Jon Wolf steps away from football after 21 seasons as a head coach
One of Jon Wolf's lifelong dreams has been to find a piece of land near water and build a log cabin.
Now the longtime high school football coach can get serious about making that dream a reality.
Wolf, 59, announced plans this week to retire after 36 years as an educator, including 21 years as a football head coach with stints at Madison, Putnam, Gladstone and Milwaukie.
"It's bittersweet," Wolf said. "It's time to move on in my life and do something else, but I've not done anything else but this for 36 years, so it's a pretty big change.
"I feel good about it, but I'm still a little nervous. I still want to work, I just don't want to teach and coach anymore. I've done that long enough. It's time for me to step away."
If Wolf is finished with coaching, he ended his career on a high note, guiding Milwaukie to a 5-4 record and the Mustangs' first OSAA playoff appearance since 2005.
Wolf compiled a career record of 105-103, including a 10-26 record in four seasons at Milwaukie. He had a reputation as a no-nonsense coach with a penchant for old-fashioned, smash-mouth football. He treated the weight room as if it were a sanctuary and his teams ran the veer offense, banking heavily on the premise that his players would be more physical than anyone they lined up against.
He loved working with high school kids and admitted that he could probably continue coaching for another 10 years. But he also said in a letter to Milwaukie High School principal Mark Pinder and athletic director Aaron Moreno that he had reached a breaking point with some of the off-field politics and that "my frustrations with the job have grown exponentially."
"When I asked Mark Pinder what he wanted when I took the job, he said he wanted me to build a program," said Wolf, who was the fifth coach at Milwaukie in a span of five seasons when he took the job in 2014. "There are two things to building a program. One is you've got to change the culture, and two is you've got to build numbers.
"I think we've done a really good job of changing the culture at Milwaukie, making the weight room important again, getting kids to work hard, and setting rules in terms of being at practice to play in games. And I think the culture is still changing.
"In terms of numbers, I'm a little bit concerned about that. I said in my evaluation to Mark and Aaron, I think I'm not as much of a 'numbers' guys as I am a 'commitment' guy. Commitment to me is more important than numbers, but you need numbers in football. Everybody knows that."
Participation reached a critical low at Milwaukie during the 2016 season when injuries left the Mustangs with only 17 healthy players and they were forced to forfeit their Week 8 game against Wilsonville -- a situation that, at the time, had Wolf questioning the future of Milwaukie football and his role with the program.
The decline in participation is not unique to Milwaukie, but appears to be linked to a growing trend nationally.
In August, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported that the number of high school football players dropped by 25,901 participants in 2016-17. Football still had the highest number of overall participants, but there is no question the game is changing amid growing concerns about brain injuries and head trauma.
"My dad was a longtime football coach and he told me years ago that he thought the game of high school football was on its way out," Wolf said. "I don't know that I agreed with him at the time, and I don't know if I still do, but I know that the game is changing.
"The game is being taught and coached better and better every year. The safety aspect is much more prevalent than when I played, but we have to re-educate people, and not just moms and dads, but also players.
"I say this all the time: We can't bubble-wrap our kids. No matter what activity they do, they can get hurt. So, there is a risk with any sport, but when it comes to football, I think the risk is worth it, because of the life lessons that you learn from the game."
Wolf said one of the biggest challenges facing the sport is dealing with what he at one time called "the Southeast Syndrome" -- a modern-day dilemma characterized by young athletes who are unwilling to do the work necessary to excel at a physically-demanding sport.
"Last season, we lost about 10 players right at the start of fall camp, because they just didn't want to do the work," Wolf said. "The good thing is, we had a good core group of kids that worked their tails off, and that made all the difference in the world.
"Now, if we would have had those 10-15 kids who got out right before the season started, how much better could we have been? That's the thing that makes you a little bit frustrated, but it's part of the way the game is being played now.
"Some kids don't want to work as hard as you'd like to see them work without guarantees, and there are no guarantees. The only thing I can guarantee is that if you work hard, you'll give yourself a chance, and if you don't work hard, you don't have a chance. I can guarantee that."
Wolf spent three seasons as the head coach at Madison (1989-91), followed by a six-year run at Putnam (1997-2002), and eight seasons at Gladstone (2006-13).
Some of his most memorable seasons were at Gladstone where he went 61-30, leading the Gladiators into the Class 4A quarterfinals five times and the semifinals once in 2010.
"I often think about 2008 at Gladstone when we all of a sudden got that 'expect-to-win' attitude and then in 2010 we went to the semifinals," he said. "In 2011, we might have had one of our better teams, and we didn't do as well, but it was a fun group to coach.
"And then this past season at Milwaukie was a pretty special year, and not just because we went to the playoffs, but also because the kids bought in to the work ethic and bought in to the weight room. It took awhile to develop, but it was something that got better every year that I was there."
Milwaukie's Noah Ramirez, an all-Northwest Oregon Conference, first-team linebacker, said Wolf left an indelible mark on the Mustangs' program.
"I haven't had too many coaches, but Coach Wolf was everything I needed as a coach, and more," Ramirez said. "He wasn't just about football. He was all about life lessons. It was, 'Don't cut corners,' and 'Never give up,' and he drilled that into us.
"And then 'don't cut corners' carried over to wrestling, and then to track and field. The way he drilled may not have been the best at the beginning, but over time, you just started appreciating it more and more. Yeah, I'd put him at the top of the list as far as coaches I've known."
Gladstone athletic director Ted Yates credited Wolf with changing the culture and helping put the Gladiators on the path that led to a Class 4A state championship in 2014.
"Not that we didn't have a good football culture, but Jon changed it and took it to a higher level," Yates said. "High school football is losing an excellent coach and a guy that really worked hard at doing it right.
"Jon always had a vision and knew exactly where he wanted to go and how he wanted to get there. With all things, you have to fight battles, but Jon was one of the most organized coaches I've ever seen and he was persistent."
Milwaukie graduated 14 seniors from a team the came very close to knocking off top-ranked Mountain View in the opening round of the 5A playoffs, holding the Cougars to a second-quarter field goal in a game that ended 3-0 in Bend.
"I think the program is in better shape," Wolf said. "I don't know if it's in great shape yet, but it's in better shape, and hopefully somebody can come in and build up the numbers and build on what we had going.
"I've had fun everywhere I've coached. At Madison, my first year as a head coach, I thought I had all the answers and found out I didn't know any of the questions. But it's been a fun time. Now it's time for me to do something else; I just don't know what the heck that is."