Pat O'Connor, one of the most successful coaches in Montana high school basketball history, will not be back as the Billings Senior boys coach next season.
Senior High principal Carol Wicker would not say Friday whether O'Connor resigned or did not have his contract renewed, but when asked if there was a boys coaching opening, Wicker replied "Yes."
Wicker added, "I have legal obligations," and then produced a statement that reads:
"We are fortunate to have had the extra-curricular service of such an unselfish, dedicated educator as Pat O'Connor for these many years. Mr. O'Connor's contribution to high school athletics in Montana and to the lives of hundreds of Eastern Montana athletes have few if any parallels. No one will ever be able to minimize that legendary history nor possibly ever match it.
"There will be many new things happening in high school basketball next year with the new challenges of season changes etc. And, we at BSHS are looking forward to another program year that will allow student athletes to grow and develop into excellent players, citizens and young men and women in spite of all those changes and challenges.
"Each year brings new beginnings and this year will be no different. Change is difficult but with every closing door another opens and we know the program will continue to be one of excellence for our students. Just because our goals may be taking different directions than Mr. O'Connor's does not mean that we have any less respect or admiration for him or the work he has done - we are just turning different corners at this time with our program."
O'Connor could not be reached for comment on Friday.
O'Connor coached 21 years at Senior, compiling a 291-182 record which included state championships in 1987 and 1996 and a runner-up finish in 1983. He previously coached for four years at Park City, eight years at Glendive and one season at Bozeman High before getting the Senior job.
The Broncs finished the 2001-02 season with a 12-11 record and qualified for the State AA tournament where they were eliminated in two games.
O'Connor, 58, has an overall record of 546-261 in 34 years as a head coach, which ranks fourth on the all-time list behind current Wolf Point coach Kim Haines (574), Don Peterson (558) and Toby Kangas (553).
He's the only coach in state history to win state championships at three levels, claiming titles at Class A Glendive (1977) and at Class C Park City (1970) in addition to his Senior championships.
Billings Skyview coach Mark Wahl, who played in O'Connor's program at Glendive when he was a freshman and sophomore, said O'Connor's ability to spot talent was a major factor in his success.
"One thing that stood out to me was that he always had that amazingly ability to spot talent in a kid that a lot of others couldn't see and how he could pull that talent together.
"I think the biggest characteristic was for him to take kids that maybe some people didn't think would be all that good and it would turn out pretty well."
West coach Joe Sukut always expected a tough game from the Broncs.
"This year was the third year I went against Pat and he pretty well spanked me," Sukut said. "I think we won one. His kids always came out and played really hard."
Central coach Gene Espeland said, "I will miss him. He was a great competitor and never put a ball club on the floor that didn't compete. He was a great coach."
O'Connor grew up in Nashua and played for his father, Larry. He moved on to Rocky Mountain College and graduated in 1967. Later that year he began his coaching career at Park City.
The Panthers were very successful under O'Connor, winning 95 of 110 games in four years including a 29-0 record and state championship in 1970.
O'Connor moved to Glendive and got the Red Devils into four championship games in eight seasons. He spent a year coaching at Bozeman, then was out of coaching for a year before arriving at Senior in 1981.
O'Connor made an immediate impact, guiding an undersized team to a 20-6 record and a berth in the AA consolation game.
The Broncs were frequent visitors to the state tournament throughout his tenure, qualifying the last five years and 14 times overall.
"Senior High won't be the same," said Joel Stott, who played for O'Connor from 1983-85. "When I think of high school basketball in Billings, he set the standard for the last 15 to 20 years."
Stott liked playing for O'Connor.
"He was demanding, but he was tough on everybody. He didn't have any real favorites. One thing I always remember was that when we played H-O-R-S-E no one could beat him. He didn't look like he was in the best shape, but he could shoot."
Stott said years after his playing days, he went back to Senior and "he took the time to visit and talk about basketball or family. He was more than a coach, at least to me.
"He had a little temper, but I think all of us who have a competitive spirit do. He was able to get some of his best teams out of ones that weren't the most talented. There were some teams that were light on talent, that exceeded beyond expectations."