BELLINGHAM, Wash.--- -
This fall (2016), Western Washington University's Pee Wee Halsell becomes the first person in school history to be a head coach of a sport for 30 years. And, in his case, four sports.
Halsell, who turns 59 in early August, has been a Viking for over half his life, being named coordinator of outdoor track & field and cross country for both men and women June 5, 1987. He also has directed men's and women's indoor track & field for the last 13 seasons.
During his WWU tenure, Halsell has coached 96 All-Americans in track and 30 in cross country, with nine national champions among them. He also has had 128 National Scholar-Athletes overall.
"The most rewarding part of my job is having good athletes who want to compete and do well," said Halsell. "It's been fun helping them grow and go on to become productive adults."
"Whether it's in competition or in the classroom, hopefully people are learning. I'm still learning and I hope I never take an opportunity for granted. I want athletes in my program and at Western to take advantage of their opportunities."
"I come from a situation where I was given an opportunity and it gave me a career. I want to be able to give opportunities. It is really about teaching kids to take those opportunities. I tell them `Don't look back. You make a decision and you go with it.'"
When asked to name some of the top athletes he has coached at Western, Halsell quickly points out Sara Porter Crouch, a national champion in the 10,000 meters and a 12-time All-American; Ryan Brown, a four-time national champion pole vaulter; distance runner Katelyn Steen, a three-sport All-American; and All-American javelin throwers Bethany Drake, Katie Reichert and Monica Gruszecki, a two-time national champion.
Halsell has received 33 Coach of the Year honors, 16 from the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, including six in men's outdoor track (2005, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015), four each in men's cross country (2003, 2006, 2007 and 2010) and men's indoor track (2005, 2006, 2013 and 2014) and one apiece in women's outdoor track (2009) and women's cross country (2015).
"To me the Coach of the Year awards mean the coaches who are helping me out are doing their job, and the athletes are going out and performing at a high level," said Halsell. "That makes me proud."
Under Halsell, Western has had 29 Top 20 national meet finishes in cross country and 16 in track. His women's cross country team placed fourth (NAIA) in 1992 and sixth (NCAA II) in 2015; his women's track squad finished sixth in 2011 (NCAA II), and his men's cross country team placed fourth in 2009 (NCAA II). All of those are the highest finishes in school history.
Halsell took over the men's cross country and track & field coaching duties at Western from Ralph Vernacchia, a nationally known sports psychologist, who had decided to step down from his coaching duties after 14 years to concentrate on teaching.
"My wife is originally from Kirkland, and we were in the first year of our marriage that year, so I was definitely interested in getting her closer to home," Halsell said.
"I was getting ready to go (with Wayland Baptist) to the NAIA outdoor national track meet in Arkansas (with Wayland Baptist) in May of 1987. My wife was planning on going with me, but her grandmother got very sick, so she drove to get her brother who was in Tulsa, Okla., and continued on to Seattle. Her grandmother died soon after, so I bought an airline ticket with the intention that we would just drive back (to Texas) after the funeral.
"While I was in Washington, I called then Western director of athletics Boyde Long to ask if I could come up and visit to see if I should even consider the job."
"I can remember sitting in Boyde's office for over an hour just talking about track and the area ... He said to give him a call that Sunday afternoon. So I called him back, came back for an interview Monday, and by Thursday they had offered me the job."
The Vikings nearly lost Halsell during his first year as head coach.
Prior to coming to Western, Halsell was a full-time assistant for eight years at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, helping the Pioneers dominate the NAIA nationally. WBU had five national outdoor runner-up finishes, three men and two women, during that stretch, and won three men's titles (1985-87) and one women's crown (1986) at the indoor nationals.
"During my first year here, I had an opportunity to go back to Wayland Baptist as the head coach," said Halsell. "Wayland Baptist was used to Olympic quality athletes. Western went to the NAIA District 1 Championships that year (1988). If you looked at it objectively, we were probably going to place third or fourth in the men's competition."
