ANACONDA — From small-town Montana to what those in the industry call “the Mother Ship,” Jill Montgomery is quickly and consistently making a name for herself on the biggest of stages.
A self-proclaimed hometown girl who grew up in Anaconda and was a track and field star at Billings West High School, Montgomery has clawed her way to the top. At ESPN, Montgomery is the leading on-field reporter for the network’s track and field coverage.
And although she won’t accept the praise, her knowledge and insider access earned from years competing in and studying the beat is making Montgomery the go-to source for collegiate, Team USA and professional track and field athletes.
Two weeks ago, she was at her best on ESPNU and in prime time on ESPN during the four-day NCAA Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore. Her résumé also boasts gigs on ESPN’s College Gameday and her personal favorites, interviews with Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
Her professionalism and work ethic, according to her peers and colleagues, is off the charts. All of them believe it stemmed from a stellar track and field career started at West High and detoured to Washington State before blossoming at Kansas State.
But not so quietly, Montgomery points to her active childhood in Anaconda that shaped her as an athlete and a competitor — qualities she says were learned the hard way in the dirt and rock alleys and quiet streets in the middle of Copperhead Country.
Admittedly, her drive for perfection is specifically a lifeblood — all the while knowing the droves of young, hungry reporters getting turned out of college are all out for her job.
No matter the challenge, she’s still standing tall. And flourishing.
On one particular long day after the four-day marathon of the NCAAs at legendary Hayward Field on the campus of the University of Oregon, Montgomery retired to her room to relax and reflect. Even after a hard day, she made it a point to critique her performance.
“I felt I had a great broadcast, but I literally went back to the hotel and decompressed for a half-hour,” she said, mulling over the mountainous prep work she had already committed to memory. “I said to myself, how can I make that better for tomorrow? It’s the athlete in me, it’s my upbringing.”
The daughter of Terry and Mary Pat Montgomery was born in Butte, 24 miles southeast of Anaconda, both blue-collar mining towns in southwest Montana. A self-described tomboy, Jill said her love of sports and will to compete was born and bred in Anaconda.
“Anaconda has and will always be home,” she said from her office in Los Angeles. “Sure, I graduated from Billings West because my parents divorced, but when I go home, I go to Anaconda.”
Montgomery attended Washington Elementary in Anaconda before moving away with her mother for middle and high school in Billings, but always returned for summers in Anaconda with her father and stepmother, Terry and Sue, who still live in the family home. Those summers were filled with freedoms ranging from hiking and biking the “A” hill and swimming to staple neighborhood games like kick the can, even a little backyard golf — all of which were the building blocks of her tenacity as an athlete and broadcaster.
“Softball in the summer, and when it wasn’t that it was Wiffle ball in the back alley, football with the boys and hotbox,” she remembered.
And it was her neighbors, the Stergars, who Montgomery credits for building the woman she is today.
“Jimmy and Dave will still claim until they take their final breath that they taught me everything I know,” she said, laughing. “With them it was always sports, sports, sports. And no matter what we did, it was a competition of some sort.”
Her best friend from those days, Jimmy, now the Billings Central boys basketball coach, still relives those days vividly.
“It was non-stop all day, everyday” he said. “At night we’d play kick the can. There would be kids everywhere. We’d hike to the “A” and build forts in the trees. I was up there a few years ago and found the remains of an old fort of ours. It brought back a ton of great memories.
“Later at night when we were supposed to be in bed, we would go to our windows in our own houses, both on the second floors, and talk across the backyard. Probably talk about the day and what we’d do the next.”
Montgomery was part of a golden era for Anaconda athletics in the late 80s. She ran with the same guys who produced divisional basketball and football titles and even divisional and state track and field championships, names like Stergar, Sullivan, Huot, Derzay, Skakles, Matosich, DeTonancour and Connors — all, like her, were all-round athletes who also excelled in college.
“I ran with the boys. It made me tough as hell, almost to a fault,” she said. “I was such a tomboy, and really didn’t even become a girly-girl until coming out of college. It was constantly ingrained in me to compete. I wanted to beat everyone at everything. I wanted to be the best of the best, and that has translated into television and sports broadcasting and everything I do.”
