These things are rarely inspiration or impulse, just well-considered decisions that ripen in a moment. For Glenn Williams, the moment arrived as he was ferrying another load of Otter Pops for his summer basketball campers at Mead High School. So on the way, he stopped at his athletic director’s office and told him, “It’s time.”
And the next day, he popped his Achilles playing old-man pickleball.
If it was a sign that retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be, there would be no reconsideration.
“You get to the point in any career when you realize you can’t do this forever,” he said, “even if you love it enough to do it forever.”
So come Tuesday night, a high school basketball season in Spokane begins for the first time in 40 years without Glenn Williams coaching somebody – the freshman team or a woefully inexperienced varsity or the C squad or a state championship contender.
That sort of seems like forever.
Thirty-two of those seasons have been as a head coach – nine at Lewis and Clark, the last 23 at Mead. It’s a staggering number for a couple of reasons:
• Williams still looks as if he graduated from Whitworth just last spring.
• Only the legendary Squinty Hunter – 39 years at LC – lasted longer among Spokane head coaches of boys programs dating back to the 1920s.
Just four others – Ray Thacker (29), Rick Sloan (22), Dave Robertson (20) and Marv Ainsworth (20) – got in as many as 20 years as head coaches in the Greater Spokane League or its forerunner. Jay Humphrey, who made two GSL stops before landing at West Valley, begins his 24th season this week.
Now, sometimes it’s best not to get hung up on numbers. Great coaches can make their marks in five or six years. Good coaches get fired, too. Others get parent-itis. Some move into administration. Some quit to watch their own kids play. Life happens.
Glenn Williams is proud of his durability, but he also gives it a wink.
“Some amazing coaches on that list – guys who have forgotten more about basketball than I’ll ever know,” he said. “I do think I might be the only one who’s finished in every position in the league in his career.”
First through last, he means. And it’s true. He’s been 19-0 and 1-17, and every combination in between.
“I don’t know what that says,” he said with a smile, “but it has given me perspective.”
Well, there can never be enough of that, especially in the realm of high school sports.
He came by it honestly, if painfully. In 1996, he steered LC to its first state tournament berth in 33 years – only to be dismissed at the whim of an administrator eager to go in the ubiquitous “new direction.” Williams landed at West Valley, coaching the C team.
“I remember being in KeyArena telling the guys, ‘Hey, Michael Jordan played here last week,’ ” he recalled. “A year later, I’m on a bus ride down to Clarkston with the C squad boys and the freshmen girls. Bit of a switch.”
By 1998, he’d been hired at Mead – and five years later, with a team that included future Gonzaga great Adam Morrison and Williams’ son Bryan, the Panthers fell in the State 4A title game.
LC, for reference purposes, hasn’t been to state since that 1996 trip.
But you’ll never bait Williams into any neener-neener. The coaches who followed him at LC have been just as invested and just as able. He is all too aware of the ebbs and flows – of talent, size, experience, commitment, passion – through a high school program, and the value of administration and parental support.
“Do coaches make a difference? Absolutely,” he said. “But I’ve always wanted to do that experiment where you take all the coaches in the league and shuffle them and then deal them out to schools at random and see how different things might be. Or it might not be that different.
“Except with Wayne Gilman. What’s that old saying? ‘He could take his’n and beat your’n, and take your’n and beat his’n.’ ”
The late Ferris coach was indeed a model, and not just for the way he taught the matchup zone. The objectivity and proportion that helped define him can be detected in Williams’ approach, too – especially for anyone who got a glimpse into his English classroom, where he’d use everything from Harper Lee to Sports Illustrated to try and seed appreciation for the written word. Late in his teaching career, he took a bold step and moved into Mead’s Riverpoint Academy “where I had to throw out every teaching conception I’d had” – but found out he could thrive there, too.
“My favorite thing was when my kids in class didn’t even know I was the coach,” he said. “I loved that. And they shouldn’t know, right?”
Except he’s still the coach – helping with Bryan’s sixth-grade AAU team, and sitting in on practices at Eastern Washington as an extra pair of eyes for first-year coach David Riley, the son of Williams’ old Whitworth roommate.
“They’re worried about the same things we are,” he said, laughing. “Too many turnovers. Too many second-chance points.”
But if he’s left the high school game behind, he can still fret some over its health – whether the demands of specialization and the grail of a college scholarship have forever skewed the notion of why high school sports exist, and loaded too many expectations on kids.
“What’s always driven me and the people I’ve been around is that you want to become better people,” he said. “It’s schmaltzy, I know. But if it’s not for that, then what are high school sports for? We’re trying to learn to work together, sublimate your ego, cooperate and be loyal and have fun doing it – all the things that seem to be so scarce in our culture right now.
“Sports is life. Not that it matters more – of course not. But when the ball gets tossed up or the gun goes off on the track, nothing is given. It’s all earned. You have to do your best and when things are the worst, it’s what we do then that matters the most.”
Glenn Williams knew when it was time. But he still sounds as if he could do it forever.
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