“When you don’t play on the last day of the season, it never ends the way we hoped.”
And with that, Monty Lee, the long time head football coach at San Juan High, summed up his career, ending 30 years after it started at SJH.
“We start every year with that,” states Lee. “Records to me don’t mean anything. When the cards are dealt and the hands are folded, it’s just a game.
“In high school, some people take it beyond that. They are missing the true vision of what high school athletics are all about.
“I hurt terribly for the way the season ended this year, but not for me. I hurt for the young men, because of the amount of time and effort that they put in.
“That’s the way I feel every year. I feel bad when I can see where I let them down, where I have faltered. But these are great kids that go on to be great men. Maybe somewhere along the way, I had a small part in their success. That gives me a little bit of satisfaction.”
Lee began his teaching and coaching career at San Juan High School in 1987 as an assistant to a new head coach, Art Burtenshaw. It was a renewal of a partnership that began many years before. This alliance started in the second grade, when Lee’s family moved to Blanding.
“Art was my neighbor, right next door,” Lee remembers. “We did everything together. We ran from the police together. We threw a snowball once that hit a guy’s windshield and broke it. We got tracked down and got a stern talking to by our moms and the cops.”
The relationship continued through high school and into college. Lee was playing football for Southern Colorado and Burtenshaw joined him there after an LDS mission.
The year Burtenshaw took the head coaching job at SJH, Lee landed a job with San Juan School District after short stints at Milford, East Carbon and Uintah. Burtenshaw promptly asked if Lee would be his assistant.
Their partnership lasted 16 years, with Lee manning the defensive coordinator position. And a successful partnership it was, except that first year, when the Broncos went 2-8 and got blasted 53-8 by Emery in the semifinals.
But that playoff experience started a run of 16 straight years of reaching the playoffs, a streak that continues to this day, making the finals seven times in 16 years and winning three state championships. The Broncos won 128 games, losing just 45 in the Burtenshaw years, many times featuring one of the top defenses in the state, led by Lee.
“That was a great moment (when Burtenshaw asked Lee to be his assistant) and a great chapter in my life being around that man,” reflected Lee.
“I was a screamer and a hollerer. He was a very mellow, vey humble, quiet leader. He taught these kids to love the game of football. I miss him everyday.” He repeated softly, “I miss him every day.”
In 2003, Burtenshaw left the Broncos to take over a football program at Ben Lomond in bad need of rebuilding. Burtenshaw passed away unexpectedly two years later.
The head coaching job was now in the capable hands of Lee, who picked up right where Burtenshaw left off, though they lost in the quarterfinals the first two years. Finally, in his third year, Lee made it back to the finals, losing to Grand County in 2005.
“That blocked punt against Moab was difficult to handle” and resulted in a 25-22 loss, their only loss of the season.
The Broncos returned to the finals in 2006, blanking Millard 13-0 to complete the Broncos’ first-ever undefeated season at 12 and 0. The Broncos returned to the finals in 2009 and 2010, winning state championships both years and 20 games in a row, including a 12-0 record in 2010, a streak that they stretched to 30 straight wins before losing in the quarterfinals to Millard in 2011.
The Broncos last trip to the finals was in 2012, when they lost to Manti on an otherworldly 53-yard field goal in overtime. The Grand loss and the Manti loss were two of the toughest defeats for Lee.
But the loss this season (38-21 to South Summit in the semifinals) “was really, really hard,” Lee laments. “I’ve taken it really hard. Nobody likes to end any adventure on a down note. This will take a while for me to get over.”
During Lee’s 14 years at the helm, the Broncos went 127 and 31, with three state championships in five trips to the finals.
But the Broncos never let the tough losses hurt them. “I’ve had the philosophy that if you live in the past, then that’s where you die,” Lee says.
“We very seldom even brought up the previous year, whether it was a championship or whether it was a loss. Simply because we tried to instill in each of the senior classes that this was their legacy. This was their year.
“Whatever happened in the past was somebody else. This season was their legacy. Winning is a habit, but so is losing. The way you reinforce either is to live in it. If you live in a defeat, then someway, somehow, kids are going to have that in the back of their minds.
“We’ve had a great run since I’ve been here. I can remember back when we first started. Art was in tears, wanting to know what we needed to do to change things to develop a winning team and program. We had to force these kids to live in the future, not in the past.
“Back then we found ways to lose, instead of finding ways to win. So we played to win; we didn’t play not to lose. You are what you think about all day long and if you’re going to be a losing program, that’s what you’re going to think about.
“We had to change mentally. Each year we put to bed what happened last year and went on.”
Highlights of the last 30 years focus on family for Lee. “Coaching my sons. To have my sons able to be on a bus with me, from the time they could carry water out on the field is one of my greatest highlights,” Lee says.
“I’ve been around the world 10 times on a bus just for football.” (3.3 times actually on 83,210 miles. He’s kept track.) “And then coaching my sons and having to watch them deal with the pressure of being the coach’s son and how they were able to respond and evolve to that level is probably one of my greatest memories.”
Another highlight for Lee is his wife, Lana. “I can be replaced, but Lana can’t.”
Besides being the quintessential coach’s wife, knowing just when to put her arm around the coach or leave him alone, Lana supported Lee splendidly, doing “all the yard sales, all the boot camps, organizing the food and activities, putting hours into fundraisers, spending money for food, gas, clothes.
“The number of kids that she has paid for their spirit packs, for meals, for shoes. There is just nobody like her. I’m more worried about her missing all that than me sometimes. It’s been just as much her life as it’s been mine. She reminds me constantly of what matters most in life,” Lee smiles.
So, now that he’s retiring, one wonders about the next Bronco head coach. Lee smiles when talking of his assistant coaches.
“There are a lot of head coaches, a lot of assistant coaches, and a thousand bleacher coaches,” he laughs. “People respect the game, but they don’t wanna get in the profession if they don’t respect and revere the game.
“Hopefully, it is brought on by examples of coaches. I’d like to think I had a little to do with that. I have had some of the best men alive helping me. That’s one of the things I’m going to miss the most, that association with great men that, number one, care about kids and playing the game the right way.
“Urban Meyer could come, but if Urban Meyer doesn’t have a strong, supporting coaching staff, he’s not going to be successful. It’s not the head coach, it’s your assistant coaches that pull the wagon, and if the head coach can’t see that, he’s not going to be successful. ”
About the future coach, Lee ponders, “I would like to think that some kids will come home. There are great coaches out there, that have themselves well established that I would like to think would come back to Blanding, but you never know.”
On a personal level, Lee had many opportunities to go to other programs during his stay in Blanding. “Blanding has always been loyal to me. I would hate that someone would come here with the goal and the idea to be just a stepping-stone in their progression.
“I would like the new coach to be somebody who is going to want to be in Blanding, who loves Blanding as much as Blanding is going to love them.”
“I’m proud of this program,” Lee sums up. “I hope all the kids know I love them. I have had the responsibility to bring out the very best in who they are and what they have. I’m entrusted with that.
“The game has moved far beyond my level of comprehension. It is so technical now. It almost gets to the point when people who understand technology know when you’re going to spit. That’s beyond my level.
“I feel like ‘I’ll put my best against your best and we’ll see who can end up on top.’ Now it’s far beyond my level of comprehension. And it’s time. It’s necessary for someone who really grasps the game to step in and take these kids to a different level that I can’t.”
So, as Lee said at the beginning, “When you don’t play on the last day of the season, it never ends the way we hoped.”
Notice, he didn’t say, when we don’t “win” on the last day of the season. He said, when we don’t “play” on the last day of the season. Thanks, Coach of 30 years, for understanding and doing just that.