May 10, 2014 in Sports

Blanchette: Sloan retiring after 41 years at WSU

John Blanchette Correspondent
Colin Mulvany photo

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.
(Full-size photo)

PULLMAN – It was the spring of 1967, and UCLA’s track team headed north for a dual meet at Washington State.

Such a thing actually used to happen back then. The Bruins, Cal, Stanford, Oregon, even USC used to be on the Cougars’ spring schedule – head-to-head, hurdlers and milers running for points instead of the narrow grail of a personal best.

Rick Sloan was a UCLA junior at the time, California through and through. He recalls the Bruins bunking in the old guest rooms in the CUB, and the drive down old Highway 195 with coach Jim Bush stopping the bus between Rosalia and Steptoe and ordering his troops off to stretch their legs – with a half-mile walk through what they had to think was the middle of nowhere.

“It was in the upper 40s that day,” Sloan remembered. “All the Washington State guys were running around in T-shirts saying, ‘We lucked out – what a great day.’ We California boys took a blanket, made a tent out of it and had a Sterno stove going to keep our hands warm.”

In other words, enough to scare a Cali kid back to L.A. for life.

Except that the next time Sloan came to WSU, he stayed for 41 years.

His run as Wazzu’s track coach hits the finish line next weekend as the Cougars host the Pac-12 championships at Mooberry Track, a retirement from a position though not a profession.

Stayers like Sloan have pretty much gone the way of the straddle high jump. Consider that he put in 20 years as an assistant to John Chaplin before being named head coach, the kind of one-stop apprenticeship likely to induce hives in today’s happy-feet young coaches – though perhaps it’s telling that two Sloan lieutenants have two decades of service with him, too.

“There’s an old Chinese saying,” Sloan said. “Many climb the ladder of success only to get to the top and find it was leaning against the wrong wall.”

Wazzu used to be the land of the stayers, of course. The tenures of the Friels, Baileys and Braytons were comforting constants, but even some non-legends lasted. Some of it was the times, some of it was the community.

Nevertheless, during his time at WSU Sloan has seen seven athletic directors and 78 other head coaches come and go, including a couple whose sports went with them. Since 2000, 26 of those positions have changed, perhaps a sign that the school’s interest in the bottom line of won-lost records is catching up with the Joneses.

It’s true that the Cougs haven’t been the player at the Pac-12 meet they were 25 years ago, and Sloan allowed that, “I wish we would have had greater success” at the conference and national levels. But in the meantime there have been some prime-time diversions. Jeshua Anderson won three NCAA titles in the intermediate hurdles. Heptathlete Diana Pickler grew into an Olympian, and discus thrower Ian Waltz went to two Games. Bernard Lagat didn’t just win medals, he became an American institution.

And in his spare time, of course, Sloan helped Dan O’Brien to a gold medal in the decathlon.

“That’s when it’s easy to think you’re really good,” he noted, “until somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘Yeah, but don’t you also coach that other guy who can’t get out of his own way?’”

Sloan was one of those athletes who made coaches look good – the first man to top both 17 feet in the pole vault and 7 feet in the high jump as a collegian. In his fourth decathlon, he scored 7,800 points and made the 1968 Olympic team, finishing seventh in Mexico City at the age of 21.

But post-collegians carried on below the poverty line in those days. Married and with a young daughter, Sloan was selling paint in a Builder’s Emporium when the opportunity to coach presented itself – a hybrid position at Pasadena City College and Cal Tech that paid a whopping $2,000.

“The guys at Cal Tech were scary smart,” he said. “Al Kleinsasser was the best guy on the team, a 1:52 half-miler. Big, long curly locks. I introduced him to someone, saying, ‘He’s brilliant – a 3.96 GPA in physics.’ And he said, ‘Applied physics – I’m no theorist.’ It’s like he took offense.”

Still, he was coaching 38-foot triple jumpers and 9-foot vaulters, and when Cal Tech offered him a full-time job it included being the trainer, too. Or he could have taken a high school gig that entailed teaching driver’s ed. Instead, he accepted Chaplin’s invitation to coach field events – and, eventually, everything except the distance runners.

Those were the days. He had four high jumpers clear 7 feet in a single meet. Collegiate record setters in the hurdles, hammer and triple jump.

And characters. Gigantic shot putter Dimitrios Koutsoukis once put the local Pizza Haven’s all-you-can-eat promotion out of business. He also push-pressed one of Jim Walden’s quarterbacks, Rich Pelletier, and cast him 15 feet into a full dumpster for the sin of chucking a snowball at the car ferrying Dimi the Greek to a party on a cold Halloween night.

That Koutsoukis was dressed as a sheik in flowing white and Pelletier had a paper bag over his head – he and fellow freshman Timm Rosenbach were going as “The Unknown Quarterbacks” – merely completes the story.

But the nuts and bolts of coaching are rarely about records and campus lore. It’s revealed instead in incremental gains and unsung successes – something along the lines of the quarter-miler Sloan converted into a 7,500-point decathlete his senior year, getting him over 15 feet in the vault in four months.

Mike Allen’s daughter, Erin, now runs the long hurdles for Sloan. What goes around, comes around – and not just on an oval track.

At the team meeting before last weekend’s dual against Washington, a few seniors warned the younger Cougs that their four or five years in college will fly by. Commit yourself now, they said, because before you know it, it will be over.

Then it was Sloan’s turn, and his voice cracked a little with emotion.

“I’m here to tell you,” he told them, “41 years goes by fast, too.”

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