Missoula Big Sky head coach Lanny Bryant

Missoula Big Sky head coach Lanny Bryant, right, cheers on one of his kids on Friday at the Montana All-Class State Wrestling Tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. Bryant is retiring after 55 years coaching wrestling.

HANNAH POTES, Gazette Staff

LaMonte Bryant and his wife, Christine, were not going to miss this moment.

Not in a million years would LaMonte dream of missing the last tournament in which his father, Lanny, coached. 

One of the most treasured and respected coaches and ambassadors of the sport of wrestling is calling it a career this weekend.

After 55 years, Missoula Big Sky coach Lanny Bryant is retiring from the sport when Saturday's All-Class State Wrestling Tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark concludes. 

It's a moment LaMonte wanted to share with his dad, mom Ann and his four siblings, LanAnn, Lady, Shannon and Cody, along with many of Lanny and Ann's 21 grandchildren, including two great grandkids.

LaMonte and Christine live outside of Anaheim, Calif., and their flight was originally scheduled to have a layover in Seattle and then depart to Billings. Because of an air-traffic control problem, they changed flights and flew first to Denver and then to Billings. They had to sleep at the Denver airport because of missing their connection and arrived in Billings around midday Friday.

"I have one hero in my life and it's him," LaMonte said, holding back tears and pointing to his dad, who is in his eighth year as head coach at Big Sky.

"He's a wonderful man."

LaMonte was born with cerebral palsy and wrestled since he was in kindergarten, including four years for his father at Missoula Hellgate. He was never was on the varsity, although that didn't matter as participation was the important thing.

Christine said she also cried when they were in danger of missing her father-in-law's swan song.

"This is a very special occasion for all of us," LaMonte said. "He's a legend -- not only as a coach, but as a parent and husband."

Bryant, 78, who had many well-wishers stop by and visit Friday, retired once and returned. But this break is most likely to last. 

"We sold our house and bought a fifth-wheel," he said between matches. "We have 19 grandkids and five kids all over the United States and want to travel around and be with family."

LanAnn will miss her father coaching. She is a teacher at Big Sky and is the wrestling manager advisor now. She is sad her dad won't be coaching, but she understands it is time. She called the the last eight years "amazing." 

"I'm terrified they will be on the road," she joked of her mom and dad traveling. "I can't imagine. I've always told dad the angels who follow him around will be so tired." 

Bryant first became a head coach in 1962 in Worland, Wyo., and spent several seasons there, capturing a state title. He coached at Hellgate to a state title in 1978. Over the two stops, he guided the teams to nine undefeated dual seasons. Bryant has coached 320 dual wins. 

He has was head coach at Western Washington State College and was the last head coach at Montana State. He led the Bobcats for three years before the sport was dropped. Between stops, he was either an assistant or volunteer coach.

Before Bryant came to Big Sky, he was spending time with his family and running Wrestling USA Magazine, for which he is the owner/editor. 

"I was retired and I read in the paper where Big Sky needed a wrestling coach," he said. "And I said, 'Ann, I think I'll go apply.' And she just rolled her eyes and I went and applied."

To Bryant, Ann's commitment to the sport has played a huge role in his and his teams' successes. They have been married 56 years. 

"Ann has not missed a match at all at all these levels," he said. "She's driven to them all these years."

Ann admitted she has missed a few; once in Wyoming when she was in the hospital giving birth to Cody and a couple when Lady was a gymnast and Lanny was coaching Hellgate. She also didn't attend some matches last year after hip surgery, but recovered in time for state and divisionals.

"I've loved every minute of it," she said. "These boys become like our family and watching Lanny love those boys. It's not a matter of who will be a state champ, but loving them all and not having one left behind. They became part of our family.

"Wrestling has added so much to our family," Ann added, hitting her chest to emphasize the point. "Every summer, we were on the road. We saw a lot of states and met a lot of people. The best part has been watching the young men develop and coming back and saying what an impact he had on them. It's time for him to step down, and yet it's hard because Lanny has so much to offer still."

Cody was a three-time state champ who was undefeated his final three years under his father at Hellgate. He is an assistant on this year's Eagles team.

Lanny wrestled for Northern Colorado, was captain of the team and won three conference titles. He advanced to the NCAA championships.

Born in Amarillo, Texas, Bryant lived in several little towns because his father was a Southern Baptist minister who transferred to different churches. Eventually, they settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

To this day, Bryant says his strong Christian faith is his foundation. 

"Fishing and hunting" brought him to Wyoming and Montana. He was set to take a coaching job in Denver, but found out about the Worland opening and applied. The rest is history.

Bryant said he will continue to publish Wrestling USA, the magazine he started 53 years ago with two other coaches out of Colorado. He became the sole owner a few years later. Now, Lanny focuses on the website and Cody is in charge of the magazine. 

Bryant won't completely close the door on coaching. He's taking a cultural-exchange high school team to Japan from June 20-30. He's been on cultural-exchange trips to Japan, Poland, Russia, Norway and Mexico. 

And as Saturday afternoon approaches and Bryant gives his last instructions as a high school coach, he said he hasn't thought much about it yet, saying: "I have mixed emotions on it. I'm ready. I'm not swearing. If I get in a situation I might get back into it, but my wife might kill me at that point."

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Deputy Sports Editor

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette.