All the school’s championship pennants cannot blur the view.
Closing in on its 100-year anniversary, O’Dea High School, an all-boys Catholic school located in the First Hill neighborhood, has the look of an institution with great history.
On one end of the dimly-lit gymnasium is the Athletic Wall of Honor where placards of some O’Dea’s best athletic figures hang. And throughout the rafters, Metro League and Class 3A state winning banners dangle, filling the facility with prestige.
An upper-floor window can been plainly seen. It is usually lit. Once in a while, a looming administrator peers out of it to check on the day’s happenings.
It is the athletic director’s office, occupied by Monte Kohler, who is also the school’s 32-year football coach. If you didn’t pay attention to how the office is decorated, you might think the room is better suited to be the headmaster’s quarters at a military school.
But this office, cluttered by framed photos of former athletes and other important memorabilia, is full of warmth.
Kohler very much reflects the life he’s lived.
On one hand, the 57-year-old Montana native is traditional and old school: He grew up in the Catholic school system throughout college. The values that circulate throughout his O’Dea football program focus on teamwork and self-accountability.
When it comes to greeting the outside world, Kohler’s expression is usually impassive — and his tone is unrevealing.
But on the football field, the Irish’s success has been anything but colorless. O’Dea has won three Class 3A titles, and will go for a fourth Friday night when it plays Kamiakin in the Tacoma Dome.
The game Friday will mark the eighth time the Irish have been in the state championship game. And up until last season, the school had reached the state playoffs for a state-record 21 consecutive seasons.
In these playoffs, Kohler moved past Meridian’s Bob Ames for second all-time in head-coaching victories. His 312 wins trail only Tumwater’s Sid Otton (394), who just retired after 49 years.
Not only has Kohler never had a losing season at O’Dea, but he has never lost more than three games in a season.
“The consistency you see is unbelievable,” Lakes coach Dave Miller said. “He believes in what he does and doesn’t change those principles. Yet he has been able to evolve as a coach.”
On the other hand, those inside the fort — former students and fellow teachers of all kinds — gush about Kohler’s big-hearted ways. It is the reason they always return to visit him.
“He’s tough, because he had to teach me to be part of a team, which is something bigger than yourself,” said Ke’Andre Magee, a former two-time Metro League defensive player of the year who is now the school’s dean of students.
“When we, as alums, see each other, we revisit the same quotes (from Kohler), and the same stares and chewing-outs. But since we’ve become men, and become fathers and employees in the workforce, all those values he embraced have come back. And we show him love for that.”
A Missoula product, Kohler was a quarterback at Loyola (Sacred Heart) High School, then went on to play two seasons at Carroll College.
His first coaching gig was at tiny Opheim High School, which played eight-man football up near the Canadian border in northeast Montana. He coached there three seasons, the final two as the head coach.
“It was good stuff,” Kohler said.
Bob Bartlett, his former high school coach, was coaching at University High School in Spokane when he phoned Kohler, then 25, about an opening at a private school in Seattle. O’Dea hired Kohler to replace Ed Crafton in 1985.
“I came in, and didn’t care about what the people did here before me,” Kohler said. “I did it the way I felt was best.”
Kohler’s first season was the same year a group of heralded ninth graders, led by the late Demetrius DuBose, the former Notre Dame star who was drafted by Tampa Bay, came into the program.
“That was a class of kids that deserve more credit than I do,” Kohler said. “They wanted to win. They wanted to be successful. And they wanted to raise this to a higher level themselves.”
Kohler’s first team finished the year with barely more than 30 players and six coaches. But it finished 6-2 and went to the playoffs.
And after a few years, Kohler laid the groundwork for what is one of the state’s premier programs.
“Kids come in, everyone moves up,” Kohler said. “The upperclassmen bring kids up. They don’t bring kids down. That is the culture and the brotherhood of this school.”
Kohler’s teams have normally featured a powerful rushing attack on offense, and a disruptive, hard-hitting front seven on defense. That is how they won three 3A titles in five seasons — 1991, 1994 and 1995.
“If you look at some of the best programs out there, you could say they are a little bit predictable,” Miller said. “But they’ve gotten really good at what they do, so they say, ‘Come stop us.’ ”
Miller acknowledges that O’Dea benefits from the same inherent advantages as other private schools, attracting blue-chip talent.
“But with his track record over time, if there was any funny business going on, you would have seen it by now,” Miller said. “He hasn’t.
“There isn’t anybody in the state I have more respect for than Sid and Monte. They do things the right way.”
His former players agree.
“He is passionate about kids, and his extended family,” Magee said. “He remembers everyone. I’ve never seen him not give a hug to somebody at a game. I mean, I’ve told him that I love him. The way he vouches for kids … he puts his 32 years behind that kid to make sure he gets a fair shake.”