BILLINGS — Tom Cliff wants to settle down, and Roundup wants its football program to be more stable. That played a big role in the school’s decision to hire Cliff to be its head football coach Monday.
Cliff, who has moved around the country and coached Grass Range-Winnett this fall, will be the Panthers’ fourth football coach in four years. He succeeds Ken Blankenship, whose one-year contract was not renewed.
“Stability for the program is imperative,” Cliff told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of potential in the kids that we have here at Roundup. They have a strong work ethic. I think it’s an opportunity after three years of a lot of change to reestablish what the program looks like.”
Roundup principal and athletic director Ken Larson declined to comment on Blankenship’s departure, focusing instead on the new hire.
“I was very impressed with his program development thoughts and his individual development thoughts and how they work hand in hand,” Larson said. “Realizing what it takes to build a program.”
Like Cliff, Larson stressed the importance of continuity. He took over as athletic director in October, when previous AD Josh Wolff left because a family member got sick, per Larson. Roundup hired Blankenship in May to succeed Chris Bourn, who resigned because of health concerns. Bourn took over in 2019 for Dana Quenzer, who was hired as Red Lodge’s principal after seven seasons at Roundup.
The Panthers went 9-1 and reached the Class B state quarterfinals in 2018, their final season under Quenzer. They had records of 2-6 in 2019 and 2-3 this past season (their last three games were canceled because of COVID-19).
Cliff was hired to be a social studies teacher at Roundup High in August. Larson quickly discovered he had 20-plus years of football coaching experience, mostly at the college level.
“I was like, ‘He’s teaching in our school, why isn’t he coaching at our school?’ ” Larson said. “My expectation is that Tom Cliff is going to be the last football coach I hire.”
Cliff, 47, was born and raised in Illinois and played football at Greenville College, a Division III school in southwestern Illinois about 50 miles east St. Louis. Cliff, who played safety, transferred to the University of Arkansas after his freshman year and walked onto the football team, but an injury and other factors prevented him from seeing any game action.
After college, Cliff began his coaching career at the youth level in Arkansas. Then he went back to Greenville and joined the football program’s coaching staff. From there, he coached at Spring Arbor (Michigan) University, Northwestern College in Iowa, Adams State in Colorado and Wayne State in Nebraska.
A few years ago, Cliff and his wife moved to South Dakota mainly to watch their sons play college football. Cliff didn’t coach during that period.
The Cliffs don’t have any Montana ties, so moving to Grass Range over the summer was “a little bit of a leap of faith,” he said. He and his family like to fish, hunt and do other outdoor activities, and Montana checked those boxes.
“I made these huge asks of (my wife) for 20 years of chasing around my dream of college coaching. Our agreement was that we’d always settle someplace,” Cliff said. “We had a couple areas in mind, and all the doors opened to being up here.”
Commuting from Grass Range to Roundup every day (more than 80 miles round-trip) has been tough for Cliff, and he hasn’t found a home in Roundup yet. But that’s a matter of time.
“My plan is to call Montana home through retirement,” Cliff said. “I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
Cliff coached Grass Range-Winnett with his son Jordan this fall. The 6-Man program didn’t have enough players to field a team in 2019 and barely had enough in the early stages of this season. The Rangers lost their first four games but finished with a 74-28 win over Centerville and a 63-0 victory over Fromberg-Belfry.
Taking a struggling program and making it successful is something Cliff has done throughout his career, he said. He and Larson expect Roundup to be consistently competitive during what they hope is a long tenure.
“Excited to get started here and see where we can go,” Cliff said.