When Washington State hired Rick Sloan as an assistant track and field coach in 1973, he had never seen snow fall. After 41 Palouse winters, he’s checked that box hundreds of times over.
The city kid from Los Angeles grew to appreciate the change of seasons, the hot summer days and cool nights, the golden foliage months later, and yes, even the raging snowstorms.
And so, he amassed a four-decades-long coaching career at WSU, halved about equally between an assistant’s role to John Chaplin, and, since 1994, head man of the program. He’s retiring at 67 on June 30, to be replaced by Idaho coach Wayne Phipps.
Sloan had been a pole vaulter and the school’s first 7-foot high jumper at UCLA, and a decathlete who placed seventh in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, a year before he broke the 8,000-point standard. After that, there was a time he figured it logical that he would forge a path back to coach UCLA.
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“There were two times, two opportunities for me to go back as an assistant,” Sloan said. “Had I done that, it probably would have been the steps I needed to become the head coach.
“But once I got here and settled in, I really fell in love with the lifestyle and the people, the whole aspect of being in a small town and raising my family here.”
How long is 41 years? Well, if you count Sloan’s assistant’s stint, he’s the most-tenured coach in WSU history, swamping legends like baseball’s Bobo Brayton (33 years) and Buck Bailey (32) and basketball’s Jack Friel (30).
Sloan has coached 73 outdoor All-American performances — and on the side, tutored 1996 Olympic gold-medal decathlete Dan O’Brien — but the satisfaction is hardly less for having helped more modest athletes push their limits.
A few years ago, Josiah Sims of Tacoma was not only a walk-on, he was a “marginal” one who scarcely survived getting cut as a freshman. But he hung around to score Pac-12 points three straight years in the high hurdles.
Just before that, sprinter Jaycee Robertson of Bethel High insisted as a freshman he could help, and the coaches were skeptical. But he qualified for the NCAA meet three straight years, “a guy who almost wasn’t on our team,” Sloan says.
Best athlete Sloan coached? Aside from O’Brien, it’s the late Gabriel Tiacoh, the quarter-miler from Ivory Coast who won an Olympic silver medal in 1984. On the women’s side, it’s 2008 Olympic heptathlete Diana Pickler.
One of Sloan’s few laments is the dual meet — school-versus-school competition, five points for a first place, three for second, one for third — has largely gone the way of the cinder track.
“Every time we had a dual meet, our kids performed at a higher level,” he says. “I believe it was because they weren’t performing for themselves, they were performing for their teammates and the Cougars. I think we’re missing out on that as a sport.”
Just about the time Sloan finishes coaching two Cougars men in the NCAA meet this week in Eugene, WSU will be putting final touches on its football-operations building, a reflection of the chasm between Olympic sports and football. Sloan expresses no regrets.
“I know who pays the bills in this athletic department,” he said. “I know what the hierarchy is, and that’s appropriate, that’s what it needs to be. I’ve got what I need at Washington State and always have had. They’ve funded us very well.”
WSU staged a track and field reunion recently to honor Sloan. It brought back both athletes and anecdotes.
“All the generations,” said 2008 discus thrower Ian Waltz, now a Boise fireman. “That was pretty cool. I think he instilled in me and my teammates to never give up, give everything you’ve got.”
Sloan, married with two adult children and four grandchildren, says he still wants to coach in some form, perhaps as a volunteer. According to his figures, this is the experience he’ll be bringing: He’s worked for seven athletic directors and seen 75 head coaches in all sports at WSU.
“That,” he said, “doesn’t include the new track coach.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281