Larry Gahr

Editor's note: In most cases throughout the years, our Beacons provide information about their lives and leave the actual production of their biography to us. Once produced, we then ask the Beacon to review it for accuracy and to add and/or subtract anything they wish. After all, this is a document about their lives - only they know the most important things that illuminated their path. Rarely have we had a Beacon produce a document of their own, so complete, so thorough, and so extensive as the biography below. So, here is the biography of Larry Gahr, with only a few minor edits, in his own words. It's only slightly shorter than his game-to-game scouting reports. 


I was born on October 16, 1953, at Good Samaritan hospital in Portland and have lived in Oregon for my entire seventy years.  When I was four years old, my parents, my sister Kay, who is a year older, and I moved from our home in Scappoose. We went about 8 miles up the Vernonia highway to the family homestead, on 40 acres along the south fork of Scappoose Creek. My parents took the better part of three years to build their dream home in the forest of the coast range. They basically built it themselves, no mortgage, no builder, minimal contractors, just them, family, and friends.

I started first grade at Scappoose Elementary in the fall of 1959 at five years of age, the youngest kid in my class. My grandparents lived a few hundred yards away and, other than them, we were pretty much isolated from other families/people.  I can’t remember ever playing with or hanging out with any kids in the area. But my parents were great role models and my sister and I had a very happy childhood living in our wilderness home. I loved exploring the forests and streams surrounding our home and many times I would disappear for hours, wandering around the mountains. 

My introduction to the world of sports started as a seven-year-old in the summer of 1961. My mother and grandfather loved baseball and were huge Yankee fans. I remember waiting for the Oregon Journal newspaper, which was Portland’s afternoon paper, so I could follow Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and their assault on Babe Ruth’s home run record. A few times that summer my family would drive twelve miles or so to my other grandparents’ home who had a black and white TV that could pick up NBC. Every Saturday NBC had the game of the week, and the Yankees were always one of the teams. I loved sitting there with the family watching the game. We would spend the night, then Sunday we would take my grandfather into Portland to watch the Portland Beavers play a double header. I was in 7th heaven. After my first Beavers game, I fell in love with baseball. I would listen to Bob Blackburn, the Beaver’s announcer on our old radio every chance I had. The Kansas City A's was the major league affiliate those first few years, but the Cleveland Indians took over for the rest of the 60’s. I spent hours that summer hitting rocks from our driveway with a stick. That fall I would go out 10 or 15 minutes early to wait for the school bus, just to hit rocks before it arrived. On my 8th birthday, my parents gave me my first baseball and glove, and for Christmas that year I got a bat. The fire was lit. That spring I would hound my parents to play catch or hit balls to me every chance we had. When my dad came home from work one day and told me they were having tryouts for the Scappoose 9/10-year-old team called the Midgets, I jumped at the opportunity. It was two days of tryouts and somehow I made the team even though I was only eight at the time. I remember the first night of tryouts. I could catch, field, and throw as well as anyone but when we each got five swings from a coach who was pitching, I must have thought that I had to swing at every pitch even if it wasn’t a strike. I swung at all five and never made contact. On the way home my dad told me that I didn’t have to swing at bad pitches, just wait for strikes. The second day of tryouts I followed his advice and waited for strikes and made contact five times and made the team.  

I played baseball exclusively until I reached the 7th grade in 1965 when I was 11 years old. They had a boys basketball team at the grade school for 7th graders. I tried out and made the team. It didn’t take me long to enjoy playing basketball almost as much as I enjoyed playing baseball. I was always the youngest person on my teams and, coupled with being a late bloomer, I was usually smaller and weaker than my teammates. It was frustrating for me, but it may have been a blessing in disguise. I was always the shortstop and point guard on my teams. When I finally started to mature I had the skills associated with shortstops and point guards. Entering Scappoose High School I was 5’6” and 98 pounds. I proceeded to grow an average of two inches per year over the next six years. (High schools in those days were grades 10-12.) Every year in high school, as I grew, I got better and better. By my senior year I was all conference in both basketball and baseball and all-state in basketball. I received offers to play both baseball and basketball at a number of Oregon and Washington schools but made the decision to play basketball for two reasons. First, my growth spurts had a bigger impact in basketball because it was a contact sport as opposed to baseball. As I continued to grow and get stronger, faster, and quicker, I was able to dominate smaller point guards and teams had difficulty matching up with me. My second reason was an even larger factor. 

