Fresh off a two-year stint as a graduate assistant on the Washington State University football staff, Keith Gilbertson took his first full-time teaching job at Snohomish High School in 1950. His duties not only included teaching history but also serving as an unpaid coach. For four different sports teams.
His overall compensation didn’t always reflect the long hours of work.
“One of the kids asked me one time how much I got paid,” Gilbertson recalled recently. “I told him $2,800, and he said, ‘That’s not bad for a month’s pay.’ I had to tell him that was for a year.”
This fall, Gilbertson will begin his 59th year at Snohomish, and his 61st year of coaching. While his coaching salary hasn’t changed much, th e 81-year-old volunteer assistant hopes to lead the Panthers girls basketball team to another appearance at the state tournament.
Gilbertson, whose son Keith Jr. also made a career in coaching and currently works on the Seattle Seahawks’ staff, is among countless coaches who are in it for three simple reasons: they love teaching, they love competition, and they love kids.
For every Mike Holmgren, Phil Jackson and Rick Pitino who makes millions of dollars a year, there are thousands of coaches like Keith Gilbertson Sr.
“The most I ever made was $21,000,” Gilbertson said earlier this month. “But we got by fine. I never rued the day that I started coaching.”
This week, The Herald pays tribute to the men and women who have dedicated their lives to bringing out the best in athletes of all levels. It comes as no coincidence that the five-day series comes as Snohomish County mourns the passing of three coaching legends over the past 12 months _ longtime basketball coach Norm Lowery in August of last year, popular high school football coach Terry Ennis=2 0in September and former Edmonds football coach Rich Rowe in January.
Those deaths only underscored the wealth of coaching talent that has passed through this area over the years.
College football coaches like Dennis Erickson and Mike Price grew up in Everett. Gilbertson Jr. and Oakland Raiders assistant coach Tom Cable are from Snohomish. Hall of Fame college basketball coach Marv Harshman is from Lake Stevens, as is Western Washington University athletic director Lynda Goodrich, who was once named WWU’s best coach of the 21st Century.
And that doesn’t even count the thousands of standout coaches that have graced the halls of Snohomish County high schools over the years.
Snohomish County has been a hotbed for coaches, and just about everyone seems to have a theory of why.
“I have often thought about it. Is there a common denominator?” said Mark Albertine, Snohomish High School’s athletic director since 1976. “The socio-economic area, in general, in the times that those (coaches) grew up,20there was a work ethic. They were all hard workers. It was instilled in them at a young age. Athletics were the outlet for them: you work hard, and you play hard.”
Erickson, who won a national championship at Miami and is currently coaching at Arizona State, is of the same mind.
“The blue-collar aspect of being raised in Everett was indicative of sports like football and basketball,” he said. “Everything was focused on sports there. You had the mill, you had the longshoremen, and you had sports – that was it. Sports were so important in that area.”
“There were no Seahawks back then,” Gilbertson Jr. added. “There was high school football on Friday night, the Huskies and Cougars on Saturday _ end of story.”
There is also the second-generation factor. Erickson is among an impressive group of coaches who had successful coaching fathers. Robert “Pink” Erickson coached at Cascade High School while Dennis was growing up. Everett Junior College football coach Walt Price was the father of Dennis’s Everett High classmate, current Texas-El Paso footbal l coach Mike Price. Jim Ennis (son Terry), Lowery (sons Norm Jr. and Mike), Harshman (son Dave) and Gilbertson Sr. also had obvious effects on their children’s careers.
The second generation of Snohomish County coaches have, for the most part, found a way to make a better living than their fathers. Erickson’s reported salary is over $1 million, while Price pulls in six figures at UTEP. Gilbertson Jr. and Cable are also fairly compensated as NFL assistants.
But there are still hundreds of Keith Gilbertson Sr.’s out there, overcoming the meager pay because they love to teach the game.
“I always said that if I ever had a chance to give back to the game what I got out of it, I would do that,” said Harold Pyatte, who is in his 36th year as a volunteer coach of the Everett Merchants semipro baseball team. “For me, that came in the form of coaching.”
Like many of Snohomish County’s veteran coaches, Pyatte has reaped rewards in the form of seeing several former Merchants _ current players Mark Hendrickson and Lyle Overbay are among them _ make it to the professi onal ranks. The 65-year-old former player doesn’t mind volunteering his time as long as he can make a different in people’s lives.
“That makes you feel like you’ve gotten something back for all the sacrifices you’ve made,” he said. “You get a sense of accomplishment when you help kids make that transition from young adult to man.”
Turning kids into adults can be more important to some coaches than turning potential into stardom.
“Overall, the better coaches are ones that are concerned about the kids,” said Harshman, a 90-year-old former basketball coach at the University of Washington.
Snohomish County seems to have more than its share of “better” coaches.
Sixty-one years later, Gilbertson Sr. is still among them.
“I’m just having the time of my life,” he said earlier this month. “I don’t anticipate a day when I ‘ll say I’ve had enough.”