All those days as a teenager working at the family-owned gas station in rural Glendive, Montana, Mike Colbrese got used to hearing his father’s signature farewell line with customers.
“He would say, ‘Be good, be careful and hurry back,’ ” Colbrese said.
And that is exactly how Colbrese has approached his work with many of his member schools, athletic directors, coaches and student-athletes as the longtime executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.
On Monday, Colbrese announced to the WIAA executive board that he will be retiring at the end of the 2018-19 school season.
At that time, when he steps down, he will have served 27 years in that position, making him the third-longest tenured executive director in the country behind Michigan’s Jack Roberts (31 years now) and Minnesota’s Dave Stead (29 years now, stepping down next February).
Colbrese, 68, said in an exclusive interview with The News Tribune on Wednesday morning that the executive board had asked him to give 18 months advance notice on his retirement plan so it could conduct a proper national search for his replacement, which won’t begin until next year.
He also noted that 2019 is when the WIAA will finish up its revamped strategic plan in creating a healthier culture for all of its interscholastic programs.
Colbrese came to the WIAA in 1993 after serving as the executive director in Wyoming for six years.
“I felt it was time to move to a bigger challenge,” Colbrese said. “When I moved here, I knew a few things that needed to be accomplished, but I also knew this is where I wanted my family to grow up.
“I wanted to be able to basically get things in motion, and then do some fine-tuning after the hard work has been done.”
If there is one thing to know about Colbrese, he hates sitting behind a desk at the WIAA office.
Colbrese said he regularly puts 20,000 miles on his car in a year, visiting member schools for league and district meetings, and rotating through all of the state championships as they are being held in all corners of the state.
“I like being around people,” Colbrese said. “I pride myself in listening, and trying to articulate where the membership is, and trying to move that collective voice forward.”
One of the first issues Colbrese tackled when he arrived was overhauling an outdated classification system that had stood since 1968. It went from four classifications (B, A, AA, AAA) to the six levels presently (1B, 2B, 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A).
“Equalizing opportunities for schools to get into postseason play has been important,” Colbrese said.
Of all the things the WIAA has accomplished under his watch, Colbrese pointed to two start-up programs he is especially proud of creating in 2009: Concussion management and setting up a transgender participation policy.
Colbrese said he has plenty of work remaining over the next 18 months, including refining ways to reach competitive balance among schools, continuing to upgrade a satisfactory playoff system, and continuing to guide the WIAA’s growing diversity and governance committees.
“It has been a good 25 years, and it will be a really good next year and a half,” Colbrese said. “The (WIAA) board and I have some goals, and we are arm in arm in trying to address those topics.”