On the first day of the new high school track and field season, the sport lost one of its true giants.
Howard Dolphin, 86, who enjoyed a long and successful coaching career at East Valley and West Valley high schools that spanned almost 60 years, died at his winter home in Honolulu on March 3.
A West Valley graduate, Dolphin established the track and field program at Otis Orchards High School and did the same when that school morphed into East Valley High for the 1960-61 school year. He coached at East Valley for 27 years, then began working with throwers at West Valley in 1988 as an assistant coach to his son-in-law, Jim McLachlan, who ran track for Dolphin as an EV student.
Part of Dolphin’s long and illustrious legacy as a coach is the number of coaches he inspired, starting with McLachlan, who coaches cross country at Spokane Falls as an assistant to his son, Sean.
Dave McCarty, who recently retired after 36 years as head track coach at East Valley, ran track for Dolphin at EV. McCarty was a state champion in the mile who went on to run at Southern Methodist.
Former EV girls track coach Glenn Gunderson threw the javelin for Dolphin at EV, and long-time EV cross country coach and track assistant coach Nick Lazanis ran for Dolphin’s track and cross country teams.
Dolphin’s teams at EV placed in the top four at state eight times, and his 1979 squad won the Class 2A state championship. His first state individual champion was Bill Kelling, who won two state shot put titles in 1964 and 1965. His last state medal winner was Tyler Poldevart, who placed second at state for WV in 2011.
Dolphin was part of the inaugural class of the Washington Track and Field Coaches Hall of Fame, inducted in 1995 while he was still producing state champions at West Valley.
He annually threatened to retire over his later years at West Valley and officially hung up his whistle after the 2011 season. Sort of.
“Nick Lazanis had just called him the day he passed away,” East Valley track coach Shane Toy said. “Howard had told him that he’d like to help out with our javelin throwers this spring, and Nick left him a voice mail.”
“Howard’s success speaks for itself,” former Spokesman-Review sports writer Dave Trimmer said. “It’s amazing how many state champions and record holders he coached.
“What always amazed me, though, was after he retired every spring, the next year I would be out there on some cold, windy afternoon, and there would be Howard, all bundled up, coaching some discus thrower out in the far corner at West Valley. When I asked him what he was doing there since he retired, he basically would just shrug his shoulders, nod at the kids and say that they basically just wanted him back.
“As long as the kids would work hard and listen, he would share his sharp eye and vast knowledge to help them.”
“Howard Dolphin was the godfather of East Valley track,” Toy said. “Everyone remembers what a great throws coach Howard was, but he could coach every event. In those days, it was just Howard and Bob Shill coaching the whole track team. Look at the school records. It’s 50 years later, and he still has kids in the Top 5 all-time in most all events.”
Over the years he coached 20 state champions, half of them legendary performers in throwing events – from national champion Gene Lorenzen in the javelin, five-time state champion Mike Shill and University of Oregon shot put and discus standout Cora Aguilar Langford to West Valley discus champions and school record-holders Vinnie Pecht and Ashley Kenney. Pecht owns the all-time best state discus record, and Kenney, the girls Class 2A meet record.
Dolphin had a knack for breaking down the complex string of movements in the throw into bite-sized, easily digestible chunks that could guide a young athlete steadily down the road to improvement.
“There are a number of things that I believe helped coach Dolphin get the best out of his athletes,” WV girls coach Rick Kuhl said via email. “Howard showed a true interest in bringing out the best of his throwers while at West Valley. He would spend a lot of time with the throwers and more often than not he would be the last to leave the track. Athletes looked for those little gems of knowledge that would help them with their throws.
“I remember Vinne (Pecht) coming to work with coach Dolphin while he was throwing at WSU. Maybe something was just a little off, and Howard would pick on something that would help his throws improve.”
For the most part, Kuhl said, it was a minimalist approach that accumulated over time.
“I believe that Howard coached with a philosophy not to over-coach somebody,” he said. “Get that fixed, now we can move on to the next. Sometimes we as coaches and teachers think that if we are talking, we must be doing it right. I don’t think that was coach Dolphin’s philosophy. Few words, a few pointers, pretty good results.
“I will not forget Howard’s reaction when a thrower got off a good throw. He would just give this grin, and say, ‘That was pretty good.’ ”
But to pigeon-hole Howard Dolphin as just a coach is to short sell the full measure of what he brought to the sport. He was a coach and technician of every facet of his sport, but more than that he was a master communicator with an innate ability to explain his sport to young athletes and inspire them to accomplish feats they could not begin to imagine, but that he foresaw with great accuracy.
“I was up there doing my preseason interview with him and there was a kid we were talking about,” longtime Spokane Valley sports writer Mike Vlahovich said. “There was this one kid who had high jumped 5-feet-10 the year before and he’s telling me this kid is going to high jump 6-4 this season. I remember looking at him and thinking he was crazy – no way was this kid going to improve 6 inches in one year. And sure enough, the kid jumps 6-4.
“Howard was just uncanny in how he could motivate athletes to exceed expectations and accomplish great things.”
Former Spokesman-Review sports editor Jeff Jordan ran cross country for Dolphin at East Valley.
“I was totally a back-of-the-pack kid for him,” he said. “I was maybe the No. 4 runner on my best day, other days the No. 5-6-7. But he always gave me as much support and encouragement as he gave a state champion.”
When he needed money to buy wrestling shoes, Jordan said, Dolphin gave him a job at Sandy Beach Resort on Liberty Lake, a property he owned with his wife, Mary Floy, and his sister and brother-in-law – a job Jordan shared with any number of cash-strapped EV athletes over the years.
“My dad, who was a pretty imposing guy in his own right, told me I couldn’t do sports my senior year,” Jordan recalled. “He said I needed to get a job so that I could buy my own gas and car insurance. Howard drove out to our house and talked to my dad. He told him that the day after I graduated I’d spend the rest of my life going to work at a job. He asked him what I’d be talking to my friends about at my 10-year reunion – my job at the gas station or the sporting events, bus rides and maybe state tournaments I’d been to? My dad looked at me and said ‘OK, you can do sports.’
“That’s a piece of advice I used with my own kids growing up. If they did a sport, they didn’t have to get a job.”
Dolphin grew to be more than a former coach, Jordan said. He became a good friend.
“Just before I retired from the Valley Voice, he dropped by the office so that he could catch up on me, my wife and my family. How many former coaches would do that?”
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