Jonathan Randall didn’t envision coaching at Clover Park High School. He certainly never envisioned he’d go three seasons and 33 games without winning a high school football game.
There was a time when the 5-foot-5 Randall told himself if he wasn’t going to make the NFL as a player, he was as a coach.
The coach known as “Taz” was on the fast track to at least NCAA Division I coaching. He went from an undefeated state championship football team playing at Douglas, Wyoming, to chaperoning Icky Woods at UNLV. He coached alongside Rex Ryan and Lionel Taylor and interviewed with Bobby Petrino Sr.
As the defensive coordinator at New Mexico Highlands, he went golfing one day with John Levra, a former national champion Highlands coach who also had stints in the NFL with the Saints, Bears, Broncos, Vikings and Bills.
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“I was asking him about being a pro coach and how to get there,” Randall said. “He stopped me and he was like, ‘Let me tell you something about pro coaches – there are coaches on our staff I wouldn’t want coaching my grandkids.’”
That helped start him on a track toward high school coaching.
And when his 7-year-old daughter died not long after of brain cancer, his world forever changed.
He recalled that September day in 1990 when Danielle was diagnosed with brainstem glioma. And he thought of where he is now, in his 15th year coaching the Warriors – the only place he’s ever been a head coach – with a career record of 45-99 entering this week’s game against Orting.
He thought of all those people he coached with who moved on to bigger things. How he and Ryan went from friends (both with wives named Michelle) to Ryan coaching in the NFL and him in Lakewood.
Sure, it tests his ego, he admits.
“You want to win,” Randall said. “But I know this sounds weird, but I think it’s true – I learned more about my faith when my daughter got sick and died than, I think, had she lived.
“And I think I’ve learned more about what’s important as a coach through the losses.”
Clover Park’s 33-game losing streak started near the end of the 2013 season. Its seniors finally won their first high school football game on Sept. 8 against Renton, 27-22.
“Ah, man – I cried,” senior running back Malik Harris said. “I balled my eyes out. I started tearing up at like the end of the third quarter.”
“We all cried,” senior lineman Nicholas Whitten added.
“Think about this – I haven’t felt that way since the eighth grade,” Harris said. “That’s the last time I won a football game. And we put so much work into this.”
Neither of them have missed a practice in their high school careers – even amid a streak that was approaching Tyee’s state record of 46 consecutive losses from 1988-93.
Randall was selected as the Seattle Seahawks’ high school coach of the week after the win, nominated by Lakewood coach Dan Teeter.
Now the Warriors are 2-2, following a victory last week against Interlake.
But Harris said it was Randall who brought them back every practice.
“He’s like a father figure,” Harris said. “He takes the blame for us, even though he’s not the one suiting up on Friday nights. And that’s because he loves us. It hurts that he’s had to go through this streak. These wins – they were for him because he is a great man.”
That’s why the school has stood by him for 15 years, despite Clover Park’s last state appearance coming in 2004, when Stanford-bound Tavita Pritchard was its quarterback.
That was Randall’s second year as the head coach. Eighteen players showed up his first day after he had almost 250 when he was helping legendary high school coach Jack Johnson at C.M. Russell High School in Montana, where he and his wife moved after their daughter’s death.
He came with a five-year, 10-year and 15-year plan for Clover Park. The gist of it was to do what Bellevue did – compete for state titles every year, become a national powerhouse and be able to schedule nonleague games against teams from Florida, Texas and California.
But there are challenges at Clover Park other schools don’t have. It had 76.8 percent of its students receiving free- and reduced-lunch in 2016, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That’s the highest of any high school in the South Sound that has a football program. The state average is 42.9 percent.
Bellevue’s last year was at 9.7 percent, and the school down the road from Clover Park, Lakes, is 42.6 percent.
And Clover Park has players frequently coming and going because Joint Base Lewis-McChord is nearby. Randall has recruited in the hallways, seeing plenty who look like football players, but one told him he’d rather play Xbox, another that he didn’t want to play for losers.
“We’ve had such great kids here that people don’t know about,” Randall said. “We just have this underdog thing. We got a kid who went to Harvard, I’ve sent kids to the Air Force Academy, West Point, Stanford. We’ve got guys who own their own business and are successful who didn’t win games here.”
That’s what Randall defines as a successful program.
He views coaching as a ministry, wanting to build character as much, if not more, than skilled football players.
Randall has spoken at three funerals for players. He said he received a call from a former player who is now a sheriff. He was taking a test on what he would do if he didn’t have his gun.
“And he said, ‘I remember you screaming, ‘Never quit, never quit, never quit. Never give up,’ ” Randall said. “It’s those things I cherish.”
And it’s why coaches around the South Sound revere Randall so much.
“For him, coaching is more than a job,” Orting coach Marty Parkhurst said. “It’s more than football. He has a calling to those kids on his life and he believes he’s doing as he should. To stay there and be faithful to those guys through all they’ve been through – we need more people like Taz in our profession, guys who can see above the wins and losses.”
“Taz has always been a guy I could count on to bounce things off of and I think he would say the same things about me,” Lakes coach Dave Miller said. “I was really excited to see them get a win and then two wins because I know how dedicated he is.
“Losing is hard, and when you can still hang in there and put the kids first and not let it drive you crazy, that really shows toughness and perseverance and why he’s in it for the right reason.”
Randall admits he wasn’t always like that. He got his nickname because he was known as an adrenaline junky in high school and at Rocky Mountain College, where he played. He does an impeccable impression of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character and he has a Fu Manchu mustache that he shaves after every season.
He was in a Coaching 101 class in college when one of the basketball coaches wrote on the board, “Can you be a good coach and have a losing record?”
“And I remember saying, ‘Nope,’” Randall said.
“There are coaches who have more wins and I’ll never be able to match their records,” Randall said. “And I’ve learned that’s OK. My ego has taken a bashing because I’m thinking I can still put my staff against any in the state. Anybody. But it was about six years ago I called one of my coaches and I said, ‘Coach, we may never win at Clover Park. We may never seriously win year in and year out and be state champions at Clover Park. I now accept that.’ ”
But what’s kept him, he says, is his stubbornness.
He was hunched over, hands on his knees on the sideline late in the fourth quarter against Renton. This was Clover Park’s best chance at a win since beating Washington, 49-36, on Oct. 11, 2013, and they had just allowed a 50-yard play with 40 seconds to play.
“There were 12 seconds where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh – here we go again. What am I going to tell them?’” Randall said. “But then I was like, ‘All right, here we go. We want the defense to do it! Put it on the 1, we don’t care!’”
Clover Park followed with two sacks and a game-sealing interception by Dardane Norman.
And for the first time in a long time, Clover Park had more than a moral victory.
“It was so, so awesome. I did not want to catch (Tyee’s streak),” Randall laughed.
“I told them I was just so happy for them. They persevered. I’m an optimistic guy, but (the streak) – it messed with me. I was like, ‘God, if you don’t want me to be here, let me know.’
“But I’m stubborn. We can do this here.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677