Two miniature donkeys greet Derek Schulz from behind a fence at his house, both as eager as Labrador retrievers to receive a little ear and muzzle scratch. Schulz is quick to oblige, marveling out loud at their big-eared, stumpy-legged cuteness. All three, man and beasts, seem perfectly content in the summer sun.
Newly retired from teaching and a distinguished 27-year track and field coaching career at Whitefish High School, Schulz is discovering novel pleasures at a different pace. He spent a chunk of last summer building a handsome shed — the “Taj Mashed” — with his wife on their new property east of Kalispell, where chickens, ducks, dogs, goats, a bunny, a miniature horse and, of course, two miniature donkeys roam the acreage.
“I vowed I’d never get chickens,” Schulz says. “But I really like them.”
Perpetually humble, Schulz would prefer to talk about chickens and donkeys than himself. He instinctually deflects praise and is embarrassed to say anything that might vaguely resemble tooting his own horn. But the truth is, he is as decorated and respected of a high school track coach as you’ll find in Montana. You just have to get somebody other than him to say it.
Somebody like Chris Hicks, one of Schulz’s former athletes who worked on his track coaching staff this past spring. Hicks says the quality of Schulz’s character is inextricably intertwined with his success as a coach.
“I think he just really worked at instilling good morals and values that were present on the track and also applicable off the track, things like discipline, integrity, being a team player all around,” Hicks said. “I carried a lot of those things that he taught with me as a person, as a man and hopefully as a father.”
“I was lucky to have him around for all the years I did,” he added, “and I think the community was fortunate as a whole.”
Schulz spent 24 years as a head track coach at Whitefish High after three years as an assistant. He was the boys head coach until the teams combined in 2006 and he took the helm of the girls squad as well. His boys won seven state titles, and the girls spent years knocking on the door of a championship but never getting over the hump until this past spring, his final year of coaching, when they won their first title in 35 years.
“The kids earned it,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of luck involved, except me. I was lucky.”
“That’s what’s so gratifying about coaching, when a team like that comes together and gets what they deserve,” he added. “They deserved it.”
Schulz was born in Havre, but his family moved to the Flathead when he was a toddler. He was a standout athlete at Flathead High School, participating in track, basketball, football and baseball before playing college baseball at Washington State University, Big Bend Community College and College of Idaho.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Schulz received a Rotary International Scholarship to attend University of Exeter in England for graduate school. The experience helped lay the groundwork for his open-minded worldview and fascination with different cultures, as his residence at Exeter housed 19 grad students with a rule that each resident be from a different country. He was the lone American.
Schulz’s time overseas informed his approach as a government and history teacher, and gave him useful perspective in teaching the numerous exchange students who came through his classes.
“I knew what it’s like to live away from home and be in a foreign place,” he said, adding that he “enjoyed every aspect of teaching.”
When Schulz started coaching track in Whitefish, it was a lower-priority sport. Whitefish High had a cinder track that often made practicing difficult and prevented the school from hosting track meets. When it rained, the clay-like red material left splatter-mark stains on the backs of athletes, ruining clothes.
In 1997, his second year as head coach, Schulz had a superbly athletic squad led by sprinter Joel Rosenberg. He took cues from his mentor and old high school coach, Dan Hodge of Flathead High School, by promoting track and field as an ideal complementary endeavor to the big-ticket sports like basketball and football. The recruiting approach helped attract top athletes like Rosenberg, whose main pursuit was football.
The boys won the state championship in 1997. Suddenly, track was a higher priority, and Lin Akey, Tim Murphy and Ron Rosenberg led a grassroots fundraising effort to upgrade the school’s track.
Now equipped with a nice new rubberized track surface, the boys repeated as state champions in 1998. Rosenberg scored an absurd 80 points over the two state meets, including 45 in 1998, still the second most ever recorded at a state meet in Montana. He went on to play football for the University of Montana Grizzlies.
Under Schulz, it’s been common for almost 100 girls and boys annually to participate in the track program, a substantial number for a Class A school: roughly one-fifth to one-sixth of the entire student body, depending on the enrollment that year. When he first started coaching, the numbers were closer to 40.
Schulz was recently named coach of the year by the Montana Coaches Association, and in 2017 he was named coach of the year by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. He still insists he’s not an authority on the sport.
“It’s not that I know a lot about track and field — I don’t,” he said. “But I knew the kids and they knew I cared about them.”
Schulz also fielded a powerhouse track squad under his own roof, with daughters Marlow, Allie and Lauren all winning an assortment of state titles and breaking records before receiving college track scholarships. Marlow ran track for St. Johns University and Washington State University, while Allie is a hurdler at Carroll College. Lauren, who graduated this spring, will join the Montana State University track and field team.
Schulz, however, didn’t push track onto his daughters. He supported their interests in any sport or activity and let them find track on their own, if they so chose. He said he’s seen pressure from adults lead to undesirable outcomes for kids.
“They did track because it was fun, it was social, they were pretty good at it and they had good experiences,” he said. “That’s the only reason I ever wanted them to do any sport.”
He took the same approach with all of his athletes. He wanted them to have fun, learn camaraderie, make friends, compete to the best of their ability and use their athletic experience to help round out their development as humans. He preached that track is a social team sport, despite the individual nature of many events.
“If there’s one thing that he ingrained in us, it’s that it’s not about the individual — it’s about the team,” said Hicks, who won a state championship with the Bulldogs his senior year in 2006 before heading to UM as a jumper and decathlete.
On a recent summer morning, surveying his little slice of paradise bustling with animals and gardens, Schulz is a man at peace. Still, he’ll miss coaching, not necessarily the competition or sporting atmosphere, but the kids and his friends on the coaching staff. He said he’s been blessed with assistant coaches whom he judges on their humanity and heart more than their coaching skills, although they had those in spades as well.
“They know their sport, but the No. 1 priority when I was picking coaches was someone who cared about kids and understood them,” he said. “We’ve had a really good run of great people who are assistant coaches.”
“I had a blast for 24 years as a head coach,” he continued. “I’ve been super lucky to teach in Whitefish and coach in Whitefish. The number of great kids I got a chance to coach, the number of great coaches I got coach with, that’s what made it for me. Basically, I’m lucky. Somebody else deserves an opportunity to do that, too.”