When I was three years old I fell and broke my right elbow. The break went undetected until I was 11-years old. At that point I was in a lot of pain and had lost all feeling in the last two fingers of my right hand. X-rays showed that my right elbow was a total mess and I needed surgery to try and correct it. The surgery was only partially successful. Since then, I have never been able to straighten my elbow and my right arm is much weaker than my left. I was in a cast for four months and during that time I tried to switch from being right-handed to being left-handed. It was pretty easy to learn to shoot, dribble, and pass a basketball but to throw or hit a baseball was a different story. As a result, I became a left hand dominant basketball player and a right hand dominant baseball player. I didn’t think my elbow would allow me to become a college level baseball player so basketball it was, and off I went to Oregon College of Education in Monmouth (now Western Oregon University) to play ball. I graduated from Scappoose High at around 6’2”, but over the first two years of college, I grew three more inches. As a sophomore in college, I played at 6’5” and 200 pounds. I started from day one as a freshman in college and by the end of my sophomore year I was the MVP of the team and one of the better players in the league. Jack Cleghorn, my high school coach at Scappoose, had taken the #1 assistant coach position at Idaho State University and he came to watch me play at OCE. ISU had one full ride scholarship available at the end of their recruiting season and they offered it to me. I had to “red shirt” that first year because I was transferring up to a Division I program, but I got three more years of education for free. It was a great opportunity for me. I was able to be part of three very good teams, I played against players and teams from across the country, and I was lucky enough to meet my future wife, Barb, who was a member of the women’s basketball team. I started most of my junior year, but my senior year I played behind two guys that were drafted by Houston and Phoenix, respectively, of the NBA. The 1976-77 ISU team beat UCLA in the west regional and made it to the elite eight before losing to the Jerry Tarkanian coached UNLV team. After college I came back to Oregon and did my student teaching in social studies and business education at Cascade High School in Turner under Leonard Federico the long-time principal and superintendent. That year I was an unpaid varsity assistant coach, and just before Christmas break a staff member in the business department had a medical emergency and was unable to return to work. I was offered and accepted the job a couple of months after my 23rd birthday. I ended up coaching the freshman boys’ basketball and baseball teams, and, in the spring of 1978, Wayne Gillman resigned as the Cougar's head basketball coach to move back to Spokane.  I was offered the head coaching job the next day and I jumped at the opportunity. 

I stayed at Cascade for seven years before moving to McNary High School in 1985. I taught and coached there for the next 17 years. When West Salem High was opened in 2001, I agreed to move there and start the basketball program at West. I coached the first two years at West then turned the program over to my long-time assistant, Scott Cross. Over the years I have coached some golf and baseball but most of my coaching was in basketball. During most of my time at McNary and West we were part of the 10-team Valley League. In my 17 years at McNary, the Celtics made it to the post season 13 times, won three conference championships, and finished second five times. The Celtics finished in the top four spots in the league 15 times. I was voted by the coaches of the Capital Conference or the Valley League as Coach of the Year eight times and  was honored by the Salem Sports and Breakfast Club as Coach of the Year in 1991. Three times I was asked to coach the State team against Metro in the Oregon All Star Series. I was also the Grand Marshal of the Keizer FEST Parade in 1995. I served four years as the basketball chair for the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association and during those years I was responsible for the Oregon State-Metro All Star Series for all levels of Oregon Prep basketball. In 26 years as a head coach, my teams won 363 games and I coached in more than 600 games. The 19 straight years as a head basketball coach in the Salem-Keizer School District is the longest continuous tenure in Salem-Keizer history. The year after retiring I was selected to coach the Oregon Seniors in the 2005 Les Schwab Northwest Shootout against their Washington counterparts. The Oregon kids made sure my coaching career ended with a win.

I was very fortunate to have great coaches, role models, and mentors as both a player and coach throughout my life in athletics but I must start with my family. My mom and dad were always the most supportive parents ever.  They always got me to practice on time and one or both were always at my games. Many times one would be with me and the other with my sister Kay at a sporting event. Kay was probably was a better athlete, especially after my elbow surgery. She competed in softball, volleyball, basketball, and track and field before Title IX was passed. Our family is a sporting family from top to bottom. My wife Barb played basketball and softball at ISU. Our son Shawn was an all-league player in basketball and baseball at McNary and played basketball at Willamette University for Gordie James. Our daughter Alison was a three-time first team volleyball player at Sprague High School and earned a Division 1 scholarship to play volleyball at Sacramento State University. She was a member of five straight Big Sky Conference championship or tournament championship teams. Kay went to Oregon State where she was a member of the volleyball team. She and her husband Dave have three daughters and all three were all-state players at Scappoose High in multiple sports. Two of the three played at Willamette University. Our family is probably the most represented family in the Scappoose High Athletic Hall of Fame. Myself, Kay, and all three of her daughters are members. My parents drove to Pocatello, Spokane, and Moscow to watch me play and to Corvallis, Eugene, and Seattle to watch Kay, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The five grandchildren were getting involved in youth sports just as my parents were ready to retire. They were a constant presence at sporting events all over the country. They drove up to two hours down I-5 to Turner and Keizer to watch me coach at Cascade and McNary. They would be there at least once a week, sometimes more. Then as their five grandkids, who were born over a six-year period, advanced into youth, high school, travel, and college teams, they were forced to be more creative. They would make out seasonal travel itineraries that involved attending sporting events four, five, even six times a week. They went as far as Indiana for the Elks National Hoops Shoot for one of their grandkids, but they also traveled to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Berkley, Sacramento, Yakima, Walla Walla, Seattle, Spokane, and countless other cities and towns. Over the years they traveled thousands of miles by car to watch their kids and grandkids participate in sports. More supportive “sports parents” have never existed.

