After nearly nine years as president of Montana State University, Geoff Gamble announced Monday that he has decided to retire, saying it's a good time both for his family and for the university.

Looking relaxed and content in the president's office at Montana Hall, Gamble, 66, said he plans to stay on the job while the Montana University System searches for a new president. The search could take through the end of this year or extend into 2010.

"Patricia and I have been thinking about it quite some time," Gamble said.

His wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, has a clean bill of health, he said. Retirement will give them a chance to spend more quiet time together, away from the "hubbub" of being MSU's president and first lady.

"That was a tough year for us," Gamble said. "We're very thankful (for her recovery). That whole year brought much more closely in front of both of us that you never know how much time you have."

Gamble, MSU's 11th president, said they decided probably last October that 2009 would be his last year as president. He said he mentioned it to his boss, Sheila Stearns, the Montana commissioner of higher education, in November, and told Stearns of his firm decision about three weeks ago.

Retirement also will give the Gambles more time to visit their newborn grandson, Jack, their third grandchild, in Seattle.

Last week's sometimes tense meeting with Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Board of Regents, at which the governor challenged the worthiness of some of MSU's earmarked research funding, didn't play a role in his decision, Gamble said.

"It's 95 percent personal," he said. Five percent was his feeling that it would be a good time for MSU, after the 2009 Legislature had finished and the university's budget was in place.

"I'll leave this institution in healthy condition," Gamble said. "The university is really in a great position. It's strong, it's vibrant, it has a great leadership team. The toughest job for me has been deciding which things to brag about."

For the perennial cheerful Gamble, probably the hardest time as president followed the arrest of a half-dozen former MSU football and basketball players on charges that ranged from selling cocaine to murdering a local drug dealer.

MSU has made wonderful progress, he said, in strengthening academics in recruiting and educating student athletes, he said. When football recruits come to campus now, he said, they spend a couple hours talking one-on-one with a professor in their majors, even before they start talking about sports. Coach Rob Ash's new recruits have above a 3.0 grade point average, he said.

Gamble added that he and Athletics Director Peter Fields just hosted a dinner honoring about 30 athletes in all sports who have perfect 4.0 grade point averages.

Slipping into his favorite topic n bragging about MSU n Gamble ticked off honors won by faculty and students, including prestigious Goldwater and Mitchell scholarships, and students' high rates of acceptance into medical schools.

MSU does something most research universities don't, he said, by combining both strong undergraduate education and strong research, requiring every undergrad to do research or a creative project.

Gamble officially announced his retirement to the campus at a morning leadership meeting with about 75 deans, department heads, student, staff and faculty leaders. He said he felt "happy-sad" about it.

Wes Lynch, Faculty Senate chair, said he was surprised by the announcement, which was met with "strong applause."

"I think he's done an excellent job," Lynch said. "His attempts to engage the faculty, staff and students in shared governance are laudable. Not everything has worked out. But we've had a greater voice in decision-making than the faculty has ever had in the previous 20 years.

"He has presented MSU in a much more positive way to the regents and Legislature than past presidents. I'm going to be sad to see him go."

Shane Colvin, MSU student president for the past year, said, "Honestly, I was shocked" by the announcement. Colvin agreed Gamble has been an "excellent" president.

"He has been such a confidante, mentor and friend," Colvin said. "I'm disappointed future (student) presidents won't get to work with him."

Gamble said he plans to stay in Bozeman and teach a course or two in his field, linguistics. An expert on American Indian languages, he is perhaps the only university president in the nation who can weave an Indian basket and owns a Klingon language dictionary.

Gamble said he also plans to enjoy the telescope, garden, two horses and two dogs at the home he and Patricia share north of town.

Teased that he had failed to outlast George Dennison, president of MSU's rival University of Montana, Gamble smiled and disagreed, saying that actually, he gets to retire first.

"I won," he said and chuckled.