As longtime Saints football coach Mike Van Diest fought back tears to announce his retirement earlier this week, our community shed a collective tear right along with him.
That’s because Carroll College is losing not only its most successful coach ever, but also a solid mentor who has guided countless Helena athletes through highs and lows both on and off the field.
“Not only has Van Diest been a coach for the Fighting Saints, he has also been an integral part of the players’ lives during their time at Carroll and continuing after graduation,” Carroll College President John Cech said.
Van Diest led the Saints to six national championships and 14 Frontier Conference championships after taking over the football program in 1999. He was selected as the Frontier Conference Coach of the Year 10 times and the NAIA National Coach of the Year in 2003 and 2005, and the American Football Coaches Association named him Coach of the Year in 2003, 2007 and 2010.
In January, Van Diest will be inducted into the 2018 NAIA Hall of Fame.
But his influence extends far beyond the football field.
A former Saints quarterback said Van Diest’s lessons also apply to the workforce, relationships and parenthood, according to Cech. And Van Diest and his wife now plan their summer weekends around the weddings of former players, demonstrating his commitment to his team long after the football season ends.
Van Diest has been talking about his retirement ever since his very first game with the Saints in September 1999, when Carroll College defeated No.-5 ranked Rocky Mountain College 36-35 in the Frontier Conference opener for both schools.
“I’m retiring,” he told a reporter with a grin after that first game. “I’m 1-0 and I’m retiring.”
Though Van Diest may not have been able to maintain that perfect streak during the 20 seasons that followed, his actual retirement marks the end of a far more accomplished coaching career that will be remembered for generations to come.
This truly is the end of an era for Carroll College and Helena as a whole, and we wish Van Diest the best in his well-deserved retirement.
His successor will have some very big shoes to fill.