Sam Tudor does not look comfortable with the plastic Viking helmet that’s just been placed on top of his head.
The fifth-year Bigfork High School boys basketball coach is 42 years old, with splashes of gray invading his brown hair, and when a horned helmet similar to the one just gifted to his senior point guard is bestowed upon him at center court, he reacts politely but retreats quickly to the gaggle of players standing near the Vikings bench after their 72-49 win over St. Ignatius on Jan. 18.
Tudor was being saluted for winning for the 100th time as Bigfork’s head coach, an achievement made more notable by the fact that it came in just his 113th game. The celebration was organized, in part, by his wife, Schuyler, who was wise enough to plan it in private knowing her husband’s revulsion to being singled out.
At every stop thus far in a wide-ranging teaching and coaching career, Tudor has impacted young lives with humor and compassion, and deflected credit for their success with fervent zeal. Coincidentally, and perhaps conveniently from his perspective, Tudor’s 100th career win came on the same night his senior point guard, Anders Epperly, broke a 27-year-old record and became Montana’s all-time, all-class career assists leader.
“That night was special, probably more special than (100 wins) was that it was eclipsed by Anders’ accomplishment,” Tudor said. “It was pretty special to have it on the same night that happened to be my 100th.”
Tudor was greeted after the game by a full canister of silly string, emptied onto him by senior Clayton Reichenbach in the Bigfork locker room, and hours later he received another gift, one he could not deflect or underplay. There were around 100 personal notes, from former players, managers, coaches, officials and anyone else who had been touched by Tudor in the eight years since he started working at Bigfork High.
“I read them all,” Tudor said. “It’s pretty humbling.”
It turns out it is not unusual for a Tudor to deflect credit. Chip Tudor, Sam’s father, was a coach at several Montana high schools, including Great Falls C.M. Russell and Sam’s alma mater, Cascade. The elder Tudor, though, is “flabbergasted” by his son’s ability to build relationships with his players and pile up wins on the basketball court.
“He’s had really good kids, but I’ve had really good kids and (not been as successful),” Chip said. “What it takes is a special person, particularly when you have talent and you expect the egos to get in the way. But he’s managed to get through all of that with flying colors … I am just astounded.”
Chip’s son, of course, yo-yoed the credit back to his dad, saying, “Everything I know about basketball comes from him.” Sam also, it turns out, shares another personality quirk with his father, a quick wit and dry sense of humor, even in sentimental moments.
One of the cards Tudor received came from his dad. It read, in its entirety, “You were lucky.”
The younger Tudor’s sense of humor bleeds through to his coaching, too. It was a theme among the notes and comments expressed by his former players, many who have remained in contact with Tudor years after graduation. Former Viking Isaac Martel summed it up nicely, writing in his note, “You found that impossible line between goofiness and seriousness.”
“He was just always happy, always smiling, always joking around,” Bigfork alum and current University of Montana football player Josh Sandry said. “Just a fun guy to be around, but he works you hard and gets the most out of you.”
Sandry has stayed close with his former coach since his graduation in 2015, calling Tudor “a great Snapchat-er,” although their relationship is not uncommon among former players. Adam Jordt, a 2016 graduate, called Tudor a close friend.
“Even now I can go to him and I can keep in touch with him and we can talk about random things, not even about basketball,” Jordt said. “He has a connection because he’s a teacher, too, and he’s always in the community. He pretty much knows everything about you.”
Tudor arrived at Bigfork eight years ago and spent two years as an assistant under current Carroll College coach Kurt Paulson. When Josh Downey was hired in 2013, Tudor didn’t coach as the Vikings went unbeaten and won a state championship. One year later, however, Downey was gone and Tudor was installed as the Vikings head coach, becoming the fifth coach in five years at the helm of a talent-rich program.
Bigfork went 22-4 in Tudor’s first year, amid the coaching upheaval, then 24-2 the following season, reaching the state title game. A modest step back followed in 2016-17, when the Vikings were 19-6, before a deep and gifted roster put together a memorable 24-0 championship run last season. Tudor’s team is 11-1 this year, the only blemish a loss at Deer Lodge in early January that snapped a 31-game winning streak.
Shawn Holmes, the longtime girls basketball coach at Seeley-Swan, received a text message from his friend after that Deer Lodge game. It was succinct: “I suck.”
“And that’s the thing, it’s not, ‘We suck,’” Holmes said with a laugh.
Holmes hired Tudor as an assistant with the basketball program not long after the younger man took a job teaching English at the high school. Right away, Holmes noticed something that would reveal itself over and over again through Tudor’s career.
“He could make relationships with kids instantly,” Holmes said. “I think that’s his greatest asset for coaching and teaching — he can get kids on the same page as him. He has a great way to make kids feel relaxed.”
Schulyer, a teacher at Bigfork Middle School and the high school’s head volleyball coach, agrees.
“He relates to people really well,” she said of her husband. “Some people have that and some people don’t. He just puts kids first and puts relationships first, always.”
Sam, predictably, credits those relationships to everyone but himself.
“I probably put a lot of that on the community of Bigfork,” he said. “They make it easy to be a coach. The support I have is outstanding. When you can coach and focus on the kids, you’re able to develop those relationships.”
The Vikings have just one more home game this season, Jan. 26 against Missoula Loyola, before they enter the postseason and make another run at a state title. They will be among the favorites once again, behind their all-everything point guard and a balanced, experienced lineup filled with players who will once again step into the spotlight, precisely where their head coach wants them. And there will be nary a Viking helmet anywhere near Sam Tudor’s head.
“It’s a great accomplishment and a great milestone for sure, but it’s uncomfortable because I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” Tudor said, reflecting back on the night of his 100th win. “I think I did it pretty gracefully, but I can probably wait until 200 before I have to do that again.”