Bill Epperly remembers exactly when and where he got his coaching start. As a senior at Montana State University, he became an assistant boys basketball coach at Bozeman Rosary High School in 1959.
“We had a really nice ball club,” he recalled recently. “We went all the way to the state championship game in Class C that year. That kind of hooked me.”
Nearly 60 years later, spanning different sports and state championship seasons, Epperly, 79, is still mentoring young athletes as an assistant track coach at Flathead High School.
In that time span, Epperly has coached different sports for 49 years, and this summer he will receive a much-deserved honor and will be inducted into the National High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in Peoria, Illinois.
Epperly will be honored at the same time another longtime local coach, Jim Kola, is recognized as a finalist for national assistant coach of the year through the NHSCA. Kola has coached hurdlers in track at Glacier since 2007 and coached at Flathead for 38 years before that. Whitefish head track coach Derek Schulz is also a finalist along with Larry Smith, a longtime softball head coach at Polson High School.
Ironically, Epperly and Kola’s paths originally crossed 50 years ago when Epperly was coaching at Forsyth and Kola was a standout athlete at Red Lodge.
Today both men remain devoted to helping young athletes succeed.
“His genuine nature and what he has given kids through all the years is legendary and worthy of the hall of fame,” Bryce Wilson, the Flathead activities director and a former player for Epperly on Flathead basketball team in the mid 1980s.
“As a player for him, I have the utmost respect for the man.”
Mark Dennehy, the activities director at Glacier, has similar praise for Kola, whose impressive longevity as a coach is equaled in his enthusiasm for mentoring young athletes.
“He brings a lot of energy to what he coaches, and the relationships he builds are also tremendous. Kids always love running for him. He makes a difference, for sure,” Dennehy said.
“He’s here all the time in the offseason working with our athletes. He’s always there to lend a helping hand.”
Both men have had considerable success in their coaching roles.
Epperly first arrived in Kalispell in 1966 and became an assistant basketball and football coach and head track coach. He left in 1971 before returning in 1979, where he remained a teacher and coach until 1993.
As an assistant, he has been a part of an incredible 13 state championships. As head mentor, Epperly has won two state basketball championships and finished second twice. In 2000, he began coaching the boys’ and girls’ high jump at Flathead, where he has had 24 state placers.
A two-time Montana Coaches Association Boys’ Basketball Coach of the Year (1982 and 1989), Epperly was inducted into the MCA Hall of Fame in 1990. He was a 1993 nominee for National High School Basketball Coach of the Year and was inducted into the Kalispell Legends Wall of Fame in 2005.
Looking back at his coaching tenure, Epperly says teaching young athletes skills, such as hard work and dedication, that they can use throughout their lives has been a primary motivation.
“You’re teaching all the time,” he says.
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