I was lucky to have a number of coaches that influenced me along the way.  It wasn’t until I got to the high school varsity level and then into college that I had what I would consider high-level coaching, that influenced me to want to become a coach. I had a number of youth coaches, most of them volunteer parents, that gave me a chance to get involved. They didn’t know the finer points of baseball or basketball, but the one thing those first coaches did that was very important was to make it fun for me to be involved in sports and I fell in love with it. When I became a coach I was determined to always adhere to the “make it fun philosophy” especially at younger levels where you have a chance to let kids fall in love with the game. 

Two very important things were the keys to our success at McNary. First, my staff and I started the McNary Boys Basketball Camp for kids entering grades 3rd-8th. We ran it for 17 straight years. Our goal every summer was exactly the same: to get kids hooked on the game of basketball.  After the first couple of years we had to turn kids away because we only had room for 144 players. We eventually decided that we needed to restrict attendance to kids only inside McNary’s boundaries. We had parents driving their kids from places like McMinnville, Albany, and Corvallis to attend camp. Kids told their friends how much fun they had at camp and pretty soon it became the place to be during the third week in June every summer. The first year we charged $25 for five days of basketball. Incoming 3rd--5th graders for 3½  hours in the morning, and incoming 6-8th graders for 3½ hours in the afternoon. Year 17, the last year, the cost was $45, and every kid received an outdoor basketball, a McNary reversible jersey, and 17½  hours of basketball fun, competition, and instruction. Each session we had five adult coaches and nine former or current McNary players. All 14 of us had the same goal - get the kids to fall in love with the game of basketball. It worked, because the same kids came back year after year.

I was lucky to have great people as assistant coaches while at McNary and West Salem, many of which I would classify as “kid magnets”. Coaches like Jim Litchfield, Scott Cross, Bob Jones, Dan Borreson, Jeff Auvinen, Scott Colburn, Bob Douglass, Dean Sanderson, Jack Martino, Mark McAvoy, and others were the ones that really made the camp run. But the real key to our successful camp and, to a great degree the entire McNary program, was the nine former and current players we brought in each year. These were the role models and heroes that attracted the young kids to come to camp with the dream of one day putting on a McNary uniform and playing on the same court, just like them. Every year when the registration forms came in, I had countless parents that requested that their sons be placed on “so and so’s” team. The first day of camp kids would say, “Please put me with [Bob Cavell/Greg Hall/Eric Slattum/Kevin Brunstad/Brett Backlund/Kasey Flicker/Justin Sherwood/Bryon Priem/Ryan Bolander/Joel Williams/Chris Peyton/Danny Espandola/Tim Maghan'Shawn Gahr/Luke Atwood/Shawn Kintner/Shilo Roland/Nick Colburn/Ryan Medford/Brian Zielinski/Trevor Cross/Ryan Schmitt/Josh Erickson/Ryan Ruffner and countless other players that were heroes to those young campers. After the first six or seven years, every one of those player coaches had attended McNary’s kid camp themselves and wanted to be a part of giving back to the next generation of McNary basketball. I had former players playing on college teams asking months in advance if they could be a coach at the next year’s camp. What a great list of former McNary basketballers.  For each of those players mentioned above, there were dozens more not mentioned that were every bit as important to our success.

The second important element to our successful run at McNary involved a man that was honored 9n 2023 as a Beacon, Mr. Terry Williams. I got to McNary in 1985, and I believe that was the same year that Terry started the Keizer Youth Basketball Association or KYBA. I know he didn’t do it alone, but I also know that it only takes a second or two to take “role call” when talking about the KYBA organization. In a short couple of years, Keizer and McNary had the best youth basketball program for both boys and girls in the entire area. Terry was the organizer, the director, and even coached multiple boys and girls teams. He coached my son for a couple of years and he and my wife co-coached my daughter and his daughter, both named Alison. Years later Terry was instrumental in starting the Salem-Keizer AAU program. Every year my staff and I would have 30 to 40 7th and 8th graders tryout for the McNary area teams. We always had two and sometimes three teams in both the 7th and 8th grade leagues. Almost 100% of those kids that played AAU for the McNary area were former KYBA and McNary Camp participants. I believe Terry Williams had the single greatest impact on McNary’s basketball success during the 17 years I coached there. He had more influence than me, any of my assistant coaches, or any one player.  

A smart coach once told me, “Coaches don’t win games, players win games. I don’t care how many games you coach, you will never score a single point. Your job in the whole scheme of things is to prepare your players the best you possibly can to be successful on the court, off the court, and during the rest of their lives.” Players Win Games! During my coaching career my teams were able to beat the following legendary Oregon Prep coaches the first time that we matched up:  Mike Doherty at Corvallis, Tom Johnson at Lebanon, Barry Adams at South Salem, and Nick Robertson at Beaverton. These four coaches currently hold four of the five top spots on the career wins list for the state of Oregon. The list of coaches that influenced me into coaching is fairly short: my two high school basketball coaches - Jim Kitchen and Jack Cleghorn, my coach at Idaho State - Jim Killingsworth, and John Wooden (the Wizard of Westwood). Coach Kitchen was the varsity coach at Scappoose my sophomore year when I was on the JV team. He encouraged me to not give up on basketball and myself. At that point I was short, slow, and weak. Not the best combination for success. I remember him telling me, in my post season meeting, “You’re two full years physically behind your teammates. You’re just starting to grow, and you’ll keep growing. I have confidence that someday you’ll be a good player.” Coach Kitchen left Scappoose after just one year to go to Sandy High School, then on to David Douglas. He was a head basketball coach in Oregon for 21 years before spending the last 13 years as David Douglas’s athletic director.

