BY BLAKE HEMPSTEAD
From small town Montana to what those in the industry call “the Mother Ship”, Jill Montgomery is quickly and consistently making a name for herself on the biggest of stages.
A self-proclaimed hometown girl who grew up in Anaconda, Montgomery has clawed her way to the top. Currently an employee of ESPN, Montgomery is the leading on-field reporter for the network’s track and field coverage. And although she won’t accept the praise, her knowledge and insider access earned from years competing in and studying the beat is making Montgomery the go-to source for collegiate, Team USA and professional track and field athletes.
Two weeks ago, she was at her best on ESPNU and during primetime on ESPN during the four-day NCAA Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., and resume boasts gigs on ESPNs College Gameday and her personal favorites, interviews with University of Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan or and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
Her professionalism and work ethic according to her peers and colleagues is off the charts, all of whom believe it stemmed from a stellar track and field career started at Billings West High in Billings, Mont., detoured to the Palouse at Washington State and blossomed at Kansas State.
But not so quietly, Montgomery points to her active childhood in Anaconda that shaped her as an athlete and a competitor – qualities she says were learned the hard way, in the dirt and rock alleys and quiet streets smack dab in the middle of Copperhead Country.
Admittedly, her drive for perfection is specifically a life blood – all the while knowing the countless amount of young, hungry reporters getting turned out of college in droves are all out for her job.
No matter the challenge, she’s still standing tall. And flourishing.
On one particular long day after the four-day marathon of the NCAAs at legendary Hayward Field on the campus of the University of Oregon, Montgomery retires to her room to relax and reflect. Even after a hard day, she makes it a point to critique her performance.
“I felt I had a great broadcast, but I literally went back to the hotel and decompressed for a half hour,” she lamented, mulling over the mountainous prep work she had already committed to memory. “I said to myself, how can I make that better for tomorrow. It’s the athlete it me, it my upbringing.”
The daughter of Terry and Mary Pat Montgomery was born in Butte, 24-miles southeast of Anaconda, both blue-collar mining towns situated in Southwest Montana. A self-described tomboy, Jill says her love of sports and will to compete was born and bred in Anaconda.
“Anaconda has and will always be home,” Jill said from her office based in Los Angeles. “Sure, I graduated from Billings West because my parents divorced, but when I go home, I go to Anaconda.”
Montgomery attended Washington Elementary in Anaconda before moving away with her mother for middle and high school in Billings, but always returned for summers in Anaconda with her father and stepmother, Terry and Sue, who to this day still live in the family home. Those summers were filled with freedoms offered in small town America, from hiking and biking the “A” Hill and swimming to staple neighborhood games like kick the can, even a little backyard golf – all of which were the building blocks of her tenacity as an athlete and broadcaster.
“Softball in the summer, and when it wasn’t that it was whiffle ball in the back alley, football with the boys and hotbox,” she remembers fondly.
And it was her neighbors, the Stergars, who she credits for building the woman she is today.
“Jimmy and Dave will still claim until they take their final breath that they taught me everything I know,” she laughs. “With them it was always sports, sports, sports. And no matter what we did, it was a competition of some sort.”
Her best friend from those days, Jimmy, who just so happens to teach in the middle school Montgomery attended as a child – Riverside Middle School – still relives those days vividly.
“It was non-stop all day, everyday” he said. “At night we’d play kick the can. There would be kids everywhere. We’d hike to the “A” and build forts in the trees. I was up there a few years ago and found the remains of an old fort of ours. It brought back a ton of great memories.
“Later at night when we were supposed to be in bed, we would go to our windows in our own houses, both on the second floors, and talk across the backyard. Probably talk about the day and what we’d do the next.”
