The 47-year-old has found his niche as the state's best high-school football coach.
TACOMA — Win as much as Butch Goncharoff has and eventually you get a corny nickname, like the Baron of Bellevue, the Wizard of Washington.
Pile up high-school football victories like Goncharoff has and probably you’ll start getting restless. You’ll look for the next rung on the ladder — offensive coordinator at a Pac-12 school or maybe head coach at a needy Big Sky program.
You dream of being on a first-name basis with Lou Holtz and Kirk Herbstreit, Mark May and Lee Corso, because that’s what you’ve always wanted. And you connect the dots from this job to that job, eventually to the BCS and the glitter of the big top.
Win with the kind of heartbeat regularity that Goncharoff has at Bellevue High School and they start naming stadiums or streets or offenses after you.
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But Friday night, as Goncharoff calmly stood on the Tacoma Dome’s turf, with arms crossed, watching a scene that has become as familiar to him as a mosh pit is to a heavy metal band, the Bellevue coach looked and acted as if this were exactly where he belonged.
His ambition could be summarized on the broadly smiling faces of the players he watched like a proud dad.
Bellevue had just won its fourth consecutive Class 3A state title. Won its 20th straight playoff game. Won its ninth championship in 11 seasons, and Goncharoff seemed as contented as former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden at the end of another March championship run.
Bellevue is home. High-school football is his place.
“I love developing the kids and the team,” he said. “I’m happy. I don’t even know if what I do would work at the next level. Really, my ultimate goal is to go back to junior football. That’s fun. And, you know, the grass isn’t always greener, so I want to keep having fun doing what I’m doing.”
In his 12 years at Bellevue, Goncharoff is 45-2 in the state playoffs. He’s never lost a title game.
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what my record is,” he said after winning this latest title, 35-16 over previously unbeaten O’Dea. “I guess I’m a guy that loves the battle. I love the transformation of a team. I love setting goals and seeing players reach their ceiling. The winning stuff’s not really why I do this.”
Coming from another coach this might sound more than a little disingenuous, as phony as a campaign hug. But from Goncharoff it is sincere.
“He loves the grind. The offseason weights, everything that leads up to being successful,” said his longtime assistant head coach, Pat Jones. “He’s found a nice niche. Coaching high-school football is where he wants to be. It’s what makes him happy.”
Goncharoff, in his very understated way, is an innovator. The practice field is his laboratory. He’s done things with the wing-T offense that other coaches haven’t considered. He’s made it more dynamic.
From the wing-T, Goncharoff runs quick screens. He uses empty-backfield sets and bunch formations with his wide receivers. Even in games, he will experiment with ideas, playing one half in the shotgun or pistol or spread offense.
He has visited Oregon, UCLA and Utah and borrowed from their concepts. His wing-T isn’t just for running backs any more.
“You get a little bored sometimes, and it’s hard always running against those nine-man fronts,” he said. “We felt we had to come with something different, and we have. The kids love it, and I think we’ve got to make it fun for them.”
He’s a player’s coach, but also a coach’s coach. Bellevue resident Jim Mora, who has been a head coach in the NFL with Atlanta and the Seahawks and has been around the game all of his life, doesn’t hide his respect for Goncharoff.
“In order to grow you’ve got to be open to some alternative thinking,” Mora said by phone before Friday’s championship game. “He’s been able to adapt and improvise, but at the same time he’s held true to the principles that he believes he needs to have to be successful.”
Mora said when he talks with Goncharoff he feels the same way he feels talking with former Washington coach Don James.
“You know how you get around certain people and you have so much respect for them that you get a little nervous because you don’t want to say anything stupid or you don’t want to present yourself in an awkward way?” Mora said. “I feel that way around Butch.
“He’s such an understated guy, but when he talks, his words carry a lot of weight. He’s something, man. Butch reminds me of Don James a little bit. Quiet, very demanding, very disciplined, doesn’t raise his voice a lot, but keeps his guys in line. And his teams are a pleasure to watch.”
Goncharoff, 47, is old-fashioned, not much different, really, from your favorite math or English teacher. His subject is football, and most Decembers inside the Tacoma Dome he mops off the celebratory dousing from his players and proudly watches from a distance the joyous graduation ceremony in front of him.
“It’s all about the here and now for him and not about the future,” Mora said. “We don’t all have to aspire to the highest level of our profession. I think it’s great that he can aspire to be the best high-school coach. I think that’s awesome.
“Absolutely he could coach college if he wanted to. But right now he’s the best high-school coach in the state, and one of the very best in the nation and that’s pretty damn cool.”
This time last year, Mora’s 9-year-old son told his dad he wanted a Bellevue Wolverines jersey with his name and number on the back for Christmas.
“That just shows you the extent of what Butch has got going,” Mora said. “Kids in this area grow up wanting to play for Butch at Bellevue High. He’s just created this culture that’s perpetual.”
He doesn’t need a nickname, or a stadium named after him. He doesn’t need the bright lights and the well-placed connections. Butch Goncharoff’s program endures and these games, these players, this job is sustaining.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org