Gary Ekegren spent nearly a half-century coaching high school and college football, but the lessons he taught extended beyond the gridiron and classroom.
"He taught so much about life, working hard and finishing everything you started by giving 110 percent," former Big Sky High and current University of Montana football player Jordan Tripp said on the NBCMontana Web site. "He was always around school as a teacher, and later when he was a substitute. He had an impact on kids, even those who didn't play sports."
Ekegren, who also coached football at R.A. Long from 1980-89, died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer on Dec. 31 at age 70 in Missoula, Mont.
Ekegren played football and later graduated from Harlem High in eastern Montana, and later played fullback at the University of Montana. After graduation, he returned to coach at Harlem High before moving on to Sentinel High in Missoula, where his team won a state title. He was hired at the University of Montana as a defensive line/linebacker coach, but he was part of a complete housecleaning of UM staff by school administrators.
In 1980, the 39-year-old "Coach Ek" was hired at R.A. Long to replace Ed Fitts, who had resigned. Ten years later, Ekegren decided it was time to move on.
"Ten years is a nice, round number," Ekegren told The Daily News in a 1990 story. "I just needed to check my career, check the waters, try something different. ... I'll always have a real fond memory of R.A. Long and the people who make it up."
He led the Lumberjacks to a 7-2 record and the postseason in his first campaign, finishing his stint with a 47-44 record. Ekegren compiled five winning years at RAL, and had three campaigns of 4-5.
"I just feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with a football coach, teacher and individual like Gary Ekegren," RAL athletic director Ty Morris said in the 1990 TDN story. "He developed a sound football program and has been an outstanding instructor. He's a dynamic individual who earned the respect of his students and the staff."
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Ekegren didn't spend much time out of work. He was quickly hired at Big Sky High in Missoula, where he spent the next 20 years coaching and teaching before stepping down in April 2010. During the span, he compiled a 93-105 record and led Big Sky to 11 state playoff appearances including its only Class AA state championship in 1994. He finished with a 186-170 career record spanning 45 seasons.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2009 and didn't want to resign, but felt a change was necessary.
"Our kids deserve that," Ekegren said in a April, 2010 Missoulian story. "We've got a good group of people there. We just had to do what's in the best interest for the kids. As much as I want to continue coaching, I have to think of it like this: I've been allowed to coach and teach school for the last 45 years. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself after something like that."
Former assistant and current Big Sky head coach Matt Johnson fondly remembered football practices under Ekegren.
"... He worked hard for his program, and was one of the hardest-working people I know," Johnson said on the NBCMontana Web site. " ... We'd say during practices there's no excuses when it came to complaining about injuries because Coach Ek was at practice with cancer. He loved being around school, education and kids."
Ekegren is survived by his wife Karen, daughter Ashley and sons Shane and Travis.
Services are pending.