Jack Cleghorn followed Kitchen at Scappoose arriving before my junior year and he made me the point guard on a senior dominated team. Even today, he calls me by one name and one name only, “Point Guard”, and I call him, “Coach”. My senior year we lost at the state tournament to the eventual state champions, Stayton, then I went off to OCE to play basketball and coach Cleghorn won back-to-back state championships at Scappoose before moving on to Idaho State.  Without Coach Cleghorn having enough confidence in me that I could play at the Division I level, I would not have had the opportunity to play at ISU, and my whole life would have turned out differently. He was only at ISU for three years before returning to Oregon and getting the basketball job at LaSalle High. Over the next 17 years, he won four more state championships, and his six state titles are still a record for boys basketball in Oregon. He also has the highest career winning percentage of any coach with at least 200 wins in Oregon Prep history at 84%. No doubt most of my coaching philosophy and ideas came from Coach Cleghorn. When I got the job at Cascade, LaSalle was in the same Capital Conference along with Gladstone, Stayton, and Central, all power houses in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Coach Cleghorn and I talked weekly about basketball and coaching in general.  I learned more from those phone conversations that I could have in a hundred clinics.

Jim Killingsworth was my coach at ISU and was an excellent practice coach. I got a lot of drills and ideas about how to run practices and prepare for games from “Killer”. I also decided that if I was going to coach, I had to do two other things. First, I had to be cool, calm, and under control on the bench and during games so I would be able to make split second calls, adjustments, and decisions. If I wasn't in complete control, my players wouldn't be either. Second, I decided that as a coach I wanted my players to want to play as hard as they possibly could not just for themselves but also for their coach. I wanted to make basketball fun for my players. 

When I was in high school and college as a player, and coaching at Cascade, John Wooden was busy coaching UCLA to 10 NCAA titles over a 12-year period.  I read everything I could about Wooden and his coaching philosophy. Books like They Call Me Coach were fascinating to me. I borrowed a number of Coach Wooden quotes and tried to pass them on to my players to use while playing basketball and later on in life. I prepared a scouting report for our players for every game we played - 17 straight years. Each report had a quote on the top of the front cover. Many times, it was from Coach Wooden. Some of my favorite Wooden quotes are: “Be quick but don’t hurry.”; “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”; “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”; “It’s not so important who starts the game, but who finishes it.”; “It’s the little details that are vital, little things make big things happen.”; “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”; “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”; “Never mistake activity for achievement.”; “It’s what you learn after you know it all, that counts.”  And my favorite, “Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail.” This one led to the in-depth scouting reports. I wanted my kids to always think that we were more prepared than our opponents.

I was very fortunate to be surrounded by very strong and supportive administrators everywhere I coached and taught as well. At Cascade, Leonard Federico, the principal, and George Millionis, the athletic director (AD) were a great team. I can’t imagine any pair being more pro athletics than those two. Both had sons that played for me and were the best players on their teams. When I applied for the McNary position in March of 1985, a great lady and 2022 Beacon - Kathleen Hanneman - was my principal and Denny Pieters was the AD. 

My hiring at McNary was interesting. I heard nothing from McNary or the Salem-Keizer School District all spring, so when school ended in the middle of June I decided to fly to Fairbanks and join the family at my in-law’s gold mine some 80 miles north of Fairbanks. Every summer in the 80’s we spent the entire summer mining for gold on family claims isolated from the outside world. No TV, no phone, just Radio Fairbanks in case of emergencies. Every Friday evening my mother-in-law would drive the gravel road from Fairbanks to bring us supplies and spend the weekend. One day in early July she brought me news that McNary High School had called and wanted to talk to me about a job. On the following Monday I drove to Fairbanks and called Denny Pieters. He said they had been trying to contact me for an interview and I would be the last one candidate interviewed. My response was, “I’m almost 2500 miles away at the moment and if you want me to be your next basketball coach, I have to have some degree of assurance that I’m your guy.”  He said, “… They had talked to all of my listed references, and a number of ADs and coaches that had knowledge of me, and that unless they were all wrong, I want you to be McNary’s next basketball coach.”  He suggested that I get on a plane and that if I didn’t, “I would regret the decision.” He was correct. It was a great decision. I got on a plane to Portland, drove to Keizer and interviewed. It was a short, positive interview. At the end they said they couldn’t offer me the job, but that they would send their recommendation “downtown”, where the final decision would be made. They had already called and encouraged HR to expedite the process and they had already scheduled me to take the district-required English exam that afternoon. They then would meet with the downtown administrator the next morning. They officially offered me the job that afternoon and I was back on a plane to Fairbanks that night. I knew I had made the right decision because of how much work Gene Hitner and Denny Pieters had done to get me hired so quickly. I didn’t meet Principal Hanneman until the first day of staff in-service. Wow, what a ball of fire.  She met me at the door and said, “It’s so great to have you at McNary. Gene and Denny said they hired the best young coach in Oregon, and I want you to know you have my total support.” Kathleen Hanneman was the best, most supportive principal any coach could ever ask for. Denny Pieters and then Mike Maghan after Denny retired, were both great ADs.  They made coaching at McNary very easy and enjoyable. Mike’s son, Tim played for me and may have been the most improved player from a freshman to the end of his senior year, that I have ever coached.  His senior year he was no doubt our best player at the State Tournament.  

