I have had an ongoing love affair with high school sports in Colorado ever since I stepped into the bubbling cauldron known as the Denver Coliseum on the night of the 1969 state basketball finals. Joe Strain’s Denver South Rebels shocked the previously unbeaten Manual Thunderbolts of Ed Callaway to win the Class 3A championship and I was hooked.
Since then, I haven’t missed a prep hoops final. Along the way, I’ve witnessed (by rough estimate) 1,200 state championship events of all classifications in 28 sports. In my mind, the games and tournaments are woven together into a huge tapestry from which it is difficult to separate a single event. What endures are the people – the players, officials and coaches – who helped weave the tapestry over the past 45 years.
Especially the coaches.
High school coaches are a special breed – men and women who balance competitive fire with compassion and caring. They temper ambition with a love for teaching. They are the glue that holds high school sports together, the sages who translate all the sound and fury that arises from competition into something meaningful for all the young athletes of all abilities who put their fragile adolescent egos on the line for every contest.
I too often trot out John Steinbeck’s opening lines of Cannery Row, but his description of those denizens of the hardscrabble canning town in Monterey, California could have been written about high school coaches.
[Cannery Row’s] inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
No Mile High Sports Magazine “Prep Issue” would be complete without a salute to some of Colorado’s most interesting coaches. Here are a few I’ve had the pleasure to encounter over the past 45 years:
Pencil’s Gallery of Colorful Colorado Coaches
Talk about staying power! “Mitch” coached for 58 years (one at Eads, the rest at Limon) and won 17 state titles in track, basketball and football. The consummate gentleman and king of Colorado coaches, Mitch passed away on Nov. 14.
Laurice “Lo” Hunter
Evergreen’s volleyball coach from 1972 to 1995, this Texas transplant was the prototype for driven female coaches ushering in competitive CHSAA girls’ athletics. She won 86 percent of her volleyball matches, nine state titles (including seven straight) and compiled a 182-match winning streak. What I liked most about her was that she never tried to fit the then-popular expectation that female coaches should be like home-ec teachers. She unabashedly enjoyed kicking your ass.
If anyone deserves the lifetime title of “Mr. Colorado Basketball,” it’s Bobby. Now in his eighth year as the coach at Highlands Ranch, he’s held the top hoops jobs at Manual, West, Mullen, George and Aurora Central. Maybe it’s not that weird to be coaching high school basketball at age 65; it’s just that most people still alive and following prep hoops in 2015 can’t remember Colorado basketball without Bobby. A great high school (Denver West) and college (CSU) player, owner of the deadliest jumper in Denver town-team history and a guy who hasn’t missed a state tournament since he was eight years old, Caton is the ultimate hoops junky. And he still coaches the pants off guys half his age.
Outspoken, outrageous, hilarious – although not so funny to the many athletic directors and principals who have fired him from high school football coaching gigs (Bear Creek, South, Mullen, Regis, East, Westminster and Aurora Central, to name a few) – “Sid” served last fall as an assistant at Mullen to Tom Thenell (whom he coached as an All-State quarterback at Mullen back when people hated the Mustangs as they now do Valor Christian). A member of Bill Daniel’s boxing club, the Denver Rocks, in the 1970s and ’80s, Sid estimates he sparred 250 rounds with Ron Lyle. Sidwell could take a punch better than Homer Simpson, yet still makes sense today.
Tougher than most, but somewhat typical of the farmer/football coaches who were the backbone of small-school Colorado high schools, Kravig guided the Hugo Pirates to CHSAA 8-man state titles in 1964, ’65, ’68, ’70 and ’71. Rob Pearson, an All-State running back on the 1971 team, remembers Coach Kravig: “He was missing a finger and when he wanted to get your attention, he’d poke you in the chest with the stub. He’d get pretty worked up at halftime, too. He’d be sitting in the locker room smoking a Camel; just before he’d send us out, he’d stand up, spit in his hand and put the cigarette out in his hand.” Beats beheading chickens.
Colorado high school basketball diehards still remember the image of a 350-pound Sayyid, neck draped in gold chains, exhorting his Montbello Warriors on to the state hoops championship in 1984. The former Rayford Tillis, who starred at East from 1963-66, was busted in April of 1992 for delivering a substance to a buyer for a friend and subsequently served a year in jail. Steinbeck would have understood the dichotomy that was Sayyid.
Manuel just finished his 41st season as Granada’s football coach, is in his 29th campaign as the Bobcats’ boys’ basketball coach (his son Manuel, Jr. is in his first year as the girls’ coach) and will lead the baseball team for the 41st time. He just missed winning his fourth 8-man football championship last fall, dropping a 34-32 decision to Caliche in the finals. While he’s also won two basketball and three baseball state crowns at the 65-student Arkansas Valley school, it’s the joy he brings to coaching that is indelible.
If you are old and lucky enough to have been a spectator at the Denver Prep League basketball triple headers at the old Auditorium Arena, you probably still haven’t forgotten the white patent leather knee-high boots that she wore while exhorting the Manual Thunderbolts cheerleading squad through its gyrations from the second tier of the Auditorium. She went on to coach the Montbello cheer squad to the 1991 5A title in the CHSAA’s inaugural competitive cheerleading tournament, an event she and CHSAA assistant commissioner Sharon Wilch created. “Ginny” is also one of the premier Colorado high school basketball fans and has kept statistics for CHSAA at the state tourney every year since 1973.
The majority of coaches – and not just in high school – were not star players, but instead were the grinders who made the team on wits and wile instead of natural ability. “Stringy,” as he was known to everyone, played football, basketball and baseball at Littleton High School and quarterbacked the Lions to the 1959 2A state title. But he became the Littleton girls’ swimming coach in 1984 and – largely self-taught in a sport he never played – went on to coach Lions’ boys’ and girls’ swim teams to 12 state championships. Stringy was an ambassador for a sport that adopted him and was the same guy whether his team won or lost. When he retired last spring, after 49 years in the business, he still had never cut anyone from a team.
Coaches in small towns, particularly on the Western Slope, deserve a special place in heaven. Because of the peculiarities of Colorado geography and school district alignments, most Western Slope coaches spend more time on buses traveling to “nearby” schools their own size than they spend at their own dinner tables. Consider the San Juan Basin League, in which Steve’s former school, Ridgway, competes. It’s composed of four 1A schools and five 2A schools, the majority of which are over an hour away from Ridgway. Trips to Mancos and Dove Creek are more than two hours one way. Of course, that’s nothing compared to one-way mileage between Southwestern League schools in Grand Junction to Cortez, 236 miles and four hours away. Steve Hill rode (and likely often drove) those buses for 34 years, coaching the Demon boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, compiling a 735-366 mark from 1964 through 1998. He coached a son and two daughters, including Tracy (now the Ridgway girls’ basketball and volleyball coach) who averaged more than 30 points per game (including 44.6 as a senior) for the Demons en route to membership in the National Federation High School Hall of Fame. Steve loved small school athletics and was intensely proud of Ridgway. He invited me there once and got me involved in a poker game with some locals. It’s a long drive back to Denver after a late night of losing poker.
You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to kick ‘em, know when to run. It’s a happy turn of events to see Dave and Cherry Creek as the “good guy” after unseating the new “bad guy” Valor Christian in what is already being called the greatest football game in Colorado prep history (“Logan goes for two as Creek ends Valor’s championship streak at five in 25-24 thriller). Like Bobby Caton, we’ve seen Dave grow up; he’s one of our own. Yet, despite achieving amazing success at Wheat Ridge High School, CU and the NFL, and coaching four different schools (Creek plus Arvada West, Chatfield and Mullen, where he stayed above the fray during his very public firing) to big school gridiron state titles, a lot of people still respond to his name by rolling their eyes and making some totally uniformed reference to his “recruiting.” I have never had anyone present me with any evidence that Logan recruited any athlete to one of his high school programs. When you’re a great coach with a gold standard name, you don’t have to recruit. In Colorado’s open-enrollment environment, parents and kids recruit you, not the other way around. So if you’re one of those naysayers, change your tune and celebrate the achievements of one of our own, one of our best.
He was the Montbello football coach for only three years, but won the DPL each year and finished state runner-up to Pomona in 1988 and T.J. in 1989. He become the running backs coach at CU under Bill McCartney in 1991 and died much too soon at age 50 in 1997. He was a gentle giant; I remember the class with which he handled the disappointment of finishing second two years in a row.
Another coach who died too young, succumbing to cancer in 1997 before he turned 50. Dick coached swimming at Westminster and took kids who had never swam competitively and made them feel important and part of the school. He never won a state title at Westy – a lot of great coaches never win the big one – but I don’t know of a coach who loved kids more than Dick.
John Rivas and Sollie Raso
Pueblo has had so many great coaches, perhaps because it has always been a town that had a blue-collar appreciation of high school athletics. John and Sollie, who each coached football and wrestling at Pueblo Central before becoming the District 60 athletic director, epitomized those tough-but-fair coaches who valued discipline and hard work.
Dennis was another coach who became a district athletic director (Mesa Valley District 51). He logged a lot of bus miles coaching basketball and football at Grand Junction High, but he probably put on more miles when he became an AD. There has always been a feeling – and often justifiably so – among Western Slope coaches and administrators that the schools on the other side of the Continental Divide received the short end of the athletic stick. No one did more than Teeters in the 1980s, ’90s and into the 2000s to improve East-West relations among Colorado high schools. And he did it by I-70 diplomacy, traveling to every important meeting on the Eastern Slope and convincing eastern schools that the distance from Denver to Grand Junction was the same as from Grand Junction to Denver.
