STANWOOD — After playing basketball at Washington State University in the mid-1960s, Dennis Kloke was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat that ended his career and kept him from an opportunity to play beyond college.
But as one door closed, another opened.
Kloke dove into coaching, channeling his passion for sports into a half-century of leading and mentoring high school athletes. For the past 51 years, he’s coached a variety of sports at Marysville, Marysville Pilchuck, Anacortes and Stanwood high schools.
“I really enjoyed the X’s and O’s and the relationships that you build with the players,” he said. “You develop a loyalty to the kids. I just thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Kloke spent more than two-thirds of his career coaching primarily boys basketball, football and track at Marysville and Anacortes high schools. He then moved to Stanwood High School, where he’s coached the girls basketball and girls golf teams for the past 14 seasons. He was a head basketball coach for nearly 50 years, including one season at the college level.
Kloke said he plans to retire this spring after the golf season concludes.
“He’s a great guy,” said Ken Roberts, who coaches the Snohomish girls basketball and girls golf teams. “For girls to have the opportunity to have a person like that who cares about them more as people than as players, it’s what you want to see in sports. … He’s somebody you’d want your kid to be around.”
Kloke took over a struggling Stanwood girls basketball program in 2004 and helped turn the Spartans into regular contenders, leading the team to four state appearances in the past seven seasons. He guided Stanwood to a fifth-place finish in this year’s Class 3A state tournament, which marks the best state finish in the program’s history.
“He got that program to the point where it was competitive every single year,” Roberts said. “They’re one of the top teams in the league year in and year out.”
Kloke credited Garry Lund and Jeff Heckman for helping form a youth feeder program for Stanwood girls basketball, which he said made an enormous impact on the high school program’s success.
“When I came into the program, there was no feeder program, and so you got what you got,” Kloke said. “There were some athletes, but they didn’t have the fundamentals of basketball. … When girls started coming in that knew how to play, then we started being more successful on the scoreboard.”
Kloke said the program’s current state factored into his retirement.
“It took a while to build (the) program, and I think the program right now is on pretty solid footing,” he said. “There are nine varsity basketball players coming back for next year, and so I feel really good for whoever replaces me that there’s going to be some material to work with. … I did not want to leave on a note that the program wouldn’t continue to be successful.”
Kloke, a 1962 Burlington-Edison High School graduate, played two seasons of football and four seasons of basketball at Washington State. After being diagnosed with arrhythmia, he jumped into coaching.
Kloke began by coaching the WSU freshman men’s basketball team during the 1966-67 season. He worked under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Marv Harshman and assistant Jud Heathcote, who went on to coach Michigan State University to a national championship.
As he was beginning his coaching career, Kloke exchanged letters with legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who was friends with Harshman. Kloke received advice from the all-time great, along with diagrams of Wooden’s UCLA offense.
“Their philosophies greatly influenced my coaching,” Kloke said of Wooden, Harshman and Heathcote. “I learned very quickly that the winning and losing is a byproduct, so I never burned out. I didn’t put all my cards into having to win.
“I just wanted to develop the young people to the best of their abilities and put a team together, and I got tremendous satisfaction in doing that.”
But make no mistake, Kloke is a natural-born competitor.
“I’m very, very competitive,” he said. “If we would get beat, I would try to find a way to improve.”
“His teams were always prepared,” Roberts said. “You were always scouted well. If you had weaknesses, he’d take advantage of (them).”
Kloke, who was a high school teacher for approximately four decades, said what he’ll miss most about coaching is being around the kids. Assistant coach Trynton Vargas said Kloke placed a strong emphasis on teaching his players life lessons beyond the court.
“He has this passion to make the kids better (not only) as basketball players, but as far as what they’re going to do outside of basketball,” Vargas said. “Probably his No. 1 attribute is making sure that they have life lessons they can take outside of basketball once they graduate.”
“(He) coached us not only as players, but also as people,” said Ashley Alter, a Spartans basketball player from 2015-18. “He’s such a great person. You just feel like you could go to him for any personal problems or concern you had. … I liked the fact that he focused a lot on character, and not just (us as) basketball players.”
Kloke said there are countless assistants and other people who contributed to his coaching career. At the top of the list is Michele, his wife of 40 years.
“She’s been a big, big part,” Kloke said. “I could not have coached this long if I wasn’t married to Michele.”
So with his coaching career wrapping up, what’s next?
“We’re going to be figuring that out,” Kloke said with a laugh.
The soon-to-be retired coach said he plans to volunteer at Lyman Elementary in the Sedro-Woolley School District, where Michele teaches. He also said he expects to play a lot of golf.
And he plans to continue following the Stanwood girls basketball team, watching from the bleachers instead of the court.
“I’ll be there as a very interested fan,” Kloke said.