The House That Rob Built: 21 Time Conference Coach of the Year, Rob Selvig
He spent 38 years as the University of Montana’s Lady Griz basketball coach and in that time, Robin Selvig had 865 wins, 24x Conference Champions, 21x time NCAA appearances, 21x time Conference Coach of the Year.
Risen sat down with Selvig, and his former player turned Director/Writer/Producer, Megan Harrington for the new documentary, The House That Rob Built.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Basketball is one of my favorite sports to play, and to watch… when did your love for the game first develop?
Coach Rob Selvig: Well, when I grew up. I grew up in a small Eastern Montana town. There was 50 kids in our high school, I had seven brothers and sisters. It’s cold, it’s snowy. Basketball is a real big thing in that situation. So from the time we could walk, my parents had us dribble a basketball and so on. It was a deal in our little community, the basketball game every weekend. So it was real natural to want to play basketball. And I had good fortune to be able to go to school on my basketball abilities and play college ball. So it’s always been a part of my life. And that’s one of the reasons I got into coaching. My last collegiate game, sitting in the locker room, I couldn’t imagine myself not having basketball be part of my life. And that was where I decided for sure I wanted to coach.
RM: You dominated the Big Sky Conference, but what is even more impressive is the fact that you didn’t inherit anything, you built it. From the recruiting, to the developing of the skills, to the execution so that you could win. For you, where do you think you’re most talented in putting that team together? And, or do you enjoy all aspects because they’re dependent upon each other for success?
RS: When I got into coaching, first of all, I thought I was taking the high school boys job. And then the coach that was there stayed. We had a good team come back and he asked me if I’d take the women’s team. So that’s how I got into coaching women’s basketball. Which I had three sisters that, one got the full opportunity, two of them didn’t because it’s not that long ago where there weren’t those opportunities. So I approached it. I didn’t have any big plan of we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. I just liked coaching kids. And I was blessed with… Even in high school, the ladies they… Because I think it was their first opportunities, they didn’t question, they were appreciative, they were grateful and they took full advantage of it.
And I think that’s what my teams did in college. These ladies were given an opportunity that wasn’t there before and they were going to make the most of it. Obviously, we had success and we had success because I had very good players. It’s wasn’t anywhere near like it is today in recruiting and stuff. We had little to no recruiting budget at the time. Had 12 fee waivers for scholarships. This is how it was. And that’s not unique to me. Women’s basketball was just getting started. And that’s what everybody was trying to do, was get it going.
And most people in our community and anywhere else, thought, yeah, women’s basketball, but nobody’s ever going to come watch them. That was one of the biggest, best memories I have. We didn’t draw that much. First couple of years, 500, 600. I don’t know what it was, but we had a really good year and we hosted an NCAA game against Oregon State. I don’t know what we’d been averaging that year, 800 or 900, which was really good in comparison. But because of that, all of a sudden over 4,000 people showed up. And the look on the ladies’ faces running out of that locker room into that environment was pretty precious. And then from then it just kept growing.
People just had to give it a chance to come see it. They didn’t realize how competitive, how talented that these young ladies were. They didn’t know. The first high school women’s basketball game they probably ever went to had 15 jump balls or something. I played here at the University of Montana and so I think people, okay, let’s give a shot. Let’s go watch Rob’s team. And then the ladies sold themselves.
RM: Well, I always think that it’s amazing when a coach or a player can spend their entire career with an organization. And for you, 38 years is so incredible with the University of Montana. I know other offers had to have come along, so why did you turn those down? Why was it important to you to keep that your home?
RS: Well, first of all, Missoula, Montana is a great place to raise a family. I have two sons and it was just a great place to live, I think. Then also, each year I have a hard time leaving my team. Each year you’re looking at the next year. And we dream big. Every year what we did, I thought, well, maybe we can do more. It’s not like you got rich, to start with, in this profession or at the University of Montana, at the time. But I was more than comfortable, I had all I needed and I had a team and always a good returning team because the ladies built on that success. So I never really seriously thought of leaving. Had I been broke, that would be different, but I was doing fine. Yeah, it was a great place to raise a family. I didn’t look at… Everything was fine. So no complaints about that.
RM: Megan, talk to me about this documentary, The House That Rob Built. How did the idea come about? At what point did you know… this is a fantastic story, but that it could be shared with others, that there would be interest there?
Megan Harrington Well, the big moment, I had thought about it… I was an independent producer at the time and I was watching games Rob was coaching. He had a lot of mother and daughters that he coached, and I thought, that could be a cool short film, or do little something. You’re looking for the next project. And then he retired and I knew, he did not, that over 100 women were coming back for his surprise party. And I thought, okay, well, you can’t recreate that. You can’t recreate that moment. There’s just no way. And that’s going to be a big moment. You just knew that, story-wise, okay, can you see he’s ending and he’s…
So that was a big hurdle to jump through. To get the funds and get that together so that we could film. Because you’re trying to prepare also for the shoot. So all these things are coming together. Within three months, over 100 women came back. So there’s not a lot of planning time. We had to pick something and we had to pick a story. We had to make sure that we were preparing for all the interviews that we were going to do and the images that we were going to capture. So after that… I knew before because I knew growing up, but I didn’t understand, the way I do now, what happened and our place in the history of that and what a special and unique legacy that was built here.