Montgomery was part of a golden era for Anaconda athletics in the late 80s. She ran with the same guys who produced divisional basketball and football titles and even divisional and state track and field championships, names like Stergar, Sullivan, Huot, Derzay, Skakles, Matosich, DeTonancour and Connors – all like her were all-around athletes who also excelled in the college ranks. Looking back she wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
“I ran with the boys. It made me tough as hell, almost to a fault,” she said. “I was such a tomboy, and really didn’t even become a girly-girl until coming out of college. It was constantly ingrained in me to compete. I wanted to beat everyone at everything. I wanted to be the best of the best, and that has translated into television and sports broadcasting and everything I do.”
At Billings West where she graduated in 1990, she parlayed the lessons learned in Anaconda into a standout prep basketball and track and field career littered with Class AA all-conference and all-state accolades including state long jump, high jump and sprint relay titles for the Battlin’ Bears.
Montgomery was such a raw athletic talent she matriculated to Washington State on scholarship, competing as a heptathalete. There, she met and still maintains a close relationship with one of the greatest all-around track and field athletes in the world, Dan O’Brien.
While at Wazzu Montgomery battled a bevy of injuries that kept her from being her best. But in the eyes of O’Brien, who works as a track and field analyst for networks such as CBS, NBC, Yahoo Sports and ESPN while also being an assistant coach for Arizona State, that’s where so many athletes like Montgomery have learned from the down times to overcome adversity on the track, and even to excel when their athletic careers come to a halt.
“One of the things that Jill has done well is lean on her experiences to make herself a better broadcaster, “says O’Brien, who is a US and world champion decathlete and 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon. “Through her dedication, she’s worked her way up to become very good at what she does.”
Montgomery transferred from Washington State to Kansas State in 1992, the same time head coach Cliff Rovelto began his tenure at the school where he still remains. When talking about his former pupil and close acquaintance now, Rovelto remembers Montgomery’s growth as an athlete, her perseverance rebounding from injury and her journey into being one of the finest women’s indoor pentathletes and outdoor heptathletes in the country.
“When she first got here she had some injury issues, but bottom line she was not in great shape,” said Rovelto, who during his time at KState has personally directed 59 individuals to 145 NCAA All-America certificates, as well as 57 individuals to 86 conference event championships. “So the first order of business was to get fit, and she worked very hard at doing that. Honestly I didn’t know what she would develop into. As she got more and more fit, she was able to train better for the HEP. As a result she got really good.”
During the indoor season her senior year, Montgomery was consistently putting up personal bests and numbers high enough to be noticed throughout the nation. After her indoor successes and finally on pace to make a name during her final outdoors season, she again fell victim to injury.
“When her senior year rolled around, she was pretty good. As an indoor athlete, she would regularly post either the first, second or third best scores in the nation,” Rovelto said. “She was a fine pentathlete indoors, but unfortunately she severely hurt a hamstring during the long jump at the Kansas Relays and it derailed her season. Because of the injury, it didn’t allow her to realize her potential and what she had worked so hard to become.”
Always seeking the next challenge, she qualified for the US Nationals in the pole vault post-collegiately – a discipline according to Rovelto she picked only two years prior. Montgomery used that premise to pursue a career in television broadcasting.
After a five-year stint as a competitor at the US level and professional athlete for Nike/Accusplit, she flirted with several different rewarding careers. But it was being in front of the camera, relaying the story of the athlete that truly struck a chord. Montgomery has intertwined her small town charm with an insatiable hunger to succeed. Whether it’s been on the college football or basketball beats working with ESPN industry giants like Rece Davis and Jay Bilas, she continues to prove she’s willing to put in the work to be the best.
“I don’t pretend to know her well but when I’ve had the pleasure to work with her I’ve found her to be really professional,” says Davis, who has anchored SportsCenter along with several ESPN shows ranging from auto racing to football, and this fall will be replacing longtime host Chris Fowler on College Gameday, the most successful pregame football show in television. “She is relentless and she attacks her craft like her athletic career, and because of that she’s getting some good opportunities now. She’s a vibrant personality, she’s smart and she uses all of her qualities to enhance her brand. Whether it’s been on College Gameday for basketball or National Signing Day for football, I think she’s done a really nice job.”
