It took a while to convince Ernie Aguilar that he wanted to be the head boys track coach at University High.
In fact, he turned the job down twice before finally applying to replace Mike Barbaro, who stepped down to concentrate on being a new dad and studying for his master’s degree.
“It wasn’t really about not wanting the job,” Aguilar said. “It was about hoping that Mike would change his mind and come back. He’s been carrying on that legacy that his dad, Bob Barbaro, started when he coached here.”
Aguilar is a product of a substantial coaching legacy that continues to influence his own approach to running and to track and field.
Aguilar was a cross country and track athlete at East Valley under legendary head coach Howard Dolphin and his then-assistant coach, Dave McCarty – who went on to have a long and successful career coaching the Knights.
“Coach Dolphin had a huge influence on me,” Aguilar said. “My big brother ran for Howard in cross country and track in 1977 and 1978. We lived in Otis Orchards and it was a good five miles from our house to Sandy Beach Resort (owned by Howard and Mary Floy Dolphin).
“My brother, a senior, told me that he was going to give me a head start, maybe two minutes, and he would catch me about halfway there. Well, I kept running and waiting for him to catch me. I got to Sandy Beach and found Howard and told him who I was. I said, ‘I’m Ernie Aguilar, Raul Aguilar’s little brother. We were supposed to run here together, but he could never catch me.’ ”
Like any good coach, Dolphin was impressed.
“He told me that, if I continued to run, it would be my ticket to a college education,” Aguilar recalled. “That had such a big influence on me. And, of course, I did keep running, and he was right.”
Dolphin did more than that. He promised Aguilar that if he ran the 5 miles to Sandy Beach, he wouldn’t have to pay admission. And when he did just that, Mary Floy would give him a hamburger, fries and a milkshake to keep up his strength.
“I was just a kid, but I remember seeing Howard and other coaches hanging out together there,” he said. “I didn’t know that the East Valley and West Valley coaches were related, but I did see them sit around and talking about things all the time. They didn’t know I was listening, but I learned a lot.”
Aguilar carries many of those lessons forward with how he approaches his athletes.
“Everyone Howard came across he would have these words of wisdom that he would share,” he recalled. “You took it to heart. I can’t remember too much in high school, but I can remember the times that coach Dolphin would come to me and tell me that “I believe you’ll run this time,” which would be five seconds faster than my best.
“He just had a way of lighting a fire in everyone he was around.”
Most times, his athletes made his predictions come true, he added.
Aguilar said he tries to be just as frank and just as encouraging with his own athletes.
“I try to be that way with my kids. They know when you aren’t being honest with them – they sense it,” he said. “So I try to be honest with them and keep encouraging them.
“It’s ingrained in me. Whenever I talk to a kid I ask myself, ‘How would Howard talk to this kid?’ ”
The Aguilar family connection remains strong at East Valley.
Besides Ernie and his brother running for the Knights, their sister, Cora, was Dolphin’s first girls state champion, setting a state record in the discus before going on to have a successful career at the University of Oregon.
This season Bryce Aguilar, Ernie’s son, a former distance standout at Central Valley, took over as head coach of the EV boys cross country team.
At University, Aguilar moved right away to help carry forward the Titans’ tradition of track excellence, hiring U-Hi legend Anthony Buchanan as an assistant coach.
“That was my first hire,” Aguilar said. “We had to work around a few things to make it happen, but Anthony has been great with our kids.”
Buchanan still holds University High records in the sprints, and his Class 4A record in the 100 meters at the state meet remains the standard.
“That’s a huge shot in the arm for our program,” he said. “This is a world-class athlete coming in to help with our sprinters. He’s already been a coach and a mentor to a lot of these kids.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.