When Matt Montague, a 6-1 sophomore from Kentucky, returned from his mission, Equipment Manager Floyd Johnson noticed something different about him.
Floyd has handed out shoes, basketballs, and jerseys to guys like Dick Nemelka, Fred Roberts and Danny Ainge. He gets to know the players and tells freshmen athletes they should serve missions. In fact, it is rumored that freshmen don't get practice shoes from Floyd until they have memorized the 4th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
"Matt was a good player when he came in as a freshman, but something happened in the mission field,"said Johnson.
What? Run that by again? Floyd clarifies, "When he came back, he was a team player. He was a leader. Now there is a difference in him."
Phew. Testimony intact! Floyd continues, "What Matt learned in the mission field he uses to lead the fellows. Normally takes about a year for a young man to get his timing and his wind back, but Matt hasn't had to do that. He has come back much faster. I think it's the one word that the Lord always places great stress on-Desire.
" When the desire is there, the result comes faster. Matt has a great desire to be a leader, not only in basketball, but in all aspects of his life. It's been interesting to watch him pick up from where he was two years ago, and see the great leadership ability he has developed. That's his role in life. I can just see it now."
Indeed, according to all sources consulted, Leadership is spelled: M-A-T-T M-O-N-T-A-G U-E. Assistant Coach Nate Call, then an assistant coach at UVSC, first saw Matt playing in the Smith Fieldhouse, before Matt's freshman year.
"Matt is a real team leader on the floor. As a coach, you really appreciate him out there, leading the team, kind of as an extension of the coaching staff. Matt gets the ball to the players at the right spot. He makes other people better." As evidenced by the number of W's for the Cougars this year, the starting point guard, is making his teammates better.
Growing up in the Bluegrass State, home perennial cage power UK, one could say Matt was born to play basketball. In truth, his dad, Mike, didn't play basketball, but baseball at BYU (see story on p. 36 for Matt's most famous relative at BYU). Both he and Matt's mother, Carolyn, attended the Y, as did Matt's three older sisters, Mindie, Michelle, and Micole.
Mike and Carolyn's only son played basketball, baseball, soccer, and tennis, but he didn't start out with the "Lem'me at 'em, Dad" kind of attitude. Naturally shy, the tearful little boy had to be bribed with a bag of Garbage Pail Kids to participate in any sport! Once he found out how much fun playing was, however, he never looked back.
Matt began playing basketball as young as he can remember. He practiced for hours, and collected basketball cards, particularly those of John Stockton. He developed ball handling skills by dribbling up and down the hall. Mike would count the number of consecutive dribbles, and Matt loved the challenge. By the time Matt was a sophomore at Male High School in Louisville, he had narrowed his choice of sport to basketball.
In the summer after Matt's sophomore year, his AAU team won the Kentucky State Basketball Championship. BYU coaches were at the tournament. One of them slipped a business card to Matt's best friend and fellow guard Nate Givens, who passed the card along to Matt. BYU's recruiting process unofficially began.
Both BYU and University of Utah coaches focused their efforts on the Louisville point guard. Jeff Judkins, then an assistant coach at Utah, made a home visit to the Montagues, and young Matt was sure Utah would be his school! He later made a campus visit to BYU, however, and recalls, "It just felt right."
Most avid fans are very familiar with Matt's freshman year, 1996-97. The "go- to"teammate was suspended the first week of practice. The coaches were released and the team went 1-25. One coach passed away. Matt played game after game in pain, with regular cortisone shots to quell the aching of his right shoulder. He could dribble, but could scarcely lift the ball over his head.
Added to all this, Matt's sister, Mindie, passed away. Yet, when reflecting on the year, Matt really only thinks about the positives, remembering the firesides the team presented to youth groups, and the great comradery among his teammates.
"It was a fun year," said Montague. "They were good guys, and a lot of fun to be around!" Seven of those players left after the season to serve missions, and were together in the MTC. As Matt left in May, he felt good. He had met the new coaching staff and liked them, but basketball could wait. Matt was ready to serve a mission in London, England.
Matt spent about half of his mission in London's inner city areas. Many of his new friends, both investigators and members, were natives of Africa. In the faces of people with limited worldly means, bounteous spiritual commitment, and mounds of determination, Elder Montague realized very quickly how blessed his life had been.
"Just having a table...a mom AND a dad," Matt reflects. "I was so grateful for what I have, and it made me want to serve that much more." And serve he did.
Elder Gaylen Cox, a BYU graduate and longtime fan, served in the mission presidency. Brother and Sister Cox had watched Matt play that freshman year in Provo, and they looked forward to getting to know him personally.