I announced in the fall of 2001 that the 2001-02 season would be my last as Celtic head coach.  And when the season ended with a sub-tournament loss at Wilson High, I thought I would teach a few more years at McNary then retire. It didn’t happen exactly that way.  Ed John, who had been my principal at McNary over my last few years, was going to become the first principal at West Salem High School when it opened in the fall of 2002.  Ed had been given the entire school year of 2001-02 to assemble the West High staff and he talked me into transferring to West to start the boys’ basketball program. I agreed to coach for two years in order to get the program up and running, if I could bring my assistant coach with me to take over in year three. That first year the school was made up of 95% freshman and sophomores, but I was excited for the opportunity to start a new basketball program from scratch. Ed was a great principal. He was truly a ‘kid magnet’. They loved him. Dick Bellock was the AD the first two years and he was super to work with. Ken Phillips was an assistant principal, and he was a big sports supporter. All three of them were totally committed to sports. The staff that Ed was able to hand pick was top shelf. I stepped down from coaching after the 2003-04 season and Scott Cross, my longtime assistant at both McNary and West Salem, took over. During those two years, Bellock retired and Phillips moved over to the AD position. Soon after, Scott Whipple became my department chair and Bryan Sutherland came aboard as an assistant principal. You would be hard pressed to find a group of people more supportive of kids and sports than these guys. 

I taught Economics and History for five more years at West before fully retiring in the spring of 2009. Those five years were the most enjoyable in my 32 ½ years of teaching. Without coaching, I found I had so much extra time to devote to the kids in my classroom. I slept well at night, and I was never in a hurry because I always had more than enough time to get everything done. I guess I never realized how many hours each year I spent on coaching. For 42 straight years, I had either played or coached baseball or basketball.

I also want to acknowledge my coaching colleagues who were a vital part of my success as a coach. When I got to Cascade it was a football school and Karl Elliott was the coach. Every year it seemed the football team went deep into the play-offs, and every year, 8 to 10 of my varsity basketball team played football. I encouraged the kids to play football and Karl encouraged them to play basketball. It was before summer camps and leagues, so the kids had summers off and I went to Alaska to mine gold. I told the kids to have a fun summer and we would go to work when they finished with football. At McNary it was a little different. We still had multiple sport athletes, but not as many. As coaches, we encouraged kids to play as many sports as they could.  The entire athletic department, with leadership from ADs Pieters and Maghan, believed that what was best for student-athletes was to be involved in as many sports as possible. We encouraged multiple sport athletes at McNary. My best basketball players, almost every single year, played other sports and many times they played other sports at the college level. Brett Backlund, Kevin Brunstad, Tim Maghan, Luke Atwood, and others played college baseball. Bryce Bohlander, Shawn Kintner, and Ryan Ruffner all played football in Pac-12 programs. Vic Backlund was the baseball coach, and Tom Smythe and Gary Swanson were the two football coaches when I was at McNary. We never had a single problem with the sharing of kids because we all knew that putting pressure on kids to make a choice was not healthy for anyone. At West Salem, we had the same philosophy about multiple sport kids. Make it fun for them to play as many sports as they could. Bo Yates and Shawn Stanley (another '22 Beacon) in football and Micah Tiffin in baseball shared kids with me and Scott Cross. I can remember only one basketball player that, no matter what I said to get him to get him to continue playing baseball, wouldn’t do it.  

Even though my first official coaching job was at Cascade High School in 1977, I should mention that I got my “feet wet” back in college at Idaho State. Two events helped me believe I might be able to become a fairly decent coach. The first one happened in my junior year when my 7’ teammate Steve Hayes asked me to co-coach a womens intramural team. Steve was a shy sophomore that graduated two years later as the number two career scorer in ISU history and went on to play six seasons in the NBA. I showed up at the first practice and ended up doing 99% of the coaching and teaching to prepare the girls to play games. The first thing I noticed was this cute girl that I had met a few weeks earlier on campus. She was by far the best player so, naturally, I put in plays for her to get shots. I don’t remember how many games they played or won but I think we did pretty well. I do know that the cute point guard agreed to marry me three years later, and we just celebrated our 47th anniversary. A year later, I was one of only three seniors on the ISU team and was appointed, by default, to coach in an emergency situation.  We were playing in the Hall of Fame Tourney at Terre Haute, Indiana, home of Indiana State University and the future home of NBA great Larry Bird. We were playing the University of Pacific on the second day of the four-team tournament when our head coach had a meltdown just before half time with us down by 5 to 10 points. He managed to get back-to-back T’s and was thrown out of the gym. Only one of our two assistant coaches made the trip and he was sent to recruit a player at a local high school that night. The only adult left on the bench was our school trainer that was a former track star at ISU who knew next to nothing about basketball. He wanted no part of taking over. Since I was the only senior not on the floor at the time, he appointed me as the interim coach. When we got into the locker room for half time Coach Killingsworth agreed that I should coach the team for the second half.  I switched up our defense, called time-outs, made substitutions, and called a couple of sets or plays. That was about all but the team seemed to play harder in the second half and we managed to come back to win the game. 

