BILLINGS — The smell of bus fumes.
That was the tipping point.
“I can’t go on one more bus trip,” said Laurie Kelly.
After more than 40 years of coaching volleyball with unprecedented success at both the high school and college levels, Kelly will get her wish.
The Rocky Mountain College coach announced her retirement Tuesday during a press conference at RMC's Fortin Center.
She’s been part of Montana volleyball since the beginning, first as an official and then as a coach.
With stops at Roundup, Miles Community College and the last 12 years with the Battlin’ Bears, Kelly retires with an overall record of 765-328.
She was 456-127 at Roundup with five Class B state titles — including two in 2002 when the MHSA changed the seasons — and was 274-124 at Rocky with six NAIA national tournament appearances and two top-eight finishes. Her Battlin’ Bears also won four Frontier Conference regular-season titles and four Frontier tournament titles.
“I knew this was going to be my last year,” Kelly said. “I felt it was the best time to get out. You want to go out on your own terms. It was best to go out on a great note.
“Last year’s team had a great season and we had a great group of players. It was time to leave.”
The Battlin’ Bears finished 30-6 in 2018, sweeping the Frontier regular-season and tournament titles. Hailey Copinga was selected the conference's player of the year and a first-team All-American. She is Kelly’s 15th All-American selection and second first-team pick, along with Yang Yang in 2014.
Known for recruiting in-state talent and coaching them up, Kelly led Rocky to eight seasons of 20 wins or more and three of 30 victories or more during her tenure. The 2014 team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the year.
“I am proud we took that program to No. 1 in the nation with mostly Montana kids,” she said. “The cupboards are full for the next coach. We have five good seniors and two good sophomores returning.
“I am so at peace with the decision.”
Kelly did not play volleyball in high school. In fact, she didn’t play any sports.
There were none offered.
“I was on the dance team and was a cheerleader,” she said. “That’s what the athletes did back then.”
Kelly’s athletic skills were honed on the hard Minnesota ice, playing hockey with her brothers.
“We didn’t have much growing up,” she said of her home life in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. “But we always had skates and a hockey stick. We skated every day and every night.”
Kelly attended Bemidji State to become a physical education teacher.
“I didn’t go to be a coach,” she said.
Kelly was also a hockey cheerleader at Bemidji State.
The class process included segments on every sport. Impressed with her stick savviness, Kelly was recruited to the field hockey team by the coach.
She played three seasons for the Beavers (1975-77).
“There were no divisions back then,” Kelly explained. “We played teams like UCLA, around the Midwest and a lot of teams from Canada.”
Kelly was inducted into the Bemidji State athletic hall of fame as an athlete in 2000 and as a field hockey team member in 2007. She was already a member of her high school hall of fame, being inducted in 1999.
Kelly was inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005.
On to Montana
Kelly was hired to be the PE teacher at Miles City in 1978.
“They needed a cheerleading advisor,” she said with a chuckle.
It was there where she also met her husband, Chuck, who was training race horses at the time.
Kelly taught volleyball, then known as “power volleyball,” during her high school classes. “The students loved it,” she said.
She moved to Roundup two years later.
Kelly’s first experience with Montana high school volleyball was as an official when it first became a sanctioned sport. With two daughters — Kamber and Kandice — growing up in the school system, she helped get volleyball as part of the Roundup program.
“We almost had to threaten a lawsuit to get it in,” Kelly recalled.
Seeing volleyball talent in her daughters, she began building the Roundup program.
“It took us a while to win state championships,” she said. “We didn’t have a junior high program. We did the AAU circuit. I packed my daughters around with their friends.”
Kamber Kelly was selected the Montana Gatorade Player of the Year in 2001 and Kandice won the award in 2003. Both played four seasons at Montana State.
Their mother learned along with them.
“I’ve always been a student of the game,” Kelly said. “Not a day goes by that I’m not studying something about volleyball. You win because of skills. I studied how to teach skills correctly.”
Kelly coached other sports at Miles City and Roundup, but volleyball moved to the forefront.
“I think it’s a pure sport,” she said. “It takes a whole team to win. I’ve never had kids say, “Oh, I’ve got to go to volleyball practice.’ Kids love volleyball practice.”
After 2004, she was asked to start the program again at Miles Community College. She was 10-25 the first season and 25-12 the next.
“I never gave any thought about being a college coach,” Kelly said. “When they called and asked if I would start the program at Miles, I absolutely loved it. It was the best thing to happen to me. It gave me the experience for Rocky to trust me.”
Hired in 2006, Kelly promised then athletic director Terry Corey she would turn around the program.
Along with success at previous stops, Kelly had another brick in her coaching foundation.
“I knew it was my last job,” she said. “I didn’t worry about moving on. This was it. I knew I had to make Rocky Mountain College the best team that I could.
“I was thinking I would be here 10 years. If I wasn’t good enough, I would get out.”
Kelly discovered there were 240 NAIA volleyball programs in 2007. Her job was to get the Battlin’ Bears consistently in the Top 25.
After scheduling regionally, Kelly realized Rocky would have to schedule nationally to receive the proper attention.
“It took me a couple of years to figure out what we needed to get there,” she said.
Not afraid of competition, Kelly filled her nonconference schedule with top-25 opponents.
“It was a good way to learn where you are and where you needed to be,” she said.
Kelly established the culture of the program, setting expectations for both school and athletics and went out and recruited players who fit that philosophy.
“And I had to get taller players,” she added with a laugh.
Kelly developed a reputation as being a tough coach with players responding to her expectations.
“A tough coach? Well, I am,” she said. “If it means that I confront and hold players accountable. Especially if they challenge the culture of the program and fall below the standards. I tried to control the controllable like attitude, effort, fitness and preparation.
“It’s a big responsibility to be a student-athlete. You represent so much more than yourself.”
Her Rocky teams had a cumulative grade-point average of 3.3 or higher all 12 seasons.
“Making my job easier was selecting good, quality people,” Kelly said.
She coached with a firm hand during matches but was not afraid to share a laugh or two during practice. Players could always be found hanging around her office between classes.
And Kelly was always a teacher first.
“Each player had to play every position,” she said. “We wanted them to understand the game.”
Kelly understands she is a rarity in her chosen profession.
A woman who was able to balance family and a coaching career.
“It’s so hard for women to stay in coaching because of family,” Kelly said. “I was able to coach my daughters. If I had sons, I would have stopped coaching so I could watch their activities.”
Kelly also serves as a mentor for former players who have followed her into coaching.
“She’s always sending notes of congratulations,” current Roundup coach Alicia Godfrey said during the Class B state tournament last November. “Laurie is an incredible resource. I can call her any time if I have a problem or question. Help like that is invaluable.”
Kelly said the support of athletic directors Bobby Beers, Bruce Parker, Jeff Malby and Corey, along with administrator Brad Nason, was important.
To relieve the stress of coaching, Kelly plays racquetball four times a week at the Fortin Center.
“I’m still competitive,” she said with a smile.
And while stepping away from Rocky volleyball she won’t be completely away from the court. She plans to coach her granddaughter’s U12 team.
“I still love volleyball,” Kelly said. “I’m going to be the biggest advocate of Rocky volleyball. I will watch from the stands. I will be their biggest cheerleader.”