To be a pioneer means to be among the first to explore or settle a new country or develop a new method.
Rob Selvig is a pioneer. The retired University of Montana women’s basketball head coach stands among the very few whose career has spanned 865 career victories. That lofty number places him 10th on the all-time NCAA career wins list. While other elite coaches have churned out a similar volume of victories due to robust recruiting budgets that bring in the best players from all over the country, Selvig did so with nothing more than a hard-driving style that drew young, often overlooked players from small farming communities and Native reservations across the Big Sky state.
It is this inclusive, barrier-breaking philosophy that sets Coach Selvig apart. So much so, that he is the subject of a new documentary from Family Theater Productions called The House That Rob Built (available now on DVD and all digital platforms). A great story that the entire family can watch together, the film chronicles Selvig’s 38 year run as the Fighting Grizz head coach as he humbly builds a program in the spirit of self-sacrifice, community, loyalty, faith, and friendship.
I recently spoke with Coach Selvig and The House That Rob Built director/producer Megan Harrington about the documentary, the importance building a strong foundation based on family and trust, and his secret to building the pre-eminent women’s basketball program in the West.
It’s not every day that a film likes this gets made. What was the inspiration or the catalyst for making The House That Rob Built?
Megan Harrington: I actually had the great fortune of playing for Rob. So, right there, I knew it was special because I was part of it. But even more so than that, I was an independent producer and as such, you’re looking for projects, you’re looking for stories, and sometimes you can be looking for those stories everywhere else, but sometimes a story is right in front of you.
He was still coaching at the time when I was kind of mulling it over in my head because he had coached a lot of mothers and daughters. I thought that’s an interesting angle and maybe there’s something there. Then he retired. Shortly after that, over a hundred women came back for a surprise party to honor Rob. We knew there was a lot of women that were coming back for this and you can’t recreate that. So, that really launched the film into the phase of development and story. And knowing that last scene of the retirement party would play a pivotal role in the film, that’s what got the project started.
Rob, going way back, what got you interested in coaching basketball?
Coach Rob Selvig: I was a player and basketball was a big part of my life growing up in a small Eastern Montana town. That was kind of what you did to get you through long winters. Basketball was a real big deal. I went to play at the University of Montana and when my last game was over, I couldn’t imagine myself not still having basketball be part of my life. So, I decided to go into coaching. It’s interesting how I got into women’s coaching. I took a high school coaching job in Montana. I thought I was taking the men’s job, but the coach who was there at the time decided not to retire. The superintendent asked me if I’d take the women (instead). And I said, sure, I have three sisters who were athletic and didn’t have an opportunity. There was no basketball in high school for women not that long ago in Montana. So, I had no qualms about taking the women’s job. I had three great kids I loved to coach in high school, and it was new to them. They believed in everything I said. They didn’t question. And they were loving the opportunity to be on a basketball team. From there, I had the chance to go to the University of Montana. Women’s basketball was just getting started and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I wasn’t sure if there was a future in women’s college basketball, because it was in its early stages. But it took off from there.
When you first took over the Montana program there were a lot of empty seats and a struggle to get any attention whatsoever for the program. But you built a “house” of inclusion by choosing to recruit not nationwide but in your own backyard – athletes from ranches, farms, and Native reservations. Why did you opt for this recruiting strategy?
Coach Rob Selvig: First of all, having grown up in Montana, I was very familiar with the state. Women’s basketball actually grew rapidly in the high school ranks, so there were players at that time. We weren’t even affiliated with NCAA. We didn’t have a budget where we could recruit very far from home to start with. Very fortunate for me, Montana was producing some pretty good players. At the University of Montana, I always felt that Montana kids that were good enough were my first choice. That was just was natural to me. At that time, there weren’t many opportunities for Native American kids. This was new to begin with, but I’ve always been interested in their heritage in this state. There are seven reservations in Montana. I wanted to give an opportunity to native American kids if I thought they were good enough. I didn’t recruit anyone that I didn’t think was talented enough or good enough. They were and it was a blessing for me to have the opportunity to coach some beautiful Native American people and learn from them a little bit about how it was different for them and what the challenges were.