After some months, Mission President James Parkin, former Chief Surgeon at the University of Utah and a huge Ute fan, determined that Elder Montague should serve as an Assistant to the President. Elder Cox remembers President Parkin's confidence in Elder Montague. "He said, `There is nothing you can ask, that Elder Montague won't do, and you don't ask him twice.' "
"That's the way it was with Matt. You never had to think about something, once you asked Matt to do it." President Parkin required discipline and obedience from the missionaries, and Elder Montague complied.
Brother Cox continues, "Elder Montague worked hard. He played hard too, on P-days, but he lived the letter of the law. Everyone respected him. They knew he was a man of his word. He is the most Christlike man I have ever met. He is completely unselfish." Brother Cox remembers chiding Matt after a recent basketball game for not shooting the ball more. Cox recalls, "He told me, 'Selfishness doesn't win ball games.'"
On the court this year, Matt again fights a nagging injury, playing with a painful Achilles tendon. The prescribed treatment is rest, which isn't going to happen until the season is over. At first just walking around campus was painful, but Matt claims to be getting used to the ache. He says it isn't too bad now, unless the Cougars have several games in a short time span.
For a Thursday game, Matt will sit out practice on Monday and Tuesday, which is more painful for him, mentally, than the physical pain of playing.
Matt is excited about the current Cougar coaching staff. "They all get along so well. If it weren't for basketball, I think they would still do things together, and that rubs off on the players." He had not met Coach Heath Schroyer before leaving on his mission. His first impression? "Intense!! Coach Schroyer told me, when we met, 'I don't know too much about life, but I do know about basketball,' and he does!" recalls Matt. He believes one key to the team's successes this season has been that the entire staff, particularly Coach Schroyer, has prepared the players so well for their opponents defensively.
Coach Call has also been a great help to Matt specifically. "He was an awesome Point Guard, and he teaches me so much." Not one to call any attention to his own achievements, Coach Call admits that Matt reminds him of himself as a player.
"I see a little of me in him. I wasn't the prolific scorer, but I did the things Matt does. He has a real ability to see the floor and understand where all his teammates are at. It's really hard to teach someone how to do that. It involves peripheral vision, and an ability to read the entire playing surface, to be a quarterback on the floor. He'll actually score more points. He's more aggressive offensively. He makes other people become better."
With the team's "jumpstart" trip to Europe last summer, Matt feels they are way ahead in terms of knowing offensive plays and in being comfortable working with each other on the court. He likes the fastbreak style of play, noting teammates Eric Nielsen's and Terrell Lyday's quickness in transition, and feels confident getting the ball into the able hands of Mekeli Wesley or Silester Rivers.
And his teammates have similar confidence in him.
Says Eric Nielsen, "Coming back, it seemed that Matt had to earn his spot back on the team. But with his work ethic, he's so tough, and he never complains. He's the truest point guard I've ever seen, and he has such great basketball sense. He knows the game, and where his players are on the court. He's a great guy, and always positive. I love him to death."
Matt Montague figures to lead the Cougars to a tournament berth a couple of months from now. Leadership. As Floyd Johnson said, "That's his role in life. I can just see it now."
Beehive Relative Connections
Matt Montague's maternal grandmother, Ruby, is a sister of BYU Coach LaVell Edwards.
Edwards says he has seen Montague several times, but their conversations are just in passing.
Montague, whose father Michael played for BYU in 1958-59, isn't the only player in tonight's BYU-Utah game to have a relative connection.
BYU guard Michael Vranes is a distant cousin of Utah All-American Danny Vranes.
David Nielsen's father, Craig, played basketball for Utah.
Teammate Todd Christensen's father Harold and brothers Kurt (also played for Utah) and Craig played for BYU. Cougar redshirt Jordan Archibald's father Nolan played basketball at Weber State and brother Lance played for BYU.
BYU swingman Nathan Cooper's grandfather played basketball and ran track for the Cougars.
Cougar Marc Roberts' father Glen played basketball and baseball for BYU. His uncles Fred, Kenneth and Steve played basketball for the Cougars.
And Steve Smith, the father of former Cougar Morgan Smith, had a basketball scholarship for BYU in 1964.
For Utah, redshirt Chris Burgess, Jeff Johnson and Mike Puzey each have relative connections. Burgess' father Ken and sister Angela both played for BYU.
Johnson's brother Brittan plays for Utah, but is currently serving an LDS Church mission in Texas.
Puzey's sister Kathy played volleyball at Weber State and his grandfather played basketball at Utah State.
Former Ute Trent Whiting just enrolled at BYU. Whiting's wife, Amber Russell, plays basketball at Weber State.
Utah assistant coach Jeff Strohm's wife, Jade Huntington, is also an assistant coach at Utah Valley State College.
By the way, Ute Brandon Sluga's father, George, was the winner of BYU's Dale Rex Award in 1978.