Michael Simmons and his family have made Cowley their home for 21 years after he and wife Rachel moved from California in 1996, and he’s been heavily involved in School District No. 1 and the Rocky Mountain High School basketball program for most of that time including the last 12 years as head coach.
But now the well-respected school facilities director, religious leader and coach is moving back to his home state of California to take a job with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It was a very tough decision to leave the North Big Horn County community he loves, but in the end, he said, it “just feels right.”
Michael and Rachel Simmons grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., and were living in the San Francisco Bay area just to the south when the opportunity arose to move to Wyoming in the wake of a move by Michael’s father, Roland, who had grown up in Cowley and had moved back to his hometown.
The company Michael worked for, 3D Communications, had moved its office from Novato in Marin County north of the Golden Gate Bridge to the East Bay area near Oakland. Not only did Simmons have a longer commute, he was spending long periods of time away from Rachel installing phone systems and performing networking work for 3D, just as he and Rachel were wanting to start a family.
The call came from Cowley.
“My dad wanted to build a house, and I was gone for days at a time,” he said. “We decided it wasn’t the greatest lifestyle to raise a family. Dad had moved about a year before that, so I came and built his house.”
Simmons remembers arriving the same day as the Rocky-Tongue River football game in Dayton in early September of 1996. He fell in love with the area and worked a variety of jobs before settling in with the school district. He built the house, did consulting work for the Office Shop, opened and operated Simmons Communications working with computers, phone systems and networking, flew pipelines in two different stints from the Canadian border to Mexico and was project manager for a new bank building in Texas. That led to him consulting with School District One for school facilities projects and soon a fulltime position with the district.
“Koleen Sponsel (school board member) and Kevin Mitchell (superintendent) came to me and said, ‘We need someone all week every week to play politician with the state,’” Simmons said. “After a couple of months I was hired fulltime.”
His hiring came during the early stages of the Rocky Mountain Elementary School project when the Wyoming School Facilities Commission was being formed, as well, he said.
Simmons became Director of Facilities in March of 2004, he said, and over the years he has overseen projects including the Rocky Mountain Elementary School, Burlington K-12 School, Rocky Mountain Middle/High School and the district administration building renovation projects, along with various other upgrades and facilities projects on District One school campuses.
“Basically everything we have today I’ve had my finger in, one way or another,” he said. “We’ve spent $45 million in capital construction money in the district from Burlington to Cowley, though no capital dollars in any significant amount for the last three years. It’s been routine and major maintenance and some upgrades and renovations.”
Simmons said he’s had opportunities to move on over the years from the State of Wyoming to the LDS Church. He said a very good family friend works for the church in Provo in facilities management and has told him, “You could do this.”
“Every time a position comes available, he calls me,” Simmons said. “There have been a couple over the years, and he calls and says, ‘Hey, what about this?’ It’s kind of always been out there, but life was too good here. It’s a great area in which to raise kids and have a family. There was no reason for me to go anywhere.”
But due to school financial issues caused by low prices in the minerals and oil and gas industries, Simmons was to be reduced to 75 percent of his former salary for the fiscal year that began July 1, “so that makes you think,” he said. “A 25 percent pay cut is enough to get your attention.”
A few years ago, he said, he was reduced to 60 percent salary but was named an athletic director and that helped make up the difference, along with a consulting contract for School District No. 4 in Basin, where he helped secure $30 million for district facility projects. He went back to fulltime at District One for two years, then received word about the move to 75 percent salary.
“Nobody was going to go hungry,” he said, noting that he could seek other consulting opportunities, but added, “It makes you look.”
The new position
When he got the call in June about the opportunity in California, Simmons and his family had a huge decision to make – and in a hurry. Through family discussions and prayer, they made the decision to make the move.
“It’s something that just feels right,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t describe or explain to others why, and I’m confident whether it’s six months or six years, I’ll be able to tell you why, but for now it just feels right.
“You pray and fast and when you feel you’re supposed to do something you do it. It was the same thing when I moved here. It’s been an amazing 21 years.”