Every time Mullen or Valor Christian or Denver Christian wins a state championship, you can thank Guy Gibbs. Probably no individual, with the possible exception of former CHSAA commissioner Ray Ball, did more to integrate public and private school competition in Colorado. Gibbs, who had a 70-11-5 record in football and a 473-156 mark in basketball at Regis High School, set the standard for how school athletic programs should be conducted and how student-athletes should conduct themselves. Do all private schools run squeaky-clean programs? Of course not. Nor do all public schools. If anyone wants a model for how to compete ethically, go back to the days at Regis when Gibbs was their coach and athletic director.
Harding has been Rudy Carey’s assistant at Manual ad East for 25 years, 18 of those as the head JV hoops coach. I’m not sure how much he has had to do with all the championships East has won. A lot, I’d guess. But the Jacksonville, Fla. Native, who works as a juvenile probation officer, is on the East bench year after year, always a figure of composure amidst the maelstrom that surrounds a high school basketball game. And I see him quietly interact with kids game after game. They listen. So I present him as a symbol of all those assistant coaches throughout Colorado high school sports who labor in obscurity. Who don’t have a gaudy won-loss record attached to their name. Who get paid even less than the peanuts that head coaches earn, who will never make the hall of fame. But who make a huge difference in the lives of kids.
Dick Katte and Mark Wolf
Between them, they’ve claimed 876 victories (876-233) as a head coach and they’ve co-authored Over Time – Coach Katte on Basketball and Life, a must-read for basketball coaches at all levels, parents, players and devotees of winning the right way. Katte’s Denver Christian team won the 2012 Class 2A championship – his eighth overall – in his 52nd and final year at the private school located on Evans Avenue in south Denver. Wolf, a former sports writer for the Rocky Mountain News, has served as an assistant boys’ basketball coach at Columbine since 1999.
It seemed like Denver Christian or Glenwood Springs was winning the Class 2A basketball title every year in 1970s and ’80s. Chavez coached Glenwood Springs to three state titles and a 477-161 record across 30 years. Fans will never forget the sight of Chavez’s assistant holding him by the tail of his plaid sport coat, simply so he wouldn’t wander out on to the court as he exhorted his Demons. Need we say more about his passion for games and kids?
He played for the Iranian national soccer team prior to coming to the states to earn his doctorate at UNC. He coached the Northglenn Norse to four state girls’ soccer titles (1980, ’82, ’84, ’89) and a boys’ state crown in 1984. His English was a work in progress, but kids understood him loud and clear. When his players were late to practice, they had to bring donuts to the rest of the team on specified “donut days;” when there were late to games, they didn’t play. One former player, who just so happens to be the editor of this magazine, said, “I learned a lot more about life, discipline, respect and relationships from Raz than I ever did about soccer – and I learned a helluva lot about soccer.”
There you have it, an incomplete list of some colorful Colorado characters who proudly called themselves coaches. A gallery of saints, sinners, sons of bitches—often portraying all those traits during the same game.
I could go on forever because high coaches are among the most interesting people I know. Here’s some quick hits on some more of Colorado’s most colorful mentors.
Bob Smith and Charlie White, 1970s and ’80s at Wray and Rocky Ford, intense rivals in 2A wrestling at the Auditorium and the Coliseum… Sally Moos, 33 years as Cherry Creek’s volleyball coach, once stopped a state tournament match to demand sportsmanship from the CC parents in the crowd… Jess Downey and Jim Sullivan, Lamar and La Junta going at it in Southern Colorado 2A baseball… Jim Trahern, holding Kit Carson together for more than 30 years… Marc Johnson, Cherry Creek and Jim Danley, Eaton, deans of Colorado baseball… Duane Lewis, in the CHSAA Hall of Fame as an athlete at Burlington; the Shot Doctor revitalized the golf and basketball programs at Alamosa and Alameda… Pam Fagerlund, Flagler’s volleyball wizard of the Eastern Plains… John Mraule, gentleman coach of Montrose ladies basketball… Gib Gardner, old-time Manual coach of tennis, swimming, cross country, track, basketball and football… Judy Barnett, volleyball innovator at Manitou Springs and all-time most-positive coach… Lloyd Gaskill, Limon gridiron legend… Don Gatewood, eight track titles at Manual and Montbello and won the state 100 and 220 as a student at Manual… Dick Hewson, swimming pioneer at Loveland and Thompson Valley… Herman Motz, a pair of state grid titles for Thomas Jefferson… Ron Vlasin and Rudy Carey, retired and living legends, nine state hoops titles each… Bill Weimar, state basketball crowns at G.W. and East, and father of East superfan Jan Anderson… Scott and Dick Yates, maybe best father-son coaching duo – for Kent, South and Kennedy… Eduardo Attencio, coached everything for three decades at Centennial (San Luis)… Ken Shaw, been around forever, wins everywhere with class, three straight 5A hoops titles at Regis (2009-11), best tailor since the guy who dressed Guy Gibbs… Paul Husted, gentleman coach of 1975 Westminster 3A boys’ basketball state champs and mentor to Steve and Tony Barnett, longtime Colorado hoop coaches… Sandy Moss, classy Fowler volleyball dynasty architect.