Steve Christilaw: Great coaches have lifelong impact

High school coaches are a special breed. The good ones teach kids the inevitable link between hard work and success.

The great ones end up changing lives for the better. Quietly and without fanfare, one day and one athlete at a time.

Not that the two are mutually exclusive. Good coaches do great things and vice versa.

The late Howard Dolphin was just such a coach. He coached a host of state champions over his six decades as a cross country and track coach. More than that, he taught athletes to surpass even their own expectations and write their names in record books.

The memorial service Sunday at West Valley High was a testament to just how remarkable Dolphin was as a coach. A number of his former athletes attended to talk about the difference he made in their lives.

When you spend a career writing about high school sports, you get to know a lot of coaches. If you’re lucky, you get to know many who have a lot in common with Howard Dolphin.

It’s coaches like Dolphin who got me into sports journalism.

It started for me in junior high when the Ephrata School District hired a new P.E. teacher, a cocky young guy with enough enthusiasm for a dozen instructors who made it known that his goal was to coach high school basketball.

His name was Marty O’Brien and he’d made a name for himself at North Central High and Eastern Washington University as a basketball and baseball player. His long, successful career coaching basketball at Ephrata earned himself a spot in the state Hall of Fame and his never-ending trove of stories captivated a young mind.

At West Valley I discovered a long list of great coaches with stories to tell: a young Jim McLachlan, the late Al Snyder (the long-time assistant to former WV basketball coach Judd Heathcote) and Jack Spring, one of the best baseball players to come out of Spokane who spent many years bouncing around the major leagues.

Spring was especially inspiring, spinning stories about what it was like to pitch in various ball parks with legendary personalities like Ted Williams and Satchel Paige.

But the most inspiring coach at WV was the tennis coach, Rick Clark, a man with boundless energy and enthusiasm for both tennis and young tennis players. He taught his players to work hard, work smart and always have a positive attitude.

Over the years, I got to know a long list of great coaches on both sides of the state. There are many attributes these coaches have in common. Success, certainly, but it’s more about how they were successful. They all took a deep and abiding interest in all of their athletes and always put their athletes’ well-being ahead of wins and losses – up to and including suspending star players before big games for breaking team rules.

These coaches understand there truly is no single definition of success, especially when others try to reduce the formula to just wins and losses. These men and women all share a passion for winning surpassed only by their hatred of losing, but when you ask them about their successes, wins and championships rarely are the first topic they bring up.

Ask them.

It leads to some of their very best stories.

Correspondent Steve Christilaw writes about high school sports. His column will appear occasionally in the Valley Voice. Contact him at steve.christilaw@ gmail.com.

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