If the doors of the Little Snake River Valley School are open, chances are Mike Bates is somewhere to be found on the small campus in Baggs, Wyo.
Monday through Thursday, Bates is a social studies teacher, tutoring students on his favorite subject — history — at LSRV.
After school days in the fall, Bates is on the football field preparing his six-man football team for the next opponent and in the spring, he is on the track helping sprinters develop speed.
Even in the winter, when Bates isn’t a coach for the Rattlers, he is often seen sitting in the corner near the door watching the school’s successful basketball teams defend their home court.
“The relationship you develop with the players at a smaller school is probably the strongest part of being successful,” said Bates, 47. “In bigger schools, kids have more options. Here, I get the kids in the classroom and in sports and I see them around town.
“The relationship we develop helps them in all aspects of their lives.”
The story of how Bates wound up in Baggs as a teacher, two-time state champion football coach and state champion track coach started almost three hours away in Laramie, Wyo.
At Laramie High School, Bates was a three-sport athlete, but he had a grade point average under 2.0.
In a strange twist, Bates said if it wasn’t for his uncaring attitude toward academics in high school, he might not be where he is today.
A different direction
After graduating from high school, Bates headed to Brownwood, Texas, to run track for Howard Payne University.
A year in, Bates knew college wasn’t for him.
“After one year at Howard Payne, I decided I wasn’t mature enough for college at that point,” he said. “Sports are what got me through high school and I didn’t want to do the academics at that point.
“I always knew I wanted to serve my country, and my dad had been in the Air Force, so it made sense.”
From Germany, Yugoslavia and Italy to serving in Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, Bates used the Air Force as a way to see the world and grow as man.
After 10 years and at the age of 32, however, Bates said he had to make a decision about the rest of his life.
“I got to a point where I needed to figure out if I wanted the Air Force to be a career or if I wanted to do what I really wanted to do,” he said. “I knew I had always wanted to work with kids, but I also knew to make money, I would need a college education.”
When Bates decided to leave, he took with him leadership skills he said he could use in the classroom and on the field.
But, his time in the Air Force also taught him more about the game of football than he had expected.
Bates played in the Armed Forces League, where it was base versus base and teams included men who played for the collegiate Air Force team.
“I was blessed with good speed in my 20s, but those guys were extremely fast and it was awesome to see the quickness they played with,” Bates said. “It was good development and I played against players who actually played for the Air Force college team. Getting hit by one of them was not a fun thing.”
The time spent serving his country was something Bates said he will always appreciate.
“There was a tremendous change from who I was when I went in and when I left,” he said. “When you get in, you are a follower, told what to do all the time.
“By the time I left, I was leading, and I think that is the biggest thing I took from the experience.”
Out of the military, Bates went back into the classroom, earning his bachelor’s degree in secondary education social studies from the University of Wyoming.
His first teaching job was at East High School in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he also served as an assistant coach on the football, basketball and track teams for seven years.
Then, the leadership quality in Bates crept back up, and after a one-year stint as head coach of the Cheyenne Wells High School eight-man football team, he stumbled upon a listing in 2009 for the LSRV six-man football heading coach position.
After a 55-year layoff, the Rattlers were bringing a football program back to Baggs.
“What really stuck out to me was the chance to start a program because not too many coaches get to start from scratch,” Bates said. “With six-man, I thought I would get a chance to challenge myself on top of the challenge of starting a new program.”
Ann Wille, the school’s athletic director, was part of an interview team who talked to Bates.
“The experience Mike had as a coach with 11-man and eight-man teams, we felt he was the best for us,” Ann said. “We saw he could go from 11-man to eight-man, so we figured he would have an easier transition to six-man than a coach straight from 11-man.
“We had a lot of interest from kids and we wanted a coach who could build a program.”
In the first year, the Rattlers were a mediocre 3-4.
But as Daniel Wille, an LSRV senior who started with the program as a sophomore, put it, it was because no one knew what to expect.
“When the program first started, we almost didn’t have any expectations because none of us had played before,” Dan said. “But, from the start, Coach Bates was a good motivator and kind of a goofball. He has always been a good communicator with us and he can talk to us with ease.”
For the next two seasons, Bates and the Rattler athletes set a high standard for the football program, racking up two undefeated seasons and bringing home two state titles.
“It was beyond my wildest dreams we would be state champions two years in a row after the first year,” Bates said. “In the second year, after two, three and four wins a row, I kept waiting for the shoe to drop.
“With each win in the second year, I was surprised more and more.”
‘Here for awhile’
Before Bates started his first year at LSRV, he made another life-altering decision.
After being introduced by his brother and sister-in-law, Bates and his wife, Enchiel, married following a yearlong relationship, which involved traveling to the Philippines, Enchiel’s home country.
Bates said he and Enchiel continue to enjoy traveling together, whether around Europe or across America.
But Enchiel, who frequently watches Bates’ practices and games, insist when they are home, Bates’ mind is always focused on sports.
“It is always sports almost every day of the week,” she said. “He talks about coaching or how the kids are doing and how proud he is. He also always looks at sports online to get ideas on coaching.
“Sports is always on his mind.”
A six-man football program at a school with maybe 240 students in first grade through the senior class may not be every coach’s dream, but Bates said he is enjoying the ride.
And, while he may not be there forever, he isn’t close to being done in Baggs, Wyo.
“I don’t know if I will be in Baggs for 20 years, but I have always wanted to be a coach who stays in one position and makes his mark on the program,” he said.
“I don’t want to be here if it isn’t good for the team or the community, and sometimes you have to move on because what you’re doing doesn’t work out anymore, but I hope to stay here for awhile.”
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