that first winter, it was good. Then you live for the summers.”
This summer, Blankenship will coach the sport he loves in a new role. Roundup hired him to replace Chris Bourn as its head football coach last week. Bourn resigned because of health concerns, according to Roundup superintendent Chad Sealey.
With more than 30 years of coaching experience, Blankenship believes he can turn the Panthers into a powerhouse.
“The big thing, when we talk about culture, is making it fun again for those kids,” he said. “Football’s hard enough. High school football’s supposed to be the best times of your life, and it can’t all be work, so if we can develop that (fun environment) and a good competitive spirit, I think we’re going to be able to do big things.”
Blankenship, 51, has lived in Roundup since 2015 with his wife, Jennifer, and three children (his daughter and oldest son are out of the house, and his youngest son is 14 years old). He saw the Roundup football team reach the Class B state playoffs during his first four years there, with an undefeated regular season and a state quarterfinal trip in 2018. The Panthers went 2-6 last season.
On top of all the rookie head coaching adjustments, Blankenship will have to navigate the obstacles created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Blankenship applied for the Roundup coaching job almost four months ago, he said, and he wasn’t interviewed until about a month ago due to the state’s K-12 school closure and other pandemic-related issues. One of the main questions he received in the interview: how did he plan to run the football program amid the chaos?
Blankenship breathed a slight sigh of relief earlier this week, when Gov. Steve Bullock announced that Montana would enter the second phase of its gradual reopening on June 1. That should allow Blankenship to conduct summer camps and other football-related activities with minimal restrictions. Still, uncertainty is constant during the age of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“Right now, we’re kind of at the mercy of the state government and the school board,” Blankenship said. “We’ve got kids coming in periodically for weightlifting, and we’re starting to build that culture.”
Blankenship plans to bring in former New York Giants offensive lineman Myniya Smith to run some summer camps. Same with Travis Browne, a Stevensville native who starred at wide receiver for Carroll College and the Billings Wolves. Both Browne and Smith played for the now-defunct Billings Outlaws, who, like the Wolves, competed in the Indoor Football League.
Other former professional football players might help run Roundup football camps this summer, as well, Blankenship said. He was an indoor football coach in Arizona and Las Vegas before moving to Montana to take the offensive coordinator job for the semi-pro Billings Bullets. In 2013, he went to Billings Senior to coach freshmen and sophomores. He served that role until 2016 and most recently coached the Billings Xtreme of the Rocky Mountain Football League.
Blankenship has been a football coach at nearly every level: Pop Warner, high school, junior college, minor league and arena. He also volunteered for the Arizona Cardinals’ youth football development program.
“I’m a football coach. That’s what I do,” he said. “I’m a high-energy kind of guy.”
Two of the biggest factors for Blankenship when considering a youth or high school football job are community and administrative support. He has received both so far at Roundup, he said.
The Panthers have won two state football titles, in 1979 and 1984. Blankenship’s goal is to get back to those heights, or at least to where they were a couple years ago. By focusing on youth development and having fun, he believes a turnaround will be swift.
“I’m excited about the challenge of changing the culture a little bit,” Blankenship said. “Changing the outlook of the kids and getting them to maybe believe in themselves a little bit more, believe they can be a powerhouse again.”