The Lincoln Abes and the Wilson Rams play for the city football championship Friday night at Stadium Bowl.
If the game has a bigger-picture feel to it — like possibly a passing of the torch — it is easy to see why. The Rams have long ruled as the city’s most consistent program under longtime coach Don Clegg — and the Abes want to end that reign under third-year coach Jon Kitna.
If Lincoln wins, it will clinch at least a share of the 3A Narrows League title in back-to-back seasons. The last time a Tacoma public metro school accomplished that was in 1980 when Mount Tahoma defended its league crown.
Willie Stewart, a longtime Tacoma Public Schools administrator who is now an active member of the Tacoma Athletic Commission, has stayed in tune to both of these coaches’ tenures. He knows them on a personal level, too.
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“First of all, both of them really love their kids — and they love to coach,” Stewart said.
“Don came over from Idaho, and approaches the game a little more conventionally, relying on the run game. His energy level now isn’t what it was a few years ago … but his desire to win and to be competitive is still there.
“Jon is from a different situation: He grew up on the East Side and went to Lincoln. He’s had a long professional career in the NFL. He has a richer background of technical knowledge … and has followed his own patterns in developing a passing system.”
As the two schools are set to meet, this would be a good time to retrace these coaches’ paths to their respective schools.
It was in the back seat of his father’s car in Boise, Idaho where Clegg decided he wanted to be a coach.
“I was a (football) center … and I was too small to be a football player at a big level, and I was too slow in baseball to run from first (base) to second,” Clegg said. “I knew I loved sports. I knew I couldn’t be a sportswriter because I can’t talk really well. So I thought about coaching.”
Clegg had a fantastic model from which to learn — legendary coach Ed Troxel, who is in the Idaho and Washington state high school halls of fame. Troxel was the coach at Borah High School where Clegg attended school.
With Troxel’s blessing, Clegg began coaching the youth team of his younger brother, Mark, at Optimist Football Club in Boise.
After Clegg graduated from Boise State College, he eventually landed back at Borah in 1971 as an assistant coach under Delane Pankratz, who was Troxel’s top assistant.
It came at a time when Borah was in the early stages of establishing itself as a national powerhouse program.
“We were Bellevue High School,” Clegg said, “of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.”
Clegg spent 17 seasons as a football assistant and baseball coach at Borah. But he wanted to run his own football program, and quickly figured out it was not going to happen in his home state.
He visited Skip Hall, the coach at Boise State, asking for work. Hall had no available positions, but was friends with Stewart and Jack Sonntag back in Tacoma, and knew of an opening at Wilson High School.
In the spring of 1988, Clegg applied for the vacancy at Wilson, and was hired as both the coach and a history teacher.
“I think the major reason I went into coaching was that I hoped I would have some positive impact on players’ lives,” Clegg said. “That is what I saw with Coach Troxel, Coach (Tony) Knap and Coach Pankratz.
“I saw football as a way to teach some things kids will never get in the classroom — overcoming fears and doubts about themselves.”
Even though the Rams have won just two league titles under Clegg, they have reached the postseason eight times — and are well on their way to a ninth trip in the coach’s 27th season. In Clegg’s first trip to the playoffs in 1998, the Rams advanced to the Class 4A state championship game falling to Pasco, 17-0.
Now 66, Clegg has had a rough past couple of seasons off the field.
In June of 2013, Clegg had returned from a trip to Eastern Washington University, and was not feeling well.
He ended up in the emergency room at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor where doctors discovered his appendix had ruptured, he had kidney cancer and also had an aneurysm.
The next day, he had his appendix removed. Four weeks later, he had his kidney removed.
“The tumor was larger than a softball,” Clegg said.
Clegg had one request from doctors: Can you get me back on the sideline to coach during the 2013 season?
“I knew I didn’t have many years (coaching) left,” Clegg said. “So I got back. And I think my assistants hated me because I had to coach through a megaphone.”
This season has been especially trying. Clegg’s wife, Debbie, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is the first time during their 38-year marriage she has not been able to attend Friday night games.
“Football has been a release for the difficult times my wife and I have had,” Clegg said. “It gives you something else to look forward to.”
Could this be Clegg’s final season? His career record is 155-110. He is one of 72 coaches in state history to have won 150 or more career games.
But Clegg isn’t ready to go down that road — at least not just yet.
“The Good Lord will probably tell me when it is time,” Clegg said. “I’ve coached since I was 16 years old. I still have a passion for it. And I still enjoy teaching and watching kids respond when they do things right.”
If you ask Kitna, everything contains a bigger plan.
He attended Lincoln High School. And after a college stint at Central Washington University, and 17 seasons in professional football — 16 in the NFL with four different organizations, including the Seahawks — he returned to his alma mater to coach.
“Our vision when we came here was to train young men,” Kitna said. “And our No. 1 priority is character; No. 2 is team; and No. 3 is individual player.”
Of course, he also wanted to make the Abes “relevant in the state” within five years. They are ahead of schedule in that regard.
And ultimately he wants his program to be nationally-recognized within 10 years.
When Kitna, 42, talks about his biggest coaching influences, the first person he talks about is the late John McCrossin, the former basketball coach and athletic director with the Abes.
“It’s his impact on me about setting high standards for kids — setting the bar high,” Kitna said.
He also credits Mike Martz, his former Detroit Lions coach, for helping understand the finer details of football; Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose day-to-day organization with practice scripts and plans as being second to none; and even Mike Holmgren, his former Seattle Seahawks coach, for the way he demanded unyielding excellence from everybody within an organization.
“It wasn’t always comfortable with Coach Holmgren,” Kitna said. “I did not appreciate that back then the way I do now.”
Kitna sees all of those traits in his coaching now. He also sees a bit of just himself in the way he approaches his assistants and players.
“My stubbornness,” he said with a half-smile. “I just don’t accept mediocrity, or the ‘land of good enough,’ as a friend would tell me.”
A few times Friday night, Kitna will glance across the field and see a man — Clegg — who coached against him when he was a high school quarterback in 1991, and now likely will retire facing him as a younger coach.
“Coach Clegg has been the model of consistency, not only by putting a good product on the field, but moving his players on to be successful individuals,” Kitna said.