Without Jud Heathcote, who passed away at the age of 90 on Monday in Spokane, there likely would not have been Montana basketball as it became in the 1970s, highlighted by sellout crowds and the Grizzlies’ narrow loss to eventual national champion UCLA in the 1975 NCAA Tournament.
And without Heathcote, who coached Robin Selvig for three of those seasons, there is no telling what would have become of the Lady Griz program either.
“I owe him everything in terms of my coaching success,” Selvig said on Tuesday morning from Los Angeles, still emotional from the news.
Heathcote coached at Montana for five seasons, from 1971-72 to 1975-76, before taking over at Michigan State. Led by Heathcote and Earvin Johnson, the Spartans won the NCAA championship in 1979.
He coached at Michigan State for 19 years, for which he will forever be remembered by most college basketball fans, but it was at Montana where he got his first head coaching job after spending seven seasons as an assistant at Washington State.
He took over a Montana program that had had just one winning season the previous decade. Selvig had joined the program one year earlier.
“We heard some scary stories about who our new coach was,” said Selvig, who played on the freshman team in 1970-71. He became eligible to play on the varsity team as a sophomore, Heathcote’s first year.
It was basketball — in particular the team’s practices — that Selvig hadn’t experienced before. None of the Grizzlies had.
“Those years were awesome, but it was almost traumatic at first. Every one of his practices was a happening. There was intensity all the time,” said Selvig. “There was never any going through the motions. There was just a great level of electricity and teaching all the time.
“His style was something that from the outside looking in you’d wonder, How could you play for him? But from the inside looking out, it was a wonderful experience. I would have done anything for him.”
Montana would lose its first four games under Heathcote, but that first season still would end with a winning record of 14-12.
The big leap for the program came in Selvig’s senior year, Heathcote’s third. The Grizzlies would finish 19-8, with four of those losses coming by three points or fewer.
Larger than that, the Grizzlies of the early and mid-70s managed to turn Montana into a basketball school. And Montana into a basketball state.
“Jud changed basketball in Montana at every level. That was his influence,” said Selvig. “The program became something special.”
In 1974-75, Selvig was an assistant coach for the freshman team. Heathcote’s varsity squad would win 21 games and suffer a memorable 67-64 loss to UCLA in Portland in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 16.
Heathcote spent one more season at Montana before leaving for Michigan State. Two years later Selvig became the coach of the Lady Griz.
“After playing for Jud and working his camps and working as a freshman assistant my fifth year, it was natural for me to get into coaching,” said Selvig, who won 865 games at Montana and took the Lady Griz to 21 NCAA Tournaments. “But I never tried to be like Jud. He was too unique.”
Heathcote got his start coaching high school basketball at West Valley in Spokane before entering the college ranks at Washington State. It was to Spokane where he returned following his retirement from Michigan State in 1995.
He continued to be a mentor for those who sprouted from his coaching tree, including Selvig, and to many who didn’t, who just wanted to learn or just hear stories from one of the best.
“We kept in touch. He’d call and give me grief about something, but you always knew he was there for you,” said Selvig.
But that’s no longer the case. College basketball lost one of its most colorful characters on Monday. Those closest to Heathcote lost much more.
“It leaves me feeling empty,” said Selvig. “There is going to be a void. There is going to be a part of my life that will be missing.”