BILLINGS — Fall is for football, and Mike Ludwig has spent the past 30 autumns wearing his heart on his sleeve and exercising his passion for coaching the game that's meant so much to him for so long.
But life is about to change for Ludwig, who told MTN Sports on Friday he is stepping down as head coach at Laurel High School after more than two decades on the job.
It was a decision he'd been leaning toward for some time.
"The last couple years it's just been something I could kind of feel," Ludwig said during a phone interview. "I love coaching, but I could feel it becoming harder for me to get motivated to do all the stuff during the summer and harder to get motivated to break down a bunch of film on Sundays.
"I think when somebody starts to have that feeling, it's time."
Ludwig spent the past 21 seasons as the Locomotives' head coach. He guided the program to Class A state championships in 2002 (his first season) and again in 2020. He leaves with a 133-80 record and 16 playoff appearances, including an active streak of 14 in a row.
Calling the decision "emotional," Ludwig, 53, said he informed Laurel's players of his decision after issuing his resignation letter to athletic director Riley Mayo on Friday. He'd made his coaching staff aware earlier in the week.
Ludwig said he will remain at Laurel teaching health, physical education, and strength and conditioning. He will also remain the weight room supervisor.
"I just feel like it's time for some new leadership and for somebody else to come over and take over a good football program," Ludwig said. "It's not like the cupboard is bare. And they've got great facilities and stuff like that. It's a good program. So I'm looking forward to the next chapter and what that brings to me."
"I've been telling people that I haven't had a fall off in 40 years, between being a player and a coach. It's been since I started (playing) seventh grade football, like 1983 or something like that," he said. "So I'm looking forward to it. I love the fall in Montana. I know I'm going to really miss football, but I'm also just looking forward to enjoying more free time."
Ludwig said he plans to spend more time at his family's cabin near Canyon Ferry during the summer, as well as regularly visit his seven-month-old grandson in North Dakota.
Ludwig graduated from Laurel in 1988, then went on to play football at Rocky Mountain College. After departing Rocky, he spent the 1993 season as an assistant at Laurel and then went on to coach under Don Peoples at Butte Central from 1994-97. In 1998 he rejoined the staff at Laurel under Bob Connors, then took over as the Locomotives' head coach when Connors left for Stevensville following the 2001 season.
Ludwig's Locomotives won the Class A state title in his first season, then went 18 years until the program climbed the mountain again with a blowout victory over archrival Billings Central. It was the first and, to date, only time the longtime foes played in a state championship game.
In all, Ludwig was part of three titles at Laurel; the Locomotives also won a championship in 1999 with Connors as head coach. Ludwig guided the program to title game appearances in 2019 and 2021.
The championship victories are among his best memories, as is a 2020 semifinal playoff win on the road over Hamilton, which Ludwig said was a game "I don't think people really gave us a chance to win."
But there's more to what made Ludwig's coaching career at Laurel meaningful.
"The biggest thing about football is the camaraderie," he said. "I'm definitely going to have the memories of being with the coaching staff, going to clinics and coaching in games with them, and just the memories that you make with your players. Just being around those guys all the time and having all this contact with them during the season and the offseason, that's special.
"I've been around a lot of great guys and I really have a lot of great friendships over the years. My phone has been going off, and that makes me feel good, you know? You feel like you make a difference sometimes in people's lives, and it just makes you feel good."