MISSOULA — Blaine Taylor wasn’t supposed to leave Missoula — but he knew he had to.
The former Montana men’s basketball player and coach sat in the Missoula airport with tears rolling down his cheeks in 1998. He was about to board a plane for a coaching job at Stanford after he spent the first 40 years of his life in Missoula.
He was Missoula through and through, and after previous coaches not originally from the Garden City left the Griz, he was the hometown success story expected to lead Montana well into the new millennium.
“Everybody joked that they’d have to take me out of there in a pine box,” Taylor recalled in a phone interview with 406mtsports.com.
He went on to coach on both coasts, call games on TV and deal with weight and alcohol issues. He’s now an assistant coach at UC Irvine and will coach in Missoula for the first time in nearly 20 years when the Griz host the Anteaters at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Dahlberg Arena.
He’s been back to Missoula before for team reunions, banquets, fundraisers, celebrity golf tournaments and calling a Griz game against Weber State. This time, he’ll be sitting on the visiting bench and going into the visiting locker room.
It’s a game Taylor and Griz head coach Travis DeCuire tried to avoid, but they decided to make it a reality when both programs had trouble scheduling games. It'll be his first time coaching against his alma mater.
“It’ll be awkward,” Taylor said, “but it’ll be fun, too.”
Although Taylor was born in Butte, he was raised in Missoula with six siblings and considers the Garden City his home.
It’s where he won youth-level baseball and football titles and first caught the coaching bug from Patrick Ryan, his math teacher and coach at Hawthorne Elementary School. It’s also where he became a three-time all-state basketball player at Hellgate and was the Knights’ all-time leading scorer for 38 years until Tres Tinkle broke his record in 2015.
“I’m still mad at Wayne for leaving Tres in Missoula when he went to Oregon State. If he would have taken Tres to Oregon State, my scoring record would still be intact at Hellgate,” Taylor said, followed with a laugh.
He received multiple offers to play in college but couldn’t pass up the Griz. As a player at Montana under Jim Brandenburg and Mike Montgomery from 1977-78 to 1980-81, he led the team in assists three times and still ranks No. 4 in career free-throw percentage at 82.4 percent.
He won the 1980-81 Naseby Reinhart Award for the team’s most inspirational player and the 1980-81 Allan Nielsen Award for the player who best represents Griz basketball.
“He was very cerebral,” Montgomery said. “He was great for that league as a point guard. He wasn’t terrifically athletic, but he understood the game, spacing, how to run a club and had good leadership skills.”
He considered attending law school but at the last minute decided to go into education and coaching. He followed up his bachelor’s degree in secondary education with a master’s degree in athletic administration.
He began coaching with the JV team at Montana, had a stint teaching and coaching at Loyola Sacred Heart, returned as an assistant at Montana and became the Grizzlies’ head coach in the 1991-92 season.
His 68-percent winning clip in seven seasons remains the highest in program history, and his 141 wins rank fourth. He coached the Griz to two Big Sky regular-season titles, two Big Sky tournament titles, two NCAA appearances and one NIT appearance.
He recruited and coached current Griz head coach Travis DeCuire, who Taylor called the son he never had. They both emphasize the importance of practice, demand excellence and bring a unique energy and voice to the court.
“He always found ways to ignite you,” DeCuire said.
The last time Taylor coached a game at Dahlberg Arena was March 1998. Led by JR Camel, the Griz beat Montana State, 72-66, in the regular-season finale; they lost to the Cats, 68-60, the next game in the Big Sky tournament.
He recalled taking an extended look at the court, the crowd and his team as he walked off after the win. Following the afternoon game, he told his wife while driving on Evaro Hill and overlooking the valley that he may have just coached his final game in Missoula.
“In Montana, we had a saying when I was there that Montana’s greatest natural export was its youth,” Taylor said.
“It was the growth ring on the tree that was probably next.”
He accepted a position at Stanford as an assistant coach under Montgomery, and he recalled how his four daughters couldn’t fathom going from cheering for a “tough” Grizzly mascot to cheering for a dancing tree.
When he boarded that flight in 1998, he knew the move was the right decision for him. Montgomery felt the same way, too.
“He needed to get out of Missoula,” Montgomery said. “Everyone knew him. He knew everybody. He’s very social and needed to re-pot himself.”
The move was beneficial to both as Stanford made three NCAA tournament appearances in Taylor’s first three seasons.
He left in 2001 to build up the Old Dominion program, and he brought DeCuire onto his staff. He led the Monarchs to nine consecutive winning seasons, made four NCAA tournament appearances, including a 2010 win over Notre Dame, and was the program’s all-time wins leader when he was dismissed in February 2013.
In his stops across the country, he became instrumental in fundraising and developed into an international recruiter.
“His demand for overachievement on the court and in life is an area I picked up on the most and have taken and utilized,” DeCuire said.
Taylor left Missoula on a good note after he had a DUI in 1995 for backing into a light pole. He briefly dealt with weight and alcohol issues at Old Dominion during a time of divorce and deaths, but he returns to Missoula on a good note.
While he owns up to the mistakes and said he “deserved” the DUI, he’s not one to gloat about cleaning himself up. He agreed to an interview for this article and understood the interest. He still said he doesn’t have any big-time status as a visiting assistant coach and didn’t want to take away the focus from the players on the court, but he did offer up this:
“I’m really proud to be coming back to Missoula as healthy as I am. There’s been times in my life where I’ve faced challenges on the court and off the court. If you take one look at me, you can tell that I’m happy, that I’m healthy. For instance, I haven’t drank alcohol in almost five years.”
After leaving Old Dominion, he called basketball games for three years on NBC, Comcast and American Sports Network. He enjoyed working three to four months out of the year but missed the camaraderie and challenges of coaching.
He spent his time in the TV world getting back into shape, and one day while riding his bike on the Virginia Beach boardwalk, he received a phone call from UC Irvine coach Russell Turner. The two of them had previously coached together at Stanford under Montgomery, and Turner offered him a position on his staff starting in the 2016-17 season.
Taylor jumped at the opportunity, and his happiness to be coaching and his zest for life are apparent in conversation. He’s now been a coach for 34 of the past 37 seasons.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I grow up,” the 59-year-old joked.
Before Taylor boarded that plane to Stanford nearly 20 years, a random person in the airport saw him crying and approached him to check if he was alright. They talked briefly, and that person was surprised to find out Stanford was in California and not in the northeast near Harvard, which got Taylor laughing.
The former Griz player and coach knew where he was heading; he just didn't know what it would lead to next.
“Leaving was among the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” Taylor said. “I sure don’t regret it. It led me to such a storybook life.”