CNHI News Services
When Jim Coleman was hired as an assistant football coach at Watonga for the 1980 season, he was told “by the way, you’re coaching track.’’
At that time, the Eagles never had an individual boys state track champion and didn’t even have a cross country team.
When Coleman left the school 31 years later, the Eagles had 19 boys and girls state track championships and six cross country titles. Not to mention Coleman being the defensive coordinator for two state championship and two state runner-up teams.
Coleman, now an assistant football and cross country coach at Chisholm, will be inducted into the Oklahoma Coaches Hall of Fame in ceremonies Sunday in Tulsa.
“I don’t know what to say about that,’’ said Coleman while he watched some CHS athletes in off-season weight training Thursday. “It’s definitely an honor. There’s some pretty special people in that group. I’m humbled to be a part of it.’’
Coleman started cross country at Watonga in 1983 to try to develop some long-distance runners for track. He continued to coach football, holding practices in the evenings.
His weekends would be all work — a football game Friday night, a cross country meet Saturday morning and breaking down film the rest of the time until Monday morning.
“If you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not that hard,’’ Coleman said. “I just tried to convince kids to work hard and set goals ... that if you worked hard enough, good things will happen.’’
Hard work built the foundation for Coleman’s state championships.
He convinced his football players to work hard in the spring in track so it would help them in football.
“They really go together,’’ Coleman said. “Everything you need in football, like speed and agility, is what you need in track. That was the kind of kid we had at Watonga, so we had to live up to that tradition.’’
Coleman’s philosophy was not having to depend on athleticism — build a foundation on hard work to get the maximum of the athlete. When the good athletes do come along, you have a better chance then “to be a step above anyone else.’’
“When we got to that point, that’s when we really started to be successful,’’ Coleman said. “My last year there, we had an All-Stater in every sport.’’
One year Watonga had four cross country runners receive Division I scholarships.
“That’s pretty unusual for a school that size,’’ he said.
His personality was laid back, seeing his job as being a teacher whose job “is to train them and teach them the right strategies, so they can be competitive and be the best they can be.’’
He was first and foremost upfront.
His message was to be the “best you can be,’’ whether it’s in athletics or academics or music, etc.
“I think that’s been a big part of my success,’’ he said. “The kids knew they could come to me and I would be straight with them ... that I wouldn’t sugar coat anything. If they did a good job, they would be praised for it. If they didn’t, they would know why and we would get it straightened out.’’
He helped the more-intense Frank Piccirillo win two state football championships. The two personalities blended in well together.
“You have all kinds of personalities on a football team and the same is true on the coaching staff,’’ Coleman said. “Everyone doesn’t have to be the same. We had a combination of good athletes who worked hard and that allowed us to have good success.’’
Coleman, in football, was content to be an assistant.
“I didn’t like all the extra things the head coach has to do,’’ he said. “I enjoyed the coaching and being with the he kids and teaching the kids.’’
His secret as a defensive coordinator “was learning all I could’’ about the opposing offense.
“You have to do your homework,’’ Coleman said. “You have to know what the other team is going to do and do your best to stop it. If you can stop what they’re good at and make them do something that’s not their cup of tea, that’s going to help you win.’’
Mental toughness was another key to Watonga’s success while he was there. The name Watonga could help get the Eagles by in years where there wasn’t a superstar.
“There were years we didn’t have as much talent as other teams,’’ Coleman said, “but with hard work, the kids’ confidence and belief in themselves, we won some games we shouldn’t have had. They expected to win.’’
Coleman led Watonga to the boys state track championship in 2011. That would be his last.
He thought he would retire at Watonga, but he would be leaving the school after that championship.
“Things just didn’t work out,’’ Coleman said. “I would rather not go into that too much. I guess they just wanted to go into a different direction.’’
Coleman landed at Chisholm as a volunteer coach in the spring of 2012 and was hired on a part-time basis in 2012-13.
It was a natural for him. He graduated from Chisholm in 1975 and still holds the school records in the 800 and 1,600 meters.
“The Hall of Fame is an honor that he deserves,’’ said Longhorns assistant football and boys track coach Mike Carnes. “It’s been an honor to work with him. He’s a source of so much information. I’ve learned a lot from him.’’
“It’s been fun to come back to Chisholm,’’ Coleman said. “I always thought this could be a good place to be if things could be worked out.’’
Coleman’s mentor was the late Harvey Griffin, who coached both football and track at Enid and Chisholm. He was a student teacher and coach under Griffin in the spring of 1980 before graduating from Oklahoma State University where he ran track.
Coleman got his philosophy of football players learning how to compete from track from Griffin.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,’’ Coleman said. “He let me have the distance runners, so I was thrown into the water pretty quick. He always emphasized the minor details and how important they were.
“He just didn’t say go do it. He showed you how to do it and how he wanted it done. It’s important for an athlete to know how to do it You can’t spend all your time talking, but I think it helps them and their confidence to know what you’re trying to accomplish as a coach.’’
Coleman, while a distance runner, taught himself every event in track so he could coach it.
He enjoys his job as much as he did in the early 1980s.
“I don’t have as much energy as I used to,’’ Coleman said. “I get a little more tired, but I enjoy it and I’m doing to do it as long as I can. I just liked to be hooked up to it. I don’t have any hobbies. I never had something else that I would rather do.’’
That enthusiasm is fueled by Chisholm’s improvement. The Longhorns went from 1-9 to 5-5 last season.
“On the first day of football practice last year, it didn’t look like anybody could run,’’ Coleman said. “I’m seeing changes around here. It looks like we can run a bit now. My only complaint is we don’t have that many big linemen. When I was at Watonga, Chisholm always had those big old linemen.’’
While Coleman put in long hours, the sport brought him closer to family.
All four of his children earned track scholarships — Jason to the University of Oklahoma, where he still holds some school relay records and Jim Bob, Heather and Jennifer to Oklahoma Baptist University. Jim Bob was an NAIA All-American.
“I was able to spend more time with my kids because they competed,’’ Coleman said. “I think I was able to influence them more because of that.
“When you’re coaching your kids, everybody else says it looks like they have an advantage. They probably had a disadvantage because of it. The advantage for them was they had grown up around it. They knew what was expected out of them. They were good kids and good leaders and were a big part of our success in the late 1990s and early 2000s.’’
Neither boy played high school football because of their size. The family that competed together, though, stayed together.
“We never had any serious problems because they enjoyed it as much as I did,’’ Coleman said. “We already had become a tradition in track and football. The kids expected to do well and they wanted to be part of it. They weren’t different from any other kid.’’
His wife, Liz, too, has been by his side with support and understanding.
“She enjoys it,’’ Coleman said. “She takes care of the other stuff for me. She always made sure the uniforms were ready and that we had something to eat. She would let me know if someone was having a problem and would talk with parents. She did the behind-the-scenes stuff that was a big help over the years.’’