March 9, 2023
Thanks to John Hamilton for ghost writing my column this week. He’s a much better sports writer than I am.
What do Thompson Falls High School, Gonzaga University basketball and the jersey No. 8 have in common? And what does all of that have to do with Previs Field?
The answer to the first question is Art Previs, and the answer to the second is his father Steve.
Art Previs was an all-state hoop player for Thompson Falls High School in the late 1940s playing for his dad who then went on to become a standout in college for Gonzaga in Spokane in the early 1950s, while Steve Previs remained a fixture on the western Montana sports scene from the time he arrived in 1930 to coach and teach in Thompson Falls until his retirement in the late 1960s.
Art (who played for the Zags basketball and baseball teams in 1950-51) was recently honored as being the greatest player who ever wore No. 8 for the Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball team in an article written by John Blanchette for the Spokesman Review. Although the Zags lacked the nationwide notoriety they now enjoy back then, Gonzaga’s basketball program is widely respected as year-in and year-out having one of the best in the country, and for consistently playing into the late rounds of March Madness in recent years.
The Previs name is familiar to Blue Hawk fans everywhere, but it seems like for increasingly the wrong reason as time has worked on eroding the story. Although Thompson Falls folks associate the Previs name with football (i.e. Previs Field), it was really on the basketball court where Steve, the father, and then Art, the son, both made the name famous.
Later in his career, Steve Previs came to be known as the Silver Fox (or Sly Ole Fox) for his way of bringing only so-so teams into tournaments, and then somehow leading those Thompson Falls teams to postseason glory, while Art went on to a coaching career of his own later on.
The ironic thing is the fact that while Steve was a long-time teacher and a coach at Thompson Falls from 1930 through 1968, he was much better known for his basketball coaching than he was for his football coaching. The long-held rumor is that he accepted the head football job only reluctantly, when no one else could be found.
Jeff Wollaston, who played for Previs from 1958 through 1960, is now part of the Silver Fox’s legend in Thompson Falls, where he still lives. Jeff said the 1959 Blue Hawks were a perfect example of how Previs brought out the best in his basketball teams at tournament time.
“Silver Fox, Grey Fox… no one called him that yet when we were playing,” Wollaston said. “But he already was well known for having a way of bringing lower seeded teams into tournaments and pulling off some upsets.”
Wollaston was part of just such a team in his junior year in 1959, when the Hawks, with a 6-9 season record, came in as the No. 6 seed and knocked off the No. 2 Mission Bulldogs 45-39 on the first day of the Western B divisional in Polson. Then the Hawks had the temerity to off the No. 1 seeded Ronan Chiefs 62-50 in the semifinals Friday to set up a meeting with the No. 3 Libby Loggers in the championship.
“We were down by 9 points after the first quarter but kept chipping away at the lead,” Wollaston said of the ’59 title game with Libby. “And by god, we finally took the lead in the fourth quarter and ended up winning the game (58-56 for the record).”
Jeff said the 8-team Western B was largely segregated by school size in that era, with Libby, Polson, Whitefish and Columbia Falls being thought of as the big boys of the league, and Eureka, Mission, Ronan and Thompson Falls being considered the little guys. The Fox and his Hawks scored one for the little guys in 1959.
The story of the ensuing 1960 season was another dramatic one that involved a Previs coach finally winning a state title but, ironically it was the prodigal returning son Art Previs who did it while coaching at Ronan, not the Silver Fox at Thompson Falls.
Thompson Falls and Libby tied for the ’60 regular season Western B crown with 12-2 records that year while Ronan was third at 11-3. But Art’s Ronan team beat his dad’s Blue Hawks and broke a lot of Thompson Falls hearts in the semifinals, winning by one point in overtime and going on later to defeat Libby in the championship. The Blue Hawks ended up not qualifying for state that year as a result of the OT loss in the semifinals.
The next week, Art and his Ronan squad won the only boys’ state hoop title in that school’s history with a 60-37 win over Fort Benton in the 1960 State B championship game.
Wollaston said the roster of the unlikely 1959 Western B champion Hawks from the year before included him, Mike Marich, Roger Curran, George LaFrienere, Arden Davis, Ernie Schmoyer, Wally Page, Bruce Dennison, Doug Dennison and John Long, and that Wally Dobbins was Steve Previs’s assistant coach.
Wollaston said that basketball road trips were different in that era, quite the adventure in those days as the Blue Hawk varsity squad traveled to away games in two cars – coach Previs’s and one driven by former Falls educator and coach William “Buck” Preuninger.
Steve was born in 1909 in Butte, raised in Whitepine and attended school in Thompson Falls, graduating high school in 1927, then returning to teach in 1930. Steve worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service in the summer months during his teaching and coaching career in Thompson Falls. He is buried in the Whitepine cemetery after passing in Missoula in 1981.
Art was born in 1930 and went on to coach and teach in Lake Oswego, Oregon as an army reservist, retiring as a Lt. Colonel there, for many years after leaving Montana. He passed away in 2012.