Being away from of Bristol, Conn., the home of ESPN headquarters, is tough enough for aspiring reporters and broadcasters. Out of sight, out of mind. But not if you consistently produce good content and are on point with your product. Time and time again, Montgomery keeps getting the call.
“Thankfully I’ve never had to do it (work away from Bristol), but I do know this for a fact, if you don’t do well we don’t bring you back,” Davis said bluntly. “For her to continue to get work as she has is a testament to her relentless nature and ability to improve.”
As Montgomery wraps up yet another successful broadcast in style, getting drenched with an ice water bath meant for Oregon head coach Robert Johnson, who was preparing to accept the Men’s national championship team trophy, was her latest obstacle. The consummate professional, cold, shocked and possibly even a little disoriented, Montgomery conducted the interview as if the distraction didn’t even occur.
“It’s live television, I was hardwired in and my IFB (ear piece) was wet, my RF was wet and the microphone was soaked. I was afraid I was going to get electrocuted,” she laughs. “But within one split second I told myself I had to keep going with the interview.
“Those are the things you don’t prepare for but have to handle on the fly. I take pride in handling the impromptu, unknown stuff from time to time and still make the transition smooth.”
Her next challenge is to become a producer, and is currently in the beginning stages learning the intricacies of the craft with Tennis Channel based in L.A. to broaden her portfolio.
“I want to produce,” Montgomery says definitively. “I’d definitely love to produce track and field because I love the sport, but I’d also like to do tennis. I love being on camera, but it’s only going to last so long. And because I know there’s a need for more female producers and that I truly love sports, I would really love to become the best female producer out there.”
Colleagues like Davis think she would make a smooth transition from the sideline to behind the scenes.
“I think she would do a great job in that role,” he said. ”She’s very smart, she knows how to tell a story and what the story should look like when she goes home. She’s very good at social media, and you have to be organized and have to be able to tell a convincing story – all of those qualities she’s excelled at being a sideline reporter.”
Still soaked from head to toe and now relieved to be free of her electrical broadcasting devices, Montgomery can rest assured she will be receiving another call from ESPN when the time comes – but resting just isn’t in her DNA.
“There are 20 million girls who want my job,” as she explains why there’s no time sit back and smell the proverbial roses. “You keep in the back of your head that there’s always someone out there who is better. After every broadcast I know I could never work again for ESPN. They are not going to call you, your contracts are over, you’re just done. No matter how great you feel you are there’s always someone out there who’s better. That’s why I stay humble and always try to do better.”
With every broadcast, her behind the scenes work is paying dividends. The relationships she continues to build and those she’s fostered over the years are why Montgomery is such a polarizing and popular figure throughout the sporting contests she’s covered.
“Jill has been good friends with a number of athletes, and she’s always been very supportive of me both personally and professionally,” Rovelto said. “I’ve made the statement openly in the past, ‘If there’s one person walking around on this planet that I know who would take a bullet for me, it’s Jill Montgomery.’”
Away from the hustle and bustle of network television people from her home town, friends and family aren’t tuning in to critique her work. They may not even care about the product she’s reporting on. However the pride knowing a small town girl from the neighborhood has accomplished her dreams and what’s she’s set out to become.
“When I now see Jill on TV, I definitely feel proud of her,” says Stergar. “She is doing what she has always wanted to do, and is happy doing it.”
And as he points out, Montgomery is influencing a new generation of kids with her hometown neighborhood ties, even if it’s thousands of miles away.
“We always knew that Jill would be successful,” Stergar says proudly. “My kids know Jill now via TV, we have a daughter named Ellie and we call her EllieBean – Jill’s nickname (JillyBean).”
To follow Jill on social media, go to @Jill_Montgomery on Twitter or @jill_montgomery on Instragram. Tomorrow, log on to copperheadcountry.com for a look into Montgomery’s personal life, her cooking blog and some fun comments from friends and colleagues.