During his sophomore year in high school at Billings Central, John Sillitti was introduced to an unexpected, but incredibly rewarding career path.
A neighbor needed help coaching a little league baseball team and turned to Sillitti for assistance. Although he considered himself a soccer player while also competing in basketball and track, Sillitti happily accepted.
“And then my senior year I was running track and our head track coach was also our head girls basketball coach at Central. His name is Dennis Dennigan,” Sillitti explained. “He asked me to help coach a junior high basketball team. He was running a junior high spring league in Billings, and so I coached a little bit of baseball and then I was running track for Dennis and then also coaching a couple nights a week in the junior high basketball league he was running.”
The junior high basketball team had a very successful season and Dennigan praised Sillitti for his natural approach to working with kids and encouraged him to take coaching classes while attending Saint John’s University (Minn.).
“That was one of the things that really inspired me to get into coaching,” Sillitti said. “Because somebody saw something in me that they thought this is something that I could be good at.”
Thursday, at the Montana Coaches Association awards ceremony in Great Falls, Sillitti will be among nine members inducted into the Class of 2020 Hall of Fame. The ceremony was originally slated to be held last year, but canceled due to the global pandemic.
“I kind of forgot about it. There was so much going on with COVID and missing a season and getting back into a season when we got to cross-country last fall. It was just exciting to get back,” said Sillitti. “To be dealing with all the COVID restrictions was a lot and I had other things I guess on my mind. So it was almost like it never happened because we didn’t have the ceremony. I was like, you got an award, it’s over, move on.”
Sillitti has been coaching for more than two decades with the past 22 years in Manhattan. He began as an assistant coach in multiple sports before taking over the helm of the cross-country and track and field teams at Manhattan in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
During Sillitti’s tenure, the boys have won five state championships and finished as the runner up seven times in cross-country. The girls have claimed four state titles and placed second three times.
The track team has been equally successful with five state championships for the boys, 11 combined state trophies as well as 16 district and divisional championships.
Sillitti has also been named the Class B cross-country coach of the year nine times and received the honor five more times in track. In addition, he was nominated for National High School Athletic Coaches Association coach of the year in 2016 for boys track and again in 2019 for boys cross-country.
Despite an impressive resume, Sillitti was surprised when he received a call from Scott King, head of the MCA Hall of Fame Committee, in March of 2020. Hall of fame members are required to have a minimum of 25 years of experience, something that Sillitti noted he was lacking while filling out a form of his accomplishments.
“At the time, when they asked me to fill out the form, I think I had 20 years in. I was in my twenty-first year,” he said. “So I said, ‘I don’t meet that part of the criteria.’ And they said, ‘Why don’t you just submit it and we’ll have it on file kind of or whatever when your time comes.”
Sillitti obliged and submitted the paperwork with the expectation he would not be considered for induction until several more years down the road.
“I just wasn’t expecting it to come, the call to come,” he said. “When it did I thought if I made it another five or ten years or more, then they’d consider the application.”
The 2020 and 2021 hall of fame classes (14 coaches) will be inducted together at the CM Russell High School Auditorium. Inductees will receive a plaque following an introduction highlighting their accomplishments.
“The cool part though is at the end of the ceremony, and this is the part that I really think is cool and that I’m really looking forward to, is that at the end of inducting all of the new hall of famers, they call up any hall of famer in the audience to join them on stage,” said Sillitti. “And they go through and shake hands with all the people who are already in the hall of fame who are present.”
While Sillitti is honored to be inducted, he noted it would not have been possible without the athletes, assistant coaches, administration and community in Manhattan.
“As I look back on it it’s cliche to say it’s humbling, but it really is. I’m kind of blown away when I look back over the years of the athletes we’ve had. I think every school has the kids in their building to compete, to put forth a good sports team,” said Sillitti. “But boy it sure feels like we’ve had more than our share of great runners.”