Because sometimes, you know how it goes, you’re in the middle of something and you’re like, oh, well, there’s a story about that. Well, what are they going to talk about? What’s the story? And it’s like, because you’re part of it. The fans, they’re part of it. They don’t get it. I hope that everybody watching this, whether you’re in Montana or outside, says, “Wow, I didn’t know that that happened. How did I not know that that happened?” So it really is the classic case of you look everywhere for a story, and it happened to just be right in front of my face.
RM: Well, absolutely. And speaking of retirement, Coach Rob, you’re still very young. You could still be coaching. I know you could be out there. But priorities shift, you made some changes. How long did you wrestle with that decision? And does the competitiveness still spill over to golf or cards, or what does that look like?
RS: Hey, you just named the two. Golf and cards, yeah. Well, I had a difficult time retiring. I’m done. It was the right thing for me to do. We had a granddaughter living in California and as I look back, I even have regrets missing out things in my boys growing up because of the nature of my job. I wasn’t going to miss out on that stuff. My parents are older and both living still in little old Outlook, Montana, and now I can run up there and see them and help out. There’s just so many things that I didn’t want to miss anymore. I miss coaching the young athletes. I miss being around them. Like I say, I hang out with old people now, so that’s what I do. I don’t get to walk through an airport, laugh and joke with a bunch of young kids.
And I do miss that, but it was the right thing for me to do. It really was. And it came on me fairly suddenly, but I didn’t… You do something for so long and then you wonder what you’re going to do. And I’ve got lots of friends and I’ve got good things. It was a big change, but it was the right change for me. I love being able to spend time with the people I should be, and it was difficult to do that.
RM: I have to read a few of your statistics because they’re incredible. When you’re in the throes of it, you’re not probably counting how many titles you have but when you get a few years to step back and look at it, 865 wins, 24x Conference Champions, 21x time NCAA appearances, 21x time Conference Coach of the Year. What are you most proud of when you think about everything that you accomplished in your 38 years?
RS: Well, I like all those things. But I think what makes it good and what makes it special, not just to me, but… Is that it’s something you share. I had really good players. That’s why we won a lot of games. I had really good assistant coaches. That’s why we won a lot of games. And the fact that you’re supported by a community and the state, you’re sharing all that with them. To just pat myself on the back and, oh, you won this. Well, no. I didn’t. It’s not that it’s not that special if you can’t share the things with others. And that’s how I look at it.
And I think the Lady Griz feel this way from the ones 40 years ago, who got it started. Is they feel a part of what this program’s done because they are the program. And so the fact that I can share that with, not only players, coaches, but fans. That’s what makes it rewarding to me. Because it really does take that. You just don’t… No coach goes out and wins ball games by themselves. It doesn’t work that way. And so I was pretty blessed to have, not only great people, but great athletes to coach.
RM: Megan, was he always this humble? Because we know that it takes good leadership in order to get all those players to play together. I’ve been on teams my whole life, and it doesn’t just happen.
MH: He is difficult to interview. Yes.
RS: I just did what Megan told me to do all of the time.
MH: I wish. I wish. No, and it’s not a false humility. It’s the truth. It’s just his way. And I think those are… I started looking in research. I’m like, wait, 20 wins, 20 wins… So it goes on for 19 years before you had a losing season. I was like, this is incredible. But of all the stats, of all of the accolades, of all of the things that he has done that the world would say, “That’s incredible.” The most profound, for me, is that over 100 women showed up on short notice to honor him. And that he stayed because if he had not stayed, none of that would have been created. It would’ve just been another ring on a ladder that you’re climbing. But he chose us and because of that, 38 years of history, friendships, family was created.
RM: Megan, you played for Coach Rob. And when he became women’s coach, it was late 1970s. It was a very different time for women’s sports. So maybe talk to me a little bit about the Title IX to where we’re at today.
MH: Yes. I grew up in Missoula and so I remember I had… I think through the process of this I realized what a unique childhood I had, unknowingly. I have these women in ’78, Rob comes on board, he starts coaching these women like their athletes. That they’re capable of doing things they didn’t think they were capable of doing. Title IX is opening doors. It’s just being implemented in a way… It was passed earlier. So now it’s really… Rubber-hits-the-road and they’re going to have to start making changes, and here comes Rob.
And Rob did it in a way that… He demanded things, but he did it in a way where he was a unifier as well. And so he got along well with the men’s program. And so, he started to built this machine. And so I’m a little girl growing up and I’m living in a place where I see these women who are playing in front of thousands and thousands of people. Because by that time it had grown into the crowds being significant.
So just looking around me like, oh my gosh, I want to be her and I want to be her and I want to be her. Well, what are the places in the country side… I did want to be Larry Bird too. But around the country, young girls were wanting to be only Larry Bird or wanting to be only these male figures. And I grew up in a situation that allowed me the fortune of being able to say, “I want to be like her. I see me in her. I want that poster on my door because I’m going to grow up and be like her.”
So it was a unique time. And I think that’s why this film, in many ways, is a unique part of history because that wasn’t happening everywhere across the country. There weren’t 9,000 people showing up for women’s basketball in 1988 just everywhere, but they were in Missoula, Montana. Which has a population at the time of, I don’t know, maybe 50. I don’t exactly the population of the time, but it was a pretty special place to grow up and to have role models that I could relate to personally.
The House That Rob Built is available February 23