"As a young coach and a year into being a head coach, to me it was not necessarily about what the feat was, but the competition and seeing these kids even though they weren't Olympic athletes competing to their highest ability. That made me want to stay. I could have gone back, but I decided to stay and it worked out. That was one of the growing points in my career."
Halsell coached 43 NAIA All-Americans while at WBU, earning his bachelor's degree there in 1981 and master's degree in 1985.
During the summer of 1983, Halsell travelled to Moscow, Russia, to study track & field techniques in the Soviet Union.
"Most of the world is different than the United States," said Halsell. "We develop our athletes through a collegiate system, whereas in Russia they have a club system that they go through. They also have a national predicting program, so if you are a good athlete you get picked up by the government and that becomes your job. We do it differently. You get to see these athletes come up through the system and once they get out of college then they might go on, but it is more up to the individual at that point."
"I felt that they teach their coaches better than we do. They have an education system (for coaches), which is why I was there ... We had professors come in and talk to us about the different events of track and field. Those classes were in a sports school. Here, they teach you the principles and then you as a person have to apply those specifically to soccer, track and field, cross country, softball, basketball, etc."
Halsell, who was born and raised in Texas, also attended South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas, where he was a distance runner and served as a student assistant coach on a Texans' squad that placed fourth at the National Junior College Outdoor meet.
"I went to South Plains and spent three years there," said Halsell. "I really liked my experience of coaching at South Plains, so I switched my major to physical education so that I could keep doing it."
Halsell met his wife, Maria, at Wayland Baptist where she was a national champion javelin thrower. They have two daughters, Sarah and Laura.
"When Maria first came to Texas, it was to work during the summer in Dallas," Halsell recalled. "She was planning on going to Bellevue CC to play basketball because she had been on the state championship team at Juanita High school, but she was also a state champion in the discus that year. She ended up at West Texas A&M University (West Texas State at the time)."
"Maria actually played basketball and threw the discus and javelin at West Texas for a year, but then the school dropped its track program and the basketball coach dropped her. We recruited her as a javelin/discus thrower at Wayland Baptist. So I actually recruited my wife. I didn't coach her there, because I was the distance coach."
A 1976 graduate of Brownfield (Texas) High School, Halsell also is an experienced mountain climber, having scaled Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, Mount Adams, Glacier Peak, Mount Shasta and Mount Hood.
The red-haired, bearded Halsell is 5-foot-3. His legal first name is Kelven. But no calls him that, at least not if they wish to remain friends. How did he come to be called Pee Wee?
"I have always been small, and it was in the fifth grade when I got my name Pee Wee," Halsell said. "Before that, people would call me different names like Shorty, Pipsqueak, whatever, but I didn't like those."
"At the time, the boys would play tackle football before school started. We weren't supposed to, but we did. There would be two massive teams. All of the popular, good athletes on one team against everybody else. I was on the wannabe team or the not-so-good team. I had just finished reading the biography of Hall of Fame baseball player Pee Wee Reese, a shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers."
"So, we were playing football and this new kid in school, David, just towered over everybody. He ended up on the good team. We always would kick off to them first. So we kicked the ball away from David because everyone was afraid of him. Their team got the football and lateraled it to David. He was running down the middle of the field. It was like a parting of the Red Sea."
"But there was one pebble in his way. I tackled David. He ended up on top of me. He got up, picked me up and asked `Are you okay Pee Wee?' I said I was and didn't react to what he called me, because I had just read that book. I decided that I liked the name Pee Wee. From then on I was called Pee Wee and was on whatever team David was on, because he didn't want to be tackled again."
If there is one saying that Halsell is known for it is, "It's always a great day for track and field."
"One thing in particular that I like about track & field and cross country is that they are about the individual becoming a better person, developing (their) athleticism and not having to depend upon another person," said Halsell. "You can be as good as you want to be."
Longevity is common for Coaches and Athletic Staff at Western
If there is something that makes Western Washington University athletics unique, it is the longevity of its coaches and staff.
Over more than a century of athletics, the Vikings have had 34 coaches with 10 or more years in a specific sport. Currently, 11 of the 15 WWU sports have coaches who have been there 11 or more seasons, for an average of 18.2 years.
