BILLINGS — From an early age, Jordan Sullivan was destined to play college basketball at Montana.
Yeah, she may have had an inkling to resist that predestination at some point in her life, but there really was no doubt: Sullivan would be — and eventually was — a Lady Griz through and through.
Playing for her uncle and women’s coaching legend Robin Selvig, Sullivan, from Sidney, had it pretty good as a player some 550 miles west at UM, appearing in a program record 129 games by the time she was done.
Only Sullivan was never truly done. She later latched on with the program as a director of basketball administration and then as a full-time assistant under head coaches Shannon Schweyen, Mike Petrino and Brian Holsinger.
For Sullivan, Missoula was home. Heck, it still is.
“I would never change a thing. I’d go back and do it all over again,” Sullivan told MTN Sports. “We were such a close-knit team that really, really cared for one another and really wanted to win. And that was all we knew.”
That’s the definition of a strong culture; a culture you might not want to stray too far from. But growth requires pushing your boundaries, and that’s why Sullivan, following the end of last season, jumped at the chance to become an assistant at the University of Utah where she’s expanding her coaching development at a more prominent level of women’s basketball.
A year after advancing to the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament, Utah this season is 15-1 overall, 5-1 in the Pac-12 and ranked No. 8 in the latest AP Top 25 poll under the guidance of head coach Lynne Roberts.
Because of the resources at Utah, Sullivan said her job is more simplified now. She no long has to worry about managing any operational tasks. With the Utes, Sullivan primarily works with the post players, scouts opponents and chips in with recruiting.
“It’s been great,” Sullivan said. “As hard as it was to leave Montana — Montana’s my home. Coaching there and playing there and growing up there, it was tough to leave. You leave great people.
“But then I came here, and I’m just lucky to be a part of a staff that was welcoming. The people I met on my interview are exactly who I work with. They’re very authentic and true to who they are. That’s what you hope to have, and I’ve gotten to kind of blend into the staff pretty easily, which is a huge part of enjoying coaching.”
As a player, Sullivan was one of the state’s top recruits coming out of Sidney High School in 2010, a veteran of those old-school Eastern A battles. Her senior year, she helped the Eagles reach the Class A state championship game. Under Selvig at UM, Sullivan was a part of 81 victories and played in three national tournaments. She was second-team All-Big Sky as a senior.
As effective as she was as a player, coaching is also in her blood. Her father Rollie was the longtime boys coach at Sidney. Her brother Ryan coached high school ball in Sheridan, Wyoming. Another uncle, Doug Selvig, coached the boys team at Glendive High School, and two cousins from Glendive, Derek Selvig and Carly Selvig, both played at Montana. Derek Selvig is now the head men’s coach at Dickinson State in North Dakota.
“Yeah, we’re all crazy,” Sullivan joked about her family’s desire to coach.
From an early age, Sullivan said, she learned “that you play the game as hard as you can or you don’t play. And that’s still my rationale when I’m coaching. It drives me nuts if people aren’t playing as hard as they can, because that’s what you learn from a young age. You get some toughness that way, and you build a little character that way.”
Sullivan got her opportunity at Utah through Utes associate head coach Gavin Peterson, who she got to know on the recruiting trail in previous seasons.
Following an appearance in the second round of the NCAA tourney last year, Sullivan thinks the sky’s the limit for this year’s Utah team. The Utes are currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Pac-12 standings with perennial national power Stanford and upstart Colorado.
Forward Alissa Pili, at 6-foot-2, is averaging 19.8 points per game while shooting a league-high 63.2% from the floor. Pili lifted Utah to a last-second win over Arizona on Sunday. Guard Gianna Kneepkens is another standout, averaging 14.4 points and hitting 46.8% of her 3s, second-best in the Pac-12.
“We run and we play fast and we shoot the ball,” Sullivan said. “We press and we just like to keep the game moving, and that was something that was kind of a change for me.
“Coming into this year the point of emphasis was defense. As a second-round team, they had a great offensive system last year. And so it was like, ‘Where are the gaps?’ So defense has been a point of emphasis more so than it’s been for (Utah) in the past, and that’s something I grew up on playing at Montana and then coaching there. So it’s been fun.”
“Getting out of my comfort zone has been really good for me I think because it's all new,” she said. “It's a new league, it's a new level, it's new players, it's a new place. I was so happy and comfortable in Missoula that if I had the opportunity I could've been there forever, and so this has been something that I think I needed."
Montana will always be Sullivan’s home, but she’s now spreading her coaching wings away from a place that had been so comfortable.
The Treasure State’s loss has been Utah’s gain.