Megan, what was the experience like of playing for Coach Rob?
Megan Harrington: It was truly an honor. When I was a little girl, and you’ll find this all across Montana even today, their dream is to be a Lady Grizz. There is another state school, but I was from Missoula (where the University of Montana is located). That was the (program) I looked up to. I had these women that played Division One basketball in my hometown, and they’re playing in front of thousands and thousands of people. You just dream about that moment. Could that be you? And so, getting the opportunity to play for him was a huge gift because he’s a wonderful mentor. He is an exceptional coach, obviously in wins, losses, record and all the things that on paper matter, but the way that he dealt with his players and treated everybody, was outstanding. He took consideration of people’s backgrounds, where they were coming from, what their life experiences were, and adjusted as needed to those. He had this ability and capability as a coach to really draw that out of his players and understand and empathize with them. That’s what made him a great coach. He was a great player at the University of Montana, but not every great player is a great coach. He has those intangible qualities that allowed him to take things to the next level.
Something else I discovered in this film is that you were a strong believer in drilling your teams in the fundamentals of basketball and life for that matter. Why is building a strong base like this so important in fielding teams?
Coach Rob Selvig: I don’t think you can be successful without that. I had the good fortune to play for a great coach in college, Jud Heathcoate. He taught me that. I give him all kinds of credit. I cringe to think what kind of coach I’d been had I not learned basketball from him. From my experience coaching women, especially to start with, there wasn’t all kinds of heavy recruiting, money, and all of that. They were just thankful for the opportunity to play and to get a college scholarship. They wanted to take full advantage of their opportunity as a result. I never coached anyone that I didn’t think was a hard worker or they were competitive.
I was a fairly intense coach. They wanted that. They wanted to be driven. And I never ever looked at coaching them any differently than coaching a guy. It’s just coaching to me. As it turns out, based on what a lot of them said (in the film), they really appreciated that I expected as much out of them as I would anybody. It wasn’t like some brilliant design of mine. It was just that I liked to coach. I loved to see kids get better. And I liked to see kids work together. I liked to see and be a part of a team that shares the ups and downs.
A lot of players say that you didn’t build a program but instead you built a “home” and “family” for them. Do you consider that to be your greatest legacy?
Coach Rob Selvig: That makes me feel very good when they say things like that. I didn’t have any brilliant approach. I just liked coaching. I like people. I like to see them share things, which is what sports teams are all about. Everything’s so much more meaningful because you share it with someone else. You don’t do anything by yourself. Whether it’s a terrible loss, when you look at each other in the locker room and you share those bad feelings. That made me feel good. I have won a lot of games and that’s good, but I don’t remember very many things about games at all.
I remember a lot of bus trips, plane rides, and sharing the tough loss. I remember those things much more than I do some of the victories. I just think that’s more me. I mean you want to get patted on the back. We want to win a lot of games. We shared a lot of things that’s just more meaningful.
After people have seen The House That Rob Built what would you like to see audiences to take away from that viewing experience? What is your greatest hope for the film?
Megan Harrington: (My goal) in any film or project that I work on is for people to leave inspired and entertained at that moment in time. I want people to think the impossible is possible. I hope it’s an opportunity for people to see a true story about a great pioneer, who helped build women’s basketball and a special place in our country because he was doing things different. It was about building a community and a family. I hope that people who see this will go back and ask the question, how can we build a house (program) like that in our community? How can we bring back the goodness and the beauty of sports and look at this as teamwork? Is there an opportunity for us to model what was happening in Montana in our own communities, within our own schools, and among our coaches, players and families.
Coach Rob Selvig:
Basketball is a game. It’s not life or death or the most important thing. It’s really not. At the time, and for 40 minutes, it was for me. But after that, there’s just way more important things going on in everybody’s lives in this world. And so, basketball should be fun. I hope all the people that played for me said they had some fun. Sometimes, sports can turn out not to be fun for kids. So, even though it’s important to do your best, strive, and try and reach your potential, it needs to be fun. I think having fun helps it to be successful. I had lot of fun.
Watch a Trailer for The House That Rob Built: