SPOKANE, Wash. — Shannon Butler had tears in his eyes as he looked around the hotel lobby. He hugged his sister, Kelly, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years, and mentioned how much he appreciated seeing former teammates and coaches in attendance.
More specifically, the Montana State track and field icon loved seeing former MSU head coach Rob Stark, a man that Butler said has “put forth the best example of what we all should be.”
“He has never wavered, ever, in all these years,” Butler added. “He uses positivity in everything. Amazing human being.”
The group gathered to celebrate Butler’s induction into the Big Sky Hall of Fame Saturday night in Spokane, Washington, alongside 13 other standout players, coaches and administrators. Former MSU women’s athletics director Ginny Hunt was also inducted.
Butler — a two-time national champion and 13-time Big Sky champion — likened the anticipation surrounding the event to waiting in his hotel room before the 1990 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, where he won a national title in the men’s 10,000 meters.
“It’s hard to top this,” Butler said. “We had some good moments, some good times, at Montana State.”
Before he got to Bozeman, Butler grew up in Eureka and joined the track team in middle school after a physical education teacher encouraged him to run competitively. Butler ran in four meets as a seventh grader, sweeping every 800 meters and 1,600 meters race.
He later co-founded the cross country team at Eureka High during his junior year. He raced in state meets his final two years of high school, with Butler notably claiming first as a senior in 14 minutes, 37.7 seconds. That still ranks as the fastest three-mile time in Montana history.
After high school, Butler initially enrolled at Auburn University, but transferred to MSU as a sophomore thanks to Stark. Butler competed for the Bobcats for three years (1989-91), winning 13 Big Sky titles across cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field. He also won a national title in the outdoor 10,000 in 1990 and in the outdoor 5,000 in 1991. Butler later won the 10,000 at the 1991 USATF Outdoor Championships.
Butler said it was important to show his appreciation to Stark throughout his time at MSU.
“You give anybody, any young person, an opportunity to recognize the fact that somebody believes in them to that degree, there was no way I could let him down,” Butler said. “I came close a lot of times. But I never lost the Big Sky title.”
That included the incredibly difficult task of tripling — 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 — at the 1990 Big Sky Outdoor Championships in awful weather conditions. Butler became the first Big Sky athlete to win all three events in the same meet.
He also overcame adversity the following year, with a broken jaw wired shut five weeks before the meet after making a “couple errors in judgment,” he said. Butler still trained for the next five weeks — 70 miles a week — and had his doctor cut the wire a few days before heading down to Flagstaff, Arizona. He ended the meet with two more Big Sky titles.
“All I can say is this — if you train at 5,000 feet with your jaw wired shut in the middle of winter, in Bozeman, you are going to get tough,” he added.
Butler also fondly remembered winning his pair of national titles, the second coming at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. As he stepped to the line for the 5,000, Butler sized up his competition in a way that resembled the mindset of Oregon track and field legend Steve Prefontaine.
“I looked at everybody and nobody looked like they really wanted to go,” he said. “So I led the whole race from start to finish, through the last lap.”
After that race, Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman approached Butler about going pro and signing with the company. Butler initially declined, wanting to represent MSU one last time when he won the 10,000 at USAs. He later signed with Nike during his pro career.
Butler, who currently lives in Darby, still has a deep passion for running in the decades after his time at MSU. He still runs every day — including a seven miler on Saturday — and keeps up with the running scene in Bozeman. For example, Butler said he watches every meet MSU standout turned Bowerman Track Club steeplechaser Duncan Hamilton runs in. Butler added that he’s been closely following Bozeman High graduate Weston Brown, who will run at Princeton this fall.
“We’ve got a lot of good Montana athletes,” Butler said, “and this guy really impresses me.”
Butler’s own career helped lay the foundation for future runners like Hamilton and Brown. When reflecting on his time at MSU and beyond, Butler credited his support system and those who put him in a position to succeed.
“I got lucky with the people that I came in contact with in my life,” Butler said. “With a little hard work, we made it happen.”
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