BILLINGS, Mont. — Rich St. John doesn’t worry about wardrobe decisions.
It’s blue, almost all the time.
Dark blue for work, a lighter shade for practice.
One is his profession. The other, his hobby.
Both are his passion.
The 57-year-old St. John is the police chief for the city of Billings. He is responsible for the 144 sworn officers in the Billings Police Department that serve the state’s largest municipality.
He joined the force in 1981 and was selected chief in 2005.
But for a few hours each day during the fall, St. John is also an assistant coach for the Billings Skyview football team. He is the only defensive coordinator the program has known since it started in 1985, reported the Billings Gazette (http://bit.ly/2db9J6L).
“I’m called the defensive coordinator because (head coach) Ron Lebsock needs somebody to yell at,” said St. John with his long-known deadpan humor.
It’s a side of St. John many never get to see. He is the face of the BPD, standing in front of the cameras during the tough times.
But it’s there.
He’s known to drop random quotes and song lyrics to players during warm-ups. “I’m working on my rap stuff,” St. John said, referencing Ja Rule.
And his dispensing of nicknames is legendary for those associated with the football program.
“So many of our boys have come out of the program with different names because of him,” said Lebsock.
Some nicknames come from necessity. Others are a more long-term process.
“They come from different places,” St. John explained. “It might be something they did. Or I’ve been butchering their name for so long, by the time I get it right, it’s too late.
“If they (the nickname) stick long enough, I forget their real name.”
And while calm in a crisis, St. John’s intensity still bubbles up on the sideline during games.
“When the hat gets waving, you get out of the way,” said Lebsock with a chuckle. “He’s very entertaining.”
St. John has been balancing police work and coaching for 35 years. While working his way up the ranks of the BPD, he has been a constant since day one with the Falcons.
“Football is much like law enforcement,” he said. “There are many similarities: accountability, team work and how to learn from adversity.”
The starting point
Originally from Federal Way, Washington, St. John was an All-American linebacker for Rocky Mountain College, graduating with a degree in history and political science. He is a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame.
St. John looks like he could still bring down a criminal or ball carrier if necessary.
He joined the BPD with a long-range plan of following his father Charles into federal law enforcement. But life took him on a different path.
“I had married a Billings girl and loved what I was doing here,” St. John said.
He and his wife Cheryl celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary in early September.
St. John also began his football coaching career at Park City, working with Terry Corey. It was his first experience with eight-man football.
“I find great humor in it now,” he said of his youthful enthusiasm. “I was a very excitable, young coach. I knew how the game should be played. I showed up to practice one day and nobody was there. All the kids were out harvesting. Terry was a great mentor, he taught me a lot of things.”
St. John does concede one thing to age.
“When I was a young coach, I was happy to lead the charge from the locker room,” he says, leaning back in a chair of an unused office at police headquarters. “Now I’m happy to make it to the end zone by the end of the national anthem.”
When Lebsock was hired to start the Skyview program, his first call was St. John.
“I watched him play at Rocky,” said Lebsock, whose brother-in-law Bucky Heringer played with St. John for the Battlin’ Bears. “That was indicative that he knew what he was doing. It was a no-brainer.
“He has a knowledge of the game I don’t think anybody can match. He’s a dedicated student of the game. Rich spends as much time studying and preparing as anybody I know. He leaves no stone unturned. You couldn’t have a better guy working with young men.”
The Falcons won Class AA state titles in 1995 and 2003 and were runners-up in 2004.
A patrolman in the early days, St. John worked night shifts and weekends. He would use vacation days on game days.
During two-a-days in August, he would get off work at 7 a.m., go to the first practice, head home for some sleep, work the second practice and be back in his patrol car at 8:30 p.m.
“What it did was cut into your sleep,” said St. John. “I had understanding bosses who understood the value of community involvement. But it was with the understanding that this job came first.”
With seniority, his work schedule became more flexible. Currently, his work day begins at 6:30 a.m., followed by practice. Most evenings, he doesn’t leave Skyview until after 7 p.m.
St. John and his wife have three daughters – Melissa, Michelle and Katie – all multi-sport athletes during their time at Skyview.
“I had great cooperation with Ron that I would have to leave practice early sometimes,” he said. “We didn’t miss many or any functions (with his daughters). With our staff, we’ve been together so long, we didn’t miss a beat.”
Football offers a break from the daily grind of police work. St. John encourages his police officers to find other outlets.
“I tell my patrolmen, ‘You need to get a life outside police work,’ he said. “To have friends who are not cops. Get a hobby and make sure you have an open line of communication with your spouse. Friends provide a sense of reality. You might think you know what’s going on but they give you a sense of perspective of what’s really going on. It provides a balance.
“I’m fortunate that I have friends on staff and outside the police department.”
St. John has taken up cycling during the summer, giving him a chance to wear some brighter colors other than blue.
“I don’t want to be a target,” he said. “I want people to see me.”
St. John sees coaching in more than the final score. “Unfortunately, coaches are measured by wins and losses,” he said.
“The satisfaction comes from helping kids. With players, sometimes you have no idea what is going on behind closed doors. You provide structure, you provide support. Your kid needs to be here.
“Athletics is a great learning tool. The biggest thing is accountability and there are consequences when you don’t step up.”
There are occasions when the payoff comes long after graduation.
“You get, ‘You don’t remember me, but you helped me,'” said St. John. “You improved somebody’s life somehow. That is very rewarding.”
And sometimes, police work and coaching become intertwined.
“Every school has somebody who is going to get in trouble,” he said. “The head coach handles those situations. I’ve got a responsibility here (with BPD). I’m not going to interfere with anything my officers do. I do have the opportunity to be a sounding board.
“I get a lot of, ‘Hey, what happened on Grand Avenue?'”
Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com