Throughout my coaching career, the single worst days were always the days that we had to make cuts. I hated to tell kids they couldn’t be a part of a team they may have dreamed of playing on. I was never cut from a team in my life, but I can imagine how devastating it would have been for me. Maybe that’s why I tried to talk to every group of kids before try outs, no matter if it was varsity, JV, freshman, or AAU. I told them how proud I was of them for having the courage to try out for a team knowing that we had only so many spots available and they might not make the cut. I told them to prepare mentally to come to try outs. “Show us what you can do. By doing everything at 100% you will force us to notice you. We are looking to see how coachable you are. Do you have a good attitude? Do you have talent? Do you have potential to get better?” We had already looked at their grades and citizenship. 

We also told them, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Playing hard and taking chances is much better than standing around doing nothing. It’s hard for the coaches to notice someone standing around.” At the end of try outs, I wanted everyone of them to walk off the court proud, knowing they gave it their best shot. Then I gave them the Wooden quote, “Success is never final, failure is never fatal, and it’s courage that counts.” Three of the best examples of kids that I was most proud of were all McNary kids. My first year at McNary we had try outs for the freshman team. We had over 30 kids try out for 12 spots. I was very fortunate to have a “kid magnet”, Bob Jones, as my freshman coach. Bob loved the kids and the kids loved him. The varsity and JV try outs were scheduled for the first three days then cuts were made and teams finalized. At the freshman level it wasn’t possible to get down to 12 kids in three days, so we kept extending and extending. After Friday’s 5th day of try outs, Bob had it down to 15 or 16 and we scheduled a scrimmage with officials for Saturday morning where the entire staff could evaluate the kids. It really came down to the bottom six or seven because the best nine were set. That meant we all watched those six or seven very closely because we would only keep three of them. I had all the coaches sit apart and not share any thoughts or evaluations until the scrimmage was over. When the scrimmage concluded we gathered and everyone identified the three kids they thought should make it. My list was slightly different from the rest. I noticed a kid that I thought reminded me of myself as a freshman – slow, small, and weak. But I also noticed his attitude, hustle, and desire. I tried to imagine his potential down the road. We kept the other three kids, but I asked Bob to keep a 13th player even though we had to scramble to find a uniform for him. Bob, to his credit, was “all in” because he believed in this kid as well. Four years later that kid was the best player on a McNary team that went 16-6 and was named to the All-Valley League 1st Team. He earned a scholarship to Western Baptist College and scored 2710 points over the course of his college career which puts him in third place all-time. He stands in second place career wise in 3-pointers made at the school. Justin Sherwood went on to become the head coach at Western Baptist, now Corban University.  What if we had cut him?

Another kid that followed in Justin’s footsteps in 2000 was a young man named Matt Espinoza.  Like Justin and I, Matt was a late bloomer. As a freshman he was about 5’7” and came very close to not making the team. He worked extremely hard over the next three years to improve.  He played two years on JV, which most times doesn’t bode well for playing and contributing as a senior. But by Matt’s senior year he was 6’4”, strong, and a great outside shooter. He proved to be a key contributor on a very good McNary team that brought home the 4th place State Tournament trophy. He went on to play in college for Southern Oregon University where he set 3-point shooting records. 

A decade later we had AAU try outs for the 8th graders. We had enough kids for two full teams, so we were trying to divide them into “A” and “B” teams to play in the city-wide league. After two days of try outs all the coaches got together to select teams. I noticed that one kid was very athletic and talented but raw and timid. He looked lost and stood around a lot. The two coaches that were going to coach the “A” team didn’t have a place for him and said he had played on the “B” team as a 7th grader and didn’t stand out. He had trouble remembering what to do and couldn’t learn plays. So, we put him on the “B” team. Those coaches even told me that they believed he would never play in high school because he wouldn’t be academically eligible.  When he got to high school he got tested and placed in classes that he had the best chance of being successful in, and the coaching staff took him under our wings to give him some needed support. He loved basketball. It was the only sport he played, and he wanted to play any time he could. He started growing and getting stronger and his natural talent and athleticism took over.  The more he played the better he got. With support, he was able to stay eligible academically and when he played for McNary as a senior, he was amazing.  He was our best player by far and was voted unanimously by the Valley League coaches as the Player of the Year.  All kids learn differently, whether it is in the classroom or on the basketball court. Shiloh Roland was a visual learner and instinctive player. He didn’t do well with structure or patterned plays or sets. If you told him what to do or where to go, he had trouble doing it. But if you allowed him to use his instincts to get open, play defense, or rebound, he was great. He was so much better than his teammates that year that we basically ran a four-man “dummy” offense and allowed Shiloh to start anywhere he wanted and break to an open spot anytime he wanted to get the ball. Once he got the ball, the rule was: “spread out to an open area and let Shiloh shoot or go to the hoop”. It would always take two or more people to stop him, so his teammates were open all the time.  Either Shiloh scored or a teammate shot an open shot. If they missed, more often than not Shiloh would get the offensive rebound and score. I’m so happy we gave Shiloh Rowland a second chance because I believe it changed his whole life.  

