Old Cougs and the siren call of prep coaching

JEREMY THIELBAHR, the former Washington State running back now coaching class 3A state champion Eastside Catholic High, says he tries to steal a page from his old Cougar coach, Mike Price, every time he steps on the field.

"Coach Price, he made football fun," Thielbahr recently told Cougfan.com. "He listened to players more than most, which at the time was cutting edge. It wasn't always grind-it-out on the field — he listened to what the players said and that stemmed from the leadership we had on the team. If we needed to pull back for a bit, then he pulled back."

Thielbahr played for the Cougars from 1998-2001 and took over at Eastside Catholic from old WSU teammate Jason Gesser in 2011. Today, Thielbahr is one of eight former WSU players that CF.C is aware of who now are high school head coaches in Western Washington.

The other seven are James Hasty at Franklin/Seattle; Derek Sparks at Garfield/Seattle; Michael Bumpus at Monroe; Mike Bush at Kentwood/Kent; Chris Paulson at Curtis/Tacoma; Bryant Thomas at Auburn-Riverside; and Bob Norvell at Sehome/Bellingham.

CF.C talked with three of them -- Sparks, Bumpus and Thielbahr (pictured above in that order) -- in search of a common thread that has produced so many high school head coaches out of one college program on the opposite side of the state.

The answer is that there is no one answer -- though you can’t miss the Mike Price overtones with two of the three.

Thielbahr says he knew since his days playing at Sandpoint (Idaho) High for hall of fame coach Satini Puailoa that he, too, wanted to put on a whistle and headset. But the “four years I had at WSU (under Price)” drilled home the cornerstones of team building — his Four Fs of faith, family, finish and forever.

He calls his time with Price and Bill Doba “great, formative years” and says, looking back on the program, it cultivated "great teachers, great mentors."

His core belief—“what we're really trying to get done"—is to create a great experience for the kids. "Winning comes from having a great experience,” not vice versa, Thielbahr says.

“The relationships you make, bringing teams together with leadership, getting a team to buy in, that's not easy. Especially nowadays, there is so much information out there that sometimes players know more. If you really don't show a player how to maximize their abilities, they're going to go do their own thing."

Like Thielbahr, Sparks played for Price and says the two-time Rose Bowl coach remains a first-hand influence to this day.

"WSU, for me, served as the place where I was able to grow up and learn," said the early 90s WSU back out of southern California. "The coaching staff, including Price, they are still influential to this day. I still talk to them and lean on them for information and advice."

Last November, in his first season at the helm of Garfield, Sparks guided the Bulldogs to the playoffs for the first time in more than two decades. KING5-TV took notice and profiled the team in a story in which Sparks credits Price with teaching him that coaching is “bigger than football,” that it’s about creating an “all in” bond.

That bond had been missing at Garfield, in part because of instability at the top. Sparks was the fifth head coach at the school in five years.

"Garfield was in dire need of some direction," Sparks said.

“There was a lot of turmoil and hard times. The kids were having a hard time and it was difficult to come in and change the culture. But I think the stars aligned, the seniors were ready to win."

BUMPUS, A SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA NATIVE who arrived at WSU in 2004 -- Doba's second season at the helm following Price's departure -- said Pullman itself served as a blueprint for his mental approach to the game.

"Pullman is such a blue collar, small town," he said. "It was a huge influence on me. It’s kind of like Monroe. It's a small community and to be a coach here, Pullman prepared me for that. You'll know it if you're doing well, and you'll definitely hear about it if they don't like it.

"Developing in Pullman prepared me for that. People are so inviting, there's a lot of love. Coaches and players learn not to listen to outside praise and curses, they learn to lean on each other."

Bumpus said when injuries upended his tenure with the Seattle Seahawks and sent him briefly to the Canadian Football League he knew he wanted to stay in the game -- especially so because he wasn’t “able to go out on my own terms." He began as a personal trainer and then became an assistant coach at Monroe before being elevated to the head job this off season.

Both Bumpus and Sparks are quick to note that coaching isn’t a destiny for every former player.

"Just because you played, doesn't necessarily mean you'll be a good coach," Sparks says. "You have to be motivated and coaching is about being a father figure, a mentor, and caretaker to young men. That goes into every aspect of your life. You continue to learn. My whole philosophy is as a counselor, coaching is what I get to do on Fridays. Really, who you are is Monday through Thursday. If you're trying to change lives, this is a good way to do it."

Bumpus said if a player on his team comes up to him and expresses interest in coaching, he tells him to wait.

"I tell them when the time comes we can talk about it," Bumpus said. "I tell them to enjoy their high school experience. There is nothing else like it, and really lasts such a short time. Your childhood is almost gone. If say, senior year, if you're still interested we can talk. Right now, just live in the moment."

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