Simmons will be the facilities manager over approximately 40 LDS facilities in the East Bay area of California, mostly churches but also facilities like seminaries and bishop’s storehouses and warehouses.
The church has given him the ability to move the position’s office wherever he wants. The office is currently in Concord, but he will likely move it close to his home. He and Rachel are currently looking to live in Brentwood, a bit further to the east.
He technically started the job two weeks ago, spending the week before last in California, and he’s working on both the new position and transitioning work for the school district through the end of July. He said the area in which the family will live has a modified school schedule, meaning sons Travis, a sophomore to be, and Adam, an incoming sixth-grader, will start school in early August.
He noted that his younger brother Clay lives in Concord, his mother Reven still resides in Santa Rosa and Rachel has lots of family in the area, as well.
The Simmons family may live with relatives until their home in Cowley sells, and he noted the family is already in transition with son Cole at the missionary training center in Provo prior to traveling to Sweden for a mission on July 17 and Cannon returning from his mission to San Antonio on August 9. Rachel has had to leave her office position at the middle school/high school, as well.
Asked about how his boys are responding to the move, Simmons said, “They’re excited. It’s an adventure. Travis knows we (the Grizzlies) will win a lot of basketball games over the next three years, but for the most part it’s exciting. They’ll be able to go to the beach and learn to surf and do the things we did growing up.”
Michael Simmons has been a big part of Rocky Mountain basketball for most of his 21 years. Shortly after his arrival in 1996 he was approached about helping with the girls team, so he worked that season as coach Wayne Hudspeth’s junior varsity and freshman coach. He didn’t coach the next season, then joined then coach Tim Winland’s boys basketball staff, serving as the freshman coach for six of the next seven years except for a year when he “built the bank” in Texas.
Simmons took over the head coaching position in 2005-06 and coached the Grizzlies for 12 seasons, leading the Grizz to the state tournament five times and second-place finishes in 2014 and 2015, as well as the consolation title in 2017 as the Grizz beat Big Horn 54-45 in what would be Simmons’ final game at the helm of the Grizz.
He has coached the North All-Star Team in the Wyoming Coaches Association game in Casper and was invited two other times, and he leaves incoming head coach Pat Winland with a strong nucleus returning.
“It’s as full (a cupboard) as it’s been since I’ve been around,” he noted, adding with a chuckle, “I don’t feel guilty at all.”
He said the team has already been winning games at team camps this summer and said knowing that Winland will take over the team makes the transition easier.
“That definitely helps,” he said. “It would only be better if I was the assistant and would be around to see it (the new season).”
Simmons said he’ll certainly miss North Big Horn County.
“We live in an amazing area,” he said. “I’ll miss the kids and my staff. The people I’ve been able to work with on a day-to-day basis are a team, and that team stretches to the administration. They’re as good a group of people as I could have around me. We tell the kids time plus caring equals love, and 21 years is enough time.
“I can’t imagine a better group of people than the people I work with, from top to bottom.”
Rocky Mountain High School Principal Tim Winland, who coached with and mentored Simmons for years, said he will be missed.
“We will definitely miss having Michael and his family around. They have meant so much to our school and community,” Winland said. “I just can’t sum it up in only a few words. Michael essentially built this beautiful school we are in. I don’t think people fully understand how much of an imprint Michael has had on this campus. It’s hard to imagine discussing facilities without Michael being in the room.
“I am greatly appreciative for Michaels investment in our schools. His impact will be felt for years to come.”
Winland said Simmons will also be missed on the court.
“It’s an end of an era,” he said. “The boys basketball team has had two coaches in the past 24 years. Not many programs can say that. Michael devoted all that he had to the building up of the Grizz. Having a son that has gone through the program, I can say with complete confidence that the players came first. I never had to worry about their wellbeing.
“It will be tough going to the gym and not seeing coach Simmons on the sideline next year. We truly wish Michael and his family the best.”
By David Peck