Dwight Pool gathered his players as kickoff approached. A bus had ferried them all across the state to Aberdeen, where they were to open the second season of Spokane Community College football against Grays Harbor. An eerie fog was settling over old Stewart Stadium, but Pool wasn’t delivering a weather report.
“Guys,” he told them, “if we win this game, we can go undefeated.”
Standout safety Eric Dahl recalled taking that in, figuring the Chokers must be pretty good – maybe the best they’d see all season. Still, it seemed to stray from the old one-game-at-a-time coaches’ playbook.
“Except he said it before every game,” Dahl said. “And he was right – we went undefeated.”
• • •
The quarterback was from Montana – a couple of decades later, he’d be negotiating NFL contracts for Mark Rypien. Dick Gagnon, an end, made the most roundabout journey – from Bangor, Maine, via the University of Alaska. The starting guards were teammates out of Blanchet High School in Seattle. There were four players from Honolulu powerhouse St. Louis, though only one, Larry Frank, would return after shivering through a grim Spokane winter (“I didn’t want to be a quitter,” he said). Dahl and his friend Ray Balzarini from Redwood City, California, were set to go to Boise State, tried to hook on at Oregon State instead, then got steered to Spokane.
And no fewer than six starters came across town from Gonzaga Prep, having bonded on teams that had put together a 21-game winning streak.
“My memory is walking into the first meeting in the gym,” said Ray Hare, one of those Prep grads, who joined SCC for its inaugural 1967 season, “and there must have been 150 guys there – Vietnam vets, ex-cons, all sorts of characters. I’m 18 and thinking, ‘How am I going to make it? These are grown men.’ ”
Some bailed after only a practice or two. Some dropped out and found themselves in real combat overseas. Sadly, there weren’t just ex-cons but also a future one.
But most of them made something to build on – for themselves, and for the school.
And, in 1968, they became the only undefeated football team the school will have – 8-0 and ranked No. 6 nationally by JC Grid-Wire, the publication that once tracked two-year football.
“We had some really talented kids,” said Joe Jakubiak, another Prep alum, “and guys who knew how to win. We won a lot of close, low-scoring games.”
The two campuses of today’s Community Colleges of Spokane were simply SCC then, with one athletic program – the Spartans – with Pool hired away after a successful run at Columbia Basin to start up a football team. They became two schools three years later and rivals until another athletics merger in the late ’70s that made them the Sasquatch. But football always operated solely at the Spokane Falls campus above the river’s bend.
Or did until the program was dropped after the 1989 season.
As many as 15 two-year schools in Washington and Oregon had played since World War II, but only three remained when the CCS board made the decision to cut the program. By 1997, community college football was dead in the Pacific Northwest.
But for 23 years, the Spokane program served a worthy purpose, abetting not just players with grander football ambitions but those who were maybe just getting the game out of their systems while they found an educational footing.
“I actually had my physical and was ready to go into the military,” said Dave Schmedding, a tackle on the ’68 team out of Central Valley. “They called me down to the office at CV and offered a few of us scholarships. I said, ‘That’ll work for me.’ Then it turned out the military was never going to take me. I had flat feet.”
Twenty sophomores on the 1968 team had helped start the program the year before, when the Spartans went 3-6. The 13-0 loss they pinned on Grays Harbor in that foggy 1968 opener established an altogether different tenor.
Opponents would score just 54 points the entire season.
Wenatchee Valley was the next victim, 27-2 – a fourth-quarter safety ruining the shutout. Olympic fell 35-17, the most points the Spartans gave up all year. Then in a critical midseason showdown at eventual runner-up Everett, Spokane threw just five passes, was outgained on the ground and had the ball for just three plays in the third quarter – and won 13-6.
“We had a lot of pride in that defense,” said Jakubiak, a linebacker. “There were guys who could really hit.”
The biggest example being Tim Reese, a tackle from tiny Elk who wasn’t such a brute that he couldn’t be MVP of the school’s basketball team the next winter.
“He was a rawboned farm guy – 6-foot-4, 225 pounds – which was big on our team,” Hare said. “You just couldn’t block him. He was a terror.”
A different kind of weapon was Dahl, the conference sprint champ who once ran 20.9 seconds for 220 yards. He intercepted 11 passes and was an honorable mention junior college All-American safety, but Pool also used him on offense and special teams.
“I started both ways the first game,” Dahl remembered. “I had kick coverage, then defense, then returned the punt. On the first play on offense, they sent me off tackle. I ran about 2 yards and got hit by all 11 guys at the same time. I raised my hand and said, ‘Get me out of here.’ ”
In all, 19 Spartans earned some sort of all-conference distinction in the eight-team, all-Washington league. Ten are in the CCS Hall of Fame, and both Reese and center Rick Larsen are in the Northwest Athletic Conference hall – as is the team as a whole.
The starting backfield was often all-Spokane – Prep grads Dave Reil and Don Rosselet and CV’s Roger Kuula, who had spent a year at Oregon State. There were Hares on both sides of the ball – Ray on the offensive line, cousin Fred at linebacker. But there were some notable imports, too.
•Quarterback Ken Staninger from Missoula had been mostly a defensive specialist in 1967, but Pool recognized a strong leadership gene on top of athletic ability. He topped the league in passing, but also won a game when he went 0 for 7.
•Whatever dragged Gagnon from Maine to Alaska, it wasn’t football – the school had no team. But it was there that he met Craig Johnson, a basketball player and the son of SCC president Walter Johnson. When Craig transferred back to Spokane to play his senior year at Whitworth, he recommended Pool’s fledgling program to Gagnon – “an outstanding player,” Johnson said, “even though he’d lost vision in one eye in an accident.”
•Frank had tagged along with three friends from Honolulu in 1968 and being the only one who came back the next year “worked out pretty well for me in a lot of ways.” He was team captain and an all-league tight end – and he met his future wife, an SCC cheerleader named Colleen Crowley, whose father was the “Dan” in Jack & Dan’s Tavern.
“For Spokane kids who had to stay home for school, having a football team was a little like getting to go away to college like the others,” she said. “The stadium was brand new and everyone was excited about that. It just brought a different element that made it more than a commuter school.”
Actually, the stadium wasn’t finished until 1969 – the ’68 team played its three home games at Mead High School. But if they didn’t have their own stadium yet, the Spartans had an athletic dorm just like the Alabamas and Oklahomas.
Dormitories on community college campus were not allowed by the state. But SCC worked out a deal to lease the old Finch Nursing Home from St. Luke’s Hospital across the road, and set up assistant coach Mike McCauley and his wife on the ground floor as zookeepers.
“I lived there – until I got thrown out,” Dahl said. “Some of us had too many one night and a couple guys – I was there, but it wasn’t me – hung somebody out a window by his ankles. I lost my scholarship and had to get a job so I could run track that spring.”
• • •
The Spartans won the league title on a rainy November Saturday night, slogging through mud 2 and 3 inches deep to beat Shoreline 13-7. Dahl intercepted three passes, returning one for a touchdown. Fullback John Busch of Pullman got the fourth-quarter winner on a 38-yard run. The Spartans whipped up on Yakima the next week, but a hoped-for postseason game in Bakersfield, California, never materialized.
Pool had coached another undefeated team at CBC and would win two more titles in Spokane before resigning in 1974 to take the head coaching job at Mead. He died in 2007.
“That guy was ahead of his time,” Balzarini said. “He’d have five to seven plays and just by running those he could get a handle on what the defense was going to do. It wasn’t the same offense, but there was the same type of logic in his thinking you’d see in the ’80s with Bill Walsh.”
The best football team in the school’s history was the last for some of the Spartans, who worked their way through school and segued into careers. But others continued to chase the game.
Reese became an All-Big Sky defender at Idaho. Larsen started for two years at Montana State. Read Drexel played at Eastern Washington and Hare at Montana before starting a long coaching career in Spokane. Frank returned to the islands to play at Hawaii. Jim Gourley went to Northern Colorado – and wound up on the rugby team. Dahl suffered through a 1-9 season at Washington State before transferring to San Jose State and being drafted by New England. Staninger’s football career ended with an injury at Colorado State; later his business ventures included being a sports agent, with Rypien as his most famous client.
No stories took more disparate turns than the Blanchet guards. Bob Bourgette became a coaching institution – 44 years at Kennedy High School in Burien, Washington, with 200 victories in 21 years as a head coach. Don McDonald served in the Marines and in assorted jobs – and, since 1987, in the Alaska correctional system on a life sentence for murder and kidnapping. His 18 years of appeals came to an end in 2004, though he never stopped proclaiming his innocence.
Ray Hare went back to CCS to coach football for a time under Pool’s successor, Bob Everson. And in 1989, he wrote a two-page plea to the school’s trustees to not drop the sport.
“That program was precisely for a guy like me,” he said. “I wasn’t mature physically or academically. I had never pushed myself. But it allowed me to figure things out and gave me the opportunity to fulfill a dream.”
He didn’t mean an undefeated season. But that was fulfilling, too.