I consider coaching and teaching the same animal. Coaching is really just teaching kids a different subject in the physical, as opposed to the mental, realm. Sports are an extension of the classroom. My goal as a coach was to get my players to play as close to their maximum potential as possible. Then mesh those players together to create the teamwork needed to collectively become the best possible team.

I have to admit that I was tough on the kids sometimes, and I had to tell them hard truths that they might not want to hear. I have always been a firm believer that a vast majority of kids want to be coached, taught, and challenged to bring out their best. I think every team I ever coached heard me tell them multiple times during the season, “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth making sacrifices and working hard to achieve; and that applies to the rest of your life.”

A few important points about being demanding of kids… I always tried to give kids multiple positive comments for every critical one. I had to know the kids and how they responded to different types of coaching. You could “get on” some kids and other kids you couldn’t. The key was to coach each kid slightly differently to get the most out of them. I was lucky to have assistant coaches on my staff that kids could go talk with if they got down (“good cop, bad cop”). Kids would go to an assistant to cry on their shoulder about being criticized, yelled at, or pushed too hard. Coach Litchfield might say something like, “Wow, that’s great. You should feel honored. If Coach Gahr is pushing you that hard, he thinks two things about you. Number one, you’re strong enough to take it, and number two, you have the potential to become a much better player. If Coach Gahr ever stops coaching you that’s when you should be concerned, because then he has given up on you.”

I always believed that practicing at game speed prepared us for games. Every practice we tried to simulate game tempo and every chance we had, we made drills and scrimmages competitive.  Kids loved shorter, intense, competitive practices much better than standing around in lines or listening to coaches talk. I also thought that team unity was a big ingredient to team success.  Many times I would spend more time praising the bottom three or four players in front of the entire team rather than the top three or four players. We always told them “we are only as strong as our weakest link”. I always let the team pick one team captain for the year. Every game the team captain would be joined by a different teammate for the pre-game meeting with officials.  Everyone got to be co-captain twice each season. The kids all knew exactly where they stood on the team ladder and, because of this, we never had kids feeling like they should be playing ahead of someone else. At the end of pre-season workouts, and just before our first game or jamboree, I gave the kids a player evaluation form to fill out that ranked the players including themselves.  I asked the kids to rate the best rebounders, best passers, best outside shooters, the top two four-men, best perimeter defenders, best free throw shooters, who should be our team captain, etc., etc. When the forms were returned and compiled, 95% of the time the players ranked each other the same as the coaches. It was important to keep the kids competing on this ladder all season because some kids improved as the season went on and some kids were better in games than at practice. So, multiple times in practice we would have competitive scrimmages or drills. I would pick two kids, say the 9th or 10th players on the ladder to be captains. I would remind them what the competition was, e.g. shooting, defense, or straight scrimmage, so they knew who they wanted to pick. Whoever got the first pick, the other guy got the next two, then we alternated. A couple of years, when we had Kintner and Roland, we had to give the second guy the next three picks to make sure that drills were competitive, they were so talented. Depending on the type of competition, the players were picked in a different order. If we did these two or three times every day, all season, there was no doubt where everyone stood on the team. We always put something on the line for these competitions – push-ups or running for the non-winners. This was the best thing for team unity because every player knew where they stood in the overall picture. They also knew they were valued as teammates for their contributions to the team on defense, shooting free throws, etc. The 12th man might be the first guy picked in a free throw shooting competition.  The players knew that everyone earned their game playing time and it gave the team the best chance to be successful. 

There were only a couple of years that situations arose that put a kink in the rule that you earn your place and playing time. One year we had a three-guard rotation to play the point and off-guard positions. One player was just a point guard, another was better at just the off guard and the third guy was smart enough to play both the point and off guard, and, if needed, the 3-man position. This kid was better than the off guard and had earned the starting job, but for the betterment of the team, we brought him in off the bench. He would play more minutes than the starter and was usually in at the end of close games. Remember Wooden’s quote, “It doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who finishes that’s important.” It was important for the one kid to be a starter and the team got more out of him in his minutes than if he had come in off the bench.

One year we had an abnormally large senior class. We had eleven seniors. During pre-season try outs we had a tough decision to make. Our top seven or eight players were clearly better than the next 10 or 11 players, and our last six or seven were pretty clearly behind them. After a couple weeks of practice, we knew that two juniors, two sophomores, and a freshman were just as good as five of the seniors and, by the end of the season, would probably be better. We would have been justified in keeping those players on the varsity and cutting the seniors. But we decided to keep all the seniors along with only one junior because the senior class really didn’t have a true point guard. That team was conference champions and won the consolation trophy at the state tournament. The JV team that year, I think, won 21 games and may have been the best JV team the Valley League has ever seen. Most of their games were over by half time. Most of the year the JVs and varsity practiced together because we got better competition that way. It was better for both teams to match up the varsity and JV starters in scrimmages. By the end of the season it was clear cut that the five JV starters were better than the bottom five on the varsity. Had we cut the five seniors at try outs and moved the JVs up to the varsity bench, we might have won a couple of more games and maybe won the one game we lost at the state tournament, but we would have lost some valuable team chemistry. The five JV kids also got much more valuable playing time and learned to win together. This was invaluable for the next season when we returned only one varsity player, but they still won the conference title.

