Nathan Covill didn’t need to step foot on campus on Wednesday, his first day as a member of the Lady Griz coaching staff, to know what he’s been entrusted with.
He didn’t need to walk through Dahlberg Arena and look up at the conference championship banners that hang overhead to realize the expectations that come with his new position.
He didn’t even need to leave home.
“She said, ‘Don’t screw it up,’ ” Covill recalled Wednesday, referring to the simple instruction that came from his wife, former Lady Griz standout Angella Bieber, after agreeing to join Shannon Schweyen‘s staff.
Covill, who played for the Grizzly basketball team in the early 90s and was most recently an assistant coach for the men’s program at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., joins Mike Petrino and Jordan Sullivan as Schweyen’s assistants. He replaces Sonya Stokken, who stepped down in June.
Stokken, who totaled 1,320 career points as a player, 11th on the Lady Griz all-time scoring list, joined Robin Selvig’s staff in 2013-14 and was part of Schweyen’s the last three seasons.
She and her family — she and her husband Evan now have two children — moved to Billings this summer to pursue a promotion that Evan, an engineer with the company, was offered with Montana Rail Link.
“It’s a big loss for us. She was one of the best players to play here over the years, and she really had a feel for Montana and was great with kids,” said Schweyen.
“She could really identify with the history of the program and what it’s all about to be a Lady Griz and how unique the situation we have here is. But it was an opportunity her family couldn’t pass up.”
Covill does not join the program with the same institutional knowledge that Stokken enjoyed but he is only one degree of separation removed thanks to his wife.
Covill spent five years as a member of the Montana men’s basketball team, arriving from Long Beach, Calif., after being recruited to Missoula by Stew Morrill.
He would play for Blaine Taylor, who took over head coaching duties after Morrill left for Colorado State prior to the 1991-92 season. Covill’s senior season was 1995-96.
Bieber, who was recruited out of Spokane, Wash., played for the Lady Griz from 1994-95 to 1997-98 and was part of teams that won 99 games over four seasons, went 64-4 against Big Sky opponents and four times advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
She was voted the Big Sky’s Outstanding Sixth Player as a junior and named the Big Sky tournament MVP as a senior after scoring 24 points against Northern Arizona in the championship game.
Both Covill and Bieber, who began their teaching careers in Southern California before settling in Oregon, were elementary education majors.
They have two daughters who will attend Hellgate High. Austin is going into her junior year, Alex will be a freshman.
“We thought when we moved back to California that we’d be there for a short time,” Covill said. “We always planned on getting back to Missoula but never in this capacity. It’s pretty surreal I’m here.”
Covill and Schweyen have a long history. She was a senior for the Lady Griz, in 1991-92, when Covill was a first-year redshirt.
He’s worked Lady Griz summer camps the last two decades and coached both Jordyn and Shelby Schweyen, two of his new players, on the Montana Elite travel team.
“I’ve seen him coach and been around him long enough to know I really like the way he connects with young ladies. He does a fabulous job with them and has a way of getting his girls to play hard,” said Schweyen, who was an assistant under Selvig when Bieber was a Lady Griz.
“Angela was a great player here. It’s neat to keep that connection. They are very invested in Montana and Lady Griz basketball. Obviously they want good things for the program and for the school.”
Covill made his recruiting trip from his home in Southern California to Missoula and Montana in late October 1990. Part of his weekend visit included a home football game, a 35-18 victory for the Grizzlies over Montana State.
“I fell in love with Missoula when I was here. It was the fall, it was Griz-Cat weekend. You just saw the support that the university and city had for athletics,” he said.
“And I felt like I needed to leave home and experience something different. This felt like a place I could grow as a person.”
Covill, a 6-foot-9 center when he played for the Grizzlies, did not start taking basketball seriously until his sophomore year at Millikan High in Long Beach.
He knew he had a lot to learn about the position and the game itself, which was a big reason he chose Morrill’s program at Montana.
“They had a tradition of working with big men, and I was a late-bloomer. It felt like I’d be at a school where I could advance as a player,” says Covill, who had teammates his first year from Montana, Washington, California, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
“When I came on my visit, I saw how connected the guys were. It didn’t matter where they were from. There were guys from big cities, guys from Montana, and they all really got along. I loved the family atmosphere.
“I took a chance and fell in love with it. It’s where I met my wife and lifelong friends. I’m still really close with a lot of my teammates,” including Montana men’s basketball coach Travis DeCuire. The two players were teammates for three seasons.
Covill coached at Loyola Sacred Heart and Sentinel High in Missoula in the late 90s before he and his wife moved to Riverside, Calif., where he was the assistant boys’ basketball coach for nearly a decade at Martin Luther King High, a program that would achieve a top-25 national ranking in both 2002 and ’08.
The Covills relocated to Redmond, Ore., a city 15 miles north of Bend, in 2008.
Covill, who worked as a special education case manager for the Redmond School District from 2008-16, was the assistant boys’ basketball coach at Redmond High for one season, the head girls coach for three and finally the head boys coach at Ridgeview High for the family’s last four years in Redmond.
In 2016 Covill was hired to be an assistant for the men’s basketball team at Willamette, an NCAA Division III school.
“I decided to leave teaching and take a chance at the college level. We said we’d give it three or four years and see where it leads,” says Covill, whose wife works from home for K12. She started with the company as part of its educational mission before moving to the business side.
“I really enjoyed being in the college game and being in a college program and doing what I love to do.”
He spent two summers coaching the Montana Elite team. This summer he coached the U15 team and his youngest daughter for Oregon Elite, another attractive entry on his resume for a Lady Griz program that has that geographic area as part of its recruiting net.
He was open to new opportunities in coaching, but only as long as they allowed his family to remain in Salem. He was flexible, his wife had a job that allowed her to up and leave. But he didn’t want to uproot his girls.
“I thought if I could elevate in the profession and stay in Oregon until my kids leave high school, that would have been the optimal choice,” he said. Then Stokken stepped down. And Schweyen reached out.
“When you get the chance to come back to your alma mater and this community, holy smokes, it was a really good opportunity. It’s hard. (My daughters) have friends. But they’ve been amazing. They understand why.”
Said Schweyen: “It’s never easy to uproot your family. He just knew that if you really want to get into coaching, good opportunities don’t come along too often, so you have to move on them and make it happen. We’re happy he decided to go with it.”
Now he’s here and it just became real. Schweyen wants to return the program to the dominance it enjoyed when she was a player and then an assistant for more than two decades under Selvig.
And when Covill returns home each day after doing his best to make that happen, he’ll need to answer to a wife who wants the same thing for a program that had such a large impact on her life.
It’s why she gave him the simple directive not long after he accepted the position.
“I have a lot to live up to,” he says. “I know the tradition. I know the expectations. I know the pressures, but I also know the positives, the status of being a Lady Griz and how important it is.
“I have a weight on my shoulders to live up to those expectations and make sure I represent the university and the Lady Griz well.”