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At Billings West, where she graduated in 1990, she parlayed the lessons learned in Anaconda into a standout prep basketball and track and field career littered with Class AA all-conference and all-state accolades including state long jump, high jump and sprint relay titles.
Montgomery was such a raw athletic talent she matriculated to Washington State on scholarship, competing as a heptathlete. There, she met and still maintains a close relationship with one of the greatest all-round track and field athletes in the world, Dan O’Brien.
Montgomery battled a bevy of injuries. But in the eyes of O’Brien, who works as a track and field TV analyst and serves as an assistant coach for Arizona State, that’s where so many athletes like Montgomery have learned from the down times to overcome adversity, and even to excel when their athletic careers come to a halt.
“One of the things that Jill has done well is lean on her experiences to make herself a better broadcaster,” said O’Brien, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon. “Through her dedication, she’s worked her way up to become very good at what she does.”
Montgomery transferred from WSU to Kansas State in 1992. She rebounded from her injury to become one of the finest women’s indoor pentathletes and outdoor heptathletes in the country.
After a five-year stint as a competitor at the U.S. level and professional athlete, she flirted with several different rewarding careers. But it was being in front of the camera, relaying the story of the athlete that truly struck a chord.
Today, whether it’s been on the college football or basketball beats working with ESPN industry giants like Rece Davis and Jay Bilas, she continues to prove she’s willing to put in the work to be the best.
“I don’t pretend to know her well but when I’ve had the pleasure to work with her I’ve found her to be really professional,” says Davis, who has anchored SportsCenter and several other ESPN shows. “She is relentless and she attacks her craft like her athletic career, and because of that she’s getting some good opportunities now. She’s a vibrant personality, she’s smart and she uses all of her qualities to enhance her brand. Whether it’s been on College Gameday for basketball or National Signing Day for football, I think she’s done a really nice job.”
Being away from of Bristol, Conn., the home of ESPN headquarters, is tough enough for aspiring reporters and broadcasters. Out of sight, out of mind. But not if you consistently produce good content.
“Thankfully I’ve never had to do it (work away from Bristol), but I do know this for a fact: If you don’t do well we don’t bring you back,” Davis said. “For her to continue to get work as she has is a testament to her relentless nature and ability to improve.”
As Montgomery wraps up yet another successful broadcast in style, getting drenched with an ice water bath meant for Oregon coach Robert Johnson, who was preparing to accept the men’s national championship team trophy, was her latest obstacle. The consummate professional, cold, shocked and possibly even a little disoriented, Montgomery conducted the interview as if the distraction didn’t even occur.
“It’s live television, I was hardwired in and my IFB (ear piece) was wet, my RF was wet and the microphone was soaked. I was afraid I was going to get electrocuted,” she said, laughing. “But within one split second I told myself I had to keep going with the interview.
“Those are the things you don’t prepare for but have to handle on the fly. I take pride in handling the impromptu, unknown stuff from time to time and still make the transition smooth.”
Her next challenge is to become a producer. She is learning the intricacies of the craft with the Tennis Channel.
“I want to produce,” she said. “I love being on camera, but it’s only going to last so long. And because I know there’s a need for more female producers and that I truly love sports, I would really love to become the best female producer out there.”
Still soaked from head to toe and now relieved to be free of her electrical broadcasting devices, Montgomery can rest assured she will be receiving another call from ESPN when the time comes — but resting just isn’t in her DNA.
“There are 20 million girls who want my job,” she said. “You keep in the back of your head that there’s always someone out there who is better. After every broadcast I know I could never work again for ESPN. They are not going to call you, your contracts are over, you’re just done. No matter how great you feel you are there’s always someone out there who’s better. That’s why I stay humble and always try to do better.”
Away from the hustle and bustle of network television people from her hometown, friends and family have pride in knowing a small-town girl from the neighborhood has accomplished her dreams.
“When I now see Jill on TV, I definitely feel proud of her,” Stergar said. “She is doing what she has always wanted to do, and is happy doing it.”