The Montana Coaches Association this week will honor Choteau High School coaches Steve French and Matt Luedtke as the Class B coaches of the year for wrestling and boys basketball, respectively.
Luedtke, who won back-to-back state championships in 2014-15 and 2015-16, is just at the beginning of his coaching career while French has reached the end of his formal coaching career, officially retiring as the CHS and junior high head wrestling coach earlier this year.
In an interview at the end of the school year, French said his decision to retire after 26 years as a coach reflects changing priorities in his life. His younger son, Steeler, graduated from CHS this past spring and will be a freshman at Montana State University-Northern (Steve’s alma mater), where he will be wrestling this school year.
“I want to be free to watch him wrestle,” Steve said, adding that he is planning to be a volunteer assistant coach for the new head coach at CHS, Sam Armstrong. That way he will be able to help out, but still have a clear conscience about leaving to watch Steeler’s collegiate career unfold.
Secondly, Steve has set a date of June 2019 to retire from teaching at Choteau Public Schools and go into back to ranching fulltime with his brothers and father in the Malta area. Ranching has always been a part of French’s life and he is excited to return to it.
Looking back on his coaching career, Steve said he has either been wrestling or coaching wrestling for 40 years of his life since he first put on a wrestling singlet in third grade.
He grew up on his family’s ranch and attended Malta High School, where he wrestled all four years and graduated in 1986. He went to MSU Northern on a wrestling scholarship, where he became the first Northern Light to earn two-time All American and Academic All American honors.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in secondary education in history with a minor in physical education and graduated with departmental distinction.
He started his coaching career before he graduated, however, serving as a volunteer coach for Conrad High School under John Metz, his teammate and roommate in college for three years, when he did his student teaching at Conrad.
After he finished his degree, he took a job as the junior high social studies teacher at Shepherd High School. He was also hired as the school’s first high school wrestling coach, establishing a new program there in the school year of 1991-92. He stayed there for two years, but, always in the back of his mind was the powerful call of the ranch.
“I felt like a rancher who was teaching,” he said. So, he and his wife, Jennifer, went back to the family ranch in the fall of 1993 and stayed there for three years, working with his dad and his brothers.
While there, he started coaching the Malta free-style club, and the next year, Malta High School hired him as its head wrestling coach, a position that he held for two years.
“But then I felt like a teacher who was ranching,” he said. “I felt like I needed to go back.”
There were teaching positions open in both Malta and Choteau that year, but with some nudging from long-time Choteau wrestling coach Gary Betcher, who worked to recruit him during that year’s state wrestling tournament, Steve chose Choteau.
“That was a tough decision to leave my family, but we felt that it was the right thing to do,” Steve said, adding that Choteau was 200 miles closer than Malta to his stepson’s father and that played a role in their decision as well.
Steve started teaching at Choteau Public Schools as a junior high social studies teacher in the fall of 1996, and has served as the school’s head wrestling coach for the past 20 years.
During his years at CHS, Steve has coached his teams to 10 state trophies, including one state championship in 2015, five second-place finishes and four third-place finishes. He has had 14 state champions, including three two-time state champs, Raymond DeBruycker at 189 and 215 pounds in 2007 and 2008; Chase DeBoo in 2015 and 2016 at 103 pounds; and Steeler at 182 pounds in 2015 and 2016. His older son, Jake French, was also a state champion at 195 pounds in 2014.
The Montana Coaches Association voted him Class B wrestling coach of the year in 2013-14, 2014-15 and now 2015-16.
Steve has also coached Heisey football, youth baseball and did a three-year stint as a line coach for the CHS football team under head coach Robert McKay.
Steve says his mentor was the head wrestling coach at Northern, Jason Liles, who taught him both how to be a coach and what not to do as a coach. When Steve was a senior at Northern, the team was ranked number one and favored to win the nationals. Liles pushed them too hard, though, with too much of an emphasis on drilling and dieting, burning the team out. The Lights finished the season in second at nationals, when they should have run away with the title, Steve said.
On the positive, though, he said he learned a ton of technique from Liles and how to be a head coach.
Steve’s coaching philosophy has evolved and changed as he has matured as a coach. When he started at Shepherd, his philosophy was to win state championships, but he soon learned that doesn’t always work out.
In response, he reeavaluated his priorities and came up with a new philosophy. “I realized it’s not about the state championships. It’s about helping the parents develop their kids into better men through wrestling,” he said. He focused on doing things right, making student athletes accountable, and says that when that happens, winning often comes along.
“So I feel like we did it right,” he said, adding that the boys who wrestled on his teams came away better people than when they started.
And, the small personal victories he witnessed along the way were often even more important than the trophies. “What brings me joy is getting a kid to believe in himself, to accomplish something that maybe he said he thought he could accomplish at the beginning, but didn’t believe it seriously, and then later, he seriously believes it and accomplishes it,” he said.
Coaching did keep Steve up at night, literally. He would wake up and think of a new move or a new strategy to wrestle a kid and wonder whether he dreamed it. “If there’s one thing I won’t miss,” he said, “It’s the lack of sleep.”
What he will miss is the constant interaction with his team members. “I will miss being an influential part of kids’ lives,” he said, and he will miss the relationships with other coaches.
One of the biggest challenges Steve faced as a coach was also one of the most personal: coaching both of his sons from the time they were in grade school and were doing Matt Sharks and USAW wrestling before they even got onto the junior high team.
The first year they competed in the USAW league, they both won state, easily, at ages 6 and 8, but the next year, they were bigger, more awkward and jumped up an age group. Instead of winning, they were finishing in third a lot, and Steve says, candidly. “I was a jerk.”
After some soul-searching, he apologized to his sons, and he decided that all he would ask of them is to work as hard as they could in practice, to leave it all on the mat and to never give up, another part of his overall philosophy as a coach that he brought to his position as head coach.
“If you hustle, never give up and have good sportsmanship, I will be happy in any sport that you do. That was for me as much as it was for them,” he said, adding that Mr. Betcher taught him to remember that no kid is ever going to go out on the mat and try to lose a match.
Steve said he will never forget how awesome Choteau’s wrestling parents have been over the years. “For the most part, I’ve had tremendous support,” he said, adding that parents trusted him to have their kids’ best interests in mind in all his decisions.
He also says he couldn’t have coached for this long without his family’s support, particularly Jennifer’s. “My wife has been a tremendous coach’s wife from the beginning, from little kid on. That’s got to be there,” he said, adding that he spent a lot of time away on coaching duties when their sons were young.
His career as a teacher and coach has also been influenced by his own parents. “I can credit my character and resiliency to my parents. Hopefully I pass that on to my own kids and to my wrestling kids,” he said.
Steve also said that he has had the great fortune to work with stand-out assistant and volunteer coaches through the years. CHS alum Bob Scott was an assistant coach with him for 20 years and is a close friend, “go-to guy” and “irreplaceable.”
Scott was particularly helpful in coaching both of Steve’s sons, who sometimes learned better from someone who wasn’t their dad.
He also said he’s thankful that outstanding national wrestler Mike Zadick, who is now coaching at the collegiate level in Iowa, spent time with the Choteau team.
He said he’s confident Armstrong will carry on the tradition of excellence in wrestling at CHS. “What a wonderful example he is for someone to follow,” Steve said, adding that he’s a great family man who has a strong faith and is enthusiastic about kids.