I’m also very proud of my former assistants that have become head coaches and my players that have coached at various levels. At one time in the early 2000s, four of my assistants held the head coaching jobs at 4 of the 6 Salem-Keizer high schools: Jim Litchfield at McNary, Scott Cross at West Salem, Dean Sanderson at McKay, and Jack Martino at North Salem. Bob Jones went on to be McNary’s head girls coach; Dan Borreson went on to be McNary’s very successful volleyball coach; Jeff Auvinen went on to be the varsity softball and football coach at McNary.  Former players that have coached at high school, college, or the professional levels are impressive. Ty Gregg was a long-time head football coach at Oregon high schools. Justin Sherwood, as mentioned earlier, was the head coach at Western Baptist/Corban University for the better part of a decade. Joel Williams was the varsity girls basketball coach for six seasons at Whitney High School in Rocklin, CA and is currently the head boys soccer coach at Whitney High. He just finished his 12th year in the position and his 2022 team won the NorCal state title. Ryan Medford coached girls basketball in Washington state. Matt Espinoza was McNary’s head basketball coach for a couple of years and an assistant at McKay for seven more. He is currently the creator/director of the Salem Hoops Project, a free basketball training program for youth in Salem-Keizer. Ryan Schmidt has been a professional men’s basketball coach for the last eight years. He has coached NBA “G League” teams for Toronto and Atlanta. He was also the head coach for the Hamilton Honey Badgers of the top Canadian league that won the championship in 2022. In 2023 he coached the London Lions of the British League. Ryan is currently the head coach of the “G League” team for the Atlanta Hawks. Josh Erickson was the head mens basketball coach for five years of San Ramon, a professional team in Costa Rica. Josh was also the head coach for Costa Rica’s mens national team that finished 2nd in a Central American Championship. Bryan Huber is currently the head boys coach at North Salem high school. Caleb Singleton is currently the defensive coordinator at North Salem for head football coach Jeff Flood and assists his wife Katie with the girls basketball program at West Salem. Davis Jones is currently the boys’ JV basketball coach at Beaverton High School. 

In 2014, Barb and I moved to Bend to retire in beautiful and drier Central Oregon. We have been able to enjoy the many outside opportunities available to us. We play a lot of golf, hike, snowshoe, ride both road and mountain bikes, swim, lift weights, and spend lots of time on the river and lakes in our canoe, paddle boards, or floating devices. The last couple of years we have been attending more high school sporting events in the area. We especially enjoy the basketball and softball games. We’ve also had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling. We have been to Australia and New Zealand, Europe, and Hawaii. We take at least one major road trip a year.  Our son Shawn and his wife live in Encinitas, CA. Their 5-year-old is just starting youth sports t-ball. Our daughter Alison and her family live in Rocklin, CA and their two kids are continuing the family sporting tradition as well. Hudson is a 16-year-old junior-to-be at Whitney High where he plays baseball and basketball. Chelsea is 13 and will be in 8th grade this fall. She has played soccer, basketball, and softball.

Barb and I have also been busy trying to keep a family tradition alive by attending as many of the grandkids’ sporting events as possible. We have made numerous road trips to the Sacramento area over the last seven or eight years to watch the grand kids golf, play baseball or softball, soccer, football, and basketball. We love supporting youth sports in order to pass on the values that can be learned by being a part of these programs. Our parents gave us that opportunity. We gave our kids that opportunity. And now our grand kids have that same opportunity.

Throughout retirement I have had face to face encounters with many former students and players. They almost always start with “Mr. Gahr [or Coach Gahr], do you remember me? I was in your…” economics or history class at Cascade/McNary/West. We will talk for awhile and during the conversation most of them will say something along the lines of, “I remember ‘this’ about your class”. This makes me feel good because I know that if they remember such things from that long ago, I must have had a positive influence on them. I receive the most enjoyment when I hear from former students or players. It makes my day to get a text or an email from a former player telling me what they are doing in their lives. When I hear former players make statements like: 

“Coach, you had a profound impact on my life.”; “Coach, you taught me how to work hard and expect more from myself.”; “Coach, I can’t emphasize to you enough the impact you have had on my life.”; “Coach, I want to thank you for helping mentor and mold me at a time when, admittedly, I lacked direction, focus, and discipline.”; “Coach Gahr, basketball was the only outlet that kept me on track, out of trouble, and taught me how to work hard for something important.”; “Coach, you turned a lot of boys like me into men and instilled in us the character to work hard and prepared us to be successful in the game of life.”; “I remember you told us you weren’t pushing us because you were punishing us, but that you wanted us to realize that our limits were beyond what we thought possible at that time.”; “Every time things get tough, or I start to get bogged down or discouraged, I think – ‘What would Coach Gahr say?’ – and it helps me get back to work to get better at life.” 

I am very proud to have been their coach. I know that in some small or large way I influenced them in their lives. I’m proud when They Call Me Coach.

By Larry Gahr/Bryan Sutherland