Women's basketball coach Carmen Dolfo (535-201, two NCAA semifinals) has been head coach for 25 years, John Fuchs (seven national titles) 18 in women's rowing, Diane Flick (344-91, national runner-up in 2007 and national semifinals in 2015) 16 in volleyball, Travis Connell (178-64-25, two final four appearances in last four years) 13 in women's soccer, and Bo Stephan (six GNAC championships) 11 in women's golf.
Among the four coaches in single figures of service, men's basketball coach Tony Dominguez is starting his fifth year after being an assistant for 17 seasons at Western, and men's soccer coach Greg Brisbon is beginning his fourth campaign after being an assistant 12 years for the Vikings.
Steve Card recently completed his third year as WWU director of athletics following 23 as Associate Director of Athletics for business and financial affairs. During that time, he also served 20 years as the men's golf coach.
Two of Card's associate athletic directors, Steve Brummel and Butch Kamena, have been on staff for 23 and 30 years, respectively. And Dolfo is beginning her 21st year as Senior Women's Administrator.
Lynda Goodrich recently retired after 43 years, 26 as athletic director and 19 as women's basketball coach with a slight overlap, and Paul Madison left a couple years later after 48 years as sports information director.
Why do coaches and staff stay so long at Western?
There are a number of reasons. Chief among them are that WWU is an outstanding school located on a gorgeous campus, it is a wonderful area to live and raise a family, and the athletics program offers an excellent opportunity for success.
WWU Coaches -- 10 or more years in specific sport (34 total)
29 Kelven "Pee Wee" Halsell, Men's Cross Country, 1987-2015 29 Kelven "Pee Wee" Halsell, Women's Cross Country, 1987-2015 29 Kelven "Pee Wee" Halsell, Men's Outdoor Track & Field, 1988-2016 29 Kelven "Pee Wee" Halsell, Women's Outdoor Track & Field, 1988-2006 27 Brad Jackson, Men's Basketball, 1986-87 to 2011-12 25 Carmen Dolfo, Women's Basketball, 1990-91 to 2015-16 (2003-04) 22 Sam Carver, Men's Basketball, 1930-31 to 1954-55 (WWII 1943-45) 21 Sam Carver, Men's Outdoor Track & Field, 1914-1946 20 Steve Card, Men's Golf, 1994-95 to 2012-13 20 Charles Lappenbusch, Football, 1933-1955 19 Lynda Goodrich, Women's Basketball, 1970-71 to 1989-90 19 Sam Carver, Men's Basketball, 1913-14 to 1932-33 (1925) 18 Jim Lounsberry, Men's Golf, 1961-62, 1965-67, 1970-1982 18 Chuck Randall, Men's Basketball, 1962-63 to 1980-81 (1975-76) 18 Sam Carver, Men's Tennis, 1917-1935 (1925) 18 John Fuchs, Women's Rowing, 1999-2016 17 Rob Smith, Football, 1989-2005 16 Diane Flick, Volleyball, 2000-2015 14 Ralph Vernacchia, Men's Cross Country, 1973-1986 14 Travis Connell, Men's Soccer, 1999-2012 14 Ralph Vernacchia, Men's Track & Field, 1974 to 1987 14 Charles Lappenbusch, Men's Tennis, 1949-1962 13 Travis Connell, Women's Soccer, 2003-2015 13 Charles Lappenbusch, Men's Basketball, 1933-34 to 1945-46 13 Sam Carver, Football, 1914-1932 13 Kelven "Pee Wee" Halsell, Men's Indoor Track & Field, 2004-2016 13 Kelven "Pee Wee" Halsell, Women's Indoor Track & Field, 2004-2016 13 Boyde Long, Football, 1970-1982 12 Ray Ciszek, Men's Track & Field, 1949-1962 12 Don Wiseman, Men's Swimming, 1963-1974 11 Don Wiseman, Men's Tennis, 1966-1976 11 Bo Stephan, Women's Golf, 2006-2016 10 Dominic Garguile, Women's Soccer, 1981-1990 10 Sam Carver, Baseball, 1915-1924
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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