Wyttenberg: One 'cool coach'
There were plenty of adjectives used to describe John Wyttenberg as friends and loved ones gathered on Dec. 10 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Northwest Portland to celebrate the life of the former Sunset High basketball coach, who died Nov. 17 at age 91.
Mentor. Molder of young men. Free spirit. Eternal optimist. Motivating. Cerebral. Communicator.
And by all accounts, one hell of a coach.
Wyttenberg amassed a record of 271-98 during 16 seasons at Sunset, winning a state championship in 1975, finishing second in state twice and third in state twice and, at one point, claiming eight straight Metro League titles.
The man known as "Wytt" retired from his basketball coaching position very young — at age 50 in 1977 — due to serious back problems. It's a shame, because Wyttenberg had so much to offer.
Those who convened at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral included a bevy of Portland-area coaching names from the past, among them Barney Holland, Pat Coons, Nick Robertson, Ross Peterson, Joe Simons, Ed Ramsdell, Jack Bertell, Ken Yarnell, Dave Robbins, Ken Harris, Dale Behles, Tom Rohlffs, Terry Durham, Pete Lukich, Sherry Sevall and Len Case.
Many of Wyttenberg's basketball players were on hand, including Rob Closs, Dave Bolton, Gordie Gredvig, Bill Swanson and Steve Ahl, along with members of the '75 state championship club, led by Stan Walker, Bob Fronk, Kevin Bryant, Scott Hacke and Todd Frimoth.
Current Sunset coach Todd Sherwood brought along every player on the 2018-19 Apollos squad to pay tribute to one of the great coaches in the school's history.
Another of Wyttenberg's former players was son Kim, who called his father "the man I admired most."
Kim was one of Wyttenberg's six children, who came with their parents from Sweet Home to the Portland area in 1961. John was dedicated to coaching but even more devoted to his three sons and three daughters.
"Even with all the coaching, we spent a lot of time together as a family," Kim said. "He was a dream come true as a dad."
Closs would go on to start for Dick Harter at Oregon, Walker and Fronk for Marv Harshman at Washington. But so many more who never made the major-college ranks benefited from their time working with Wyttenberg.
"He had hundreds of sons he absolutely loved," Kim said, "and they loved him back."
Though his biggest influences in coaching were John Wooden and Slats Gill, Wyttenberg was anything but old-school in his approach to the profession.
"Coach Wyttenberg was an innovator, ahead of his time in a lot of ways," said Closs, citing a variety of presses, defensive sets and offensive systems the coach employed.
Bryant said Wyttenberg's practice routines were unique.
"We had two different sets of timed drills," Bryant said. "One was for conditioning and one was for basketball skills. The basketball skills would be for 2 1/2 minutes — rebounding to one-on-one moves, and we'd rotate when the whistle would blow. It would be the same with conditioning. I never saw that anywhere else I've been."
Wyttenberg was thorough, too, and sophisticated in his game-planning.
"When I went to Washington to play for Marv, I expected the level of coaching and the preparation and the scouting to move up a notch," Walker said. "I found that wasn't true. We did more at Sunset in that regard than we ever did at Washington. Not to say that Marv was a poor coach — he wasn't — but John was so organized, and dealt so much with repetition, it was so easy to go out there and play.
"You'd gone over it so many times, it was just automatic. I was so much farther along than the other freshmen because I'd already been taught all the stuff that they were still trying to learn. It was a huge advantage."
During an era when crewcuts and the clean-cut look was the norm in athletics, Wyttenberg wore his hair long, just like most of his players. When he wore a suit, it was with his "ubiquitious bow tie," as son Kim said.
Said Closs: "I remember Coach Wyttenberg saying, 'When we're on the road, I want you to wear a coat and tie. But I don't care how long your hair is, as long as it's clean and you can see.'"
Coons, who recently retired after a long coaching career at Westview, recalled watching the Apollos win the 1975 state tournament while Coons was a student at McNary.
"I remember thinking, 'What a cool coach,'" Coons said. "He had the long hair, his team had long hair, they played with freedom, and they won state. I was in awe of him as a coach because of the style. He seemed like a players' coach, a coach who was ahead of his time."
Freedom of expression was OK, said Jeff Sanders, who played golf for Wyttenberg at Sunset before going on to star at Oregon and play the PGA Tour.
"He didn't want to put any walls around anybody, to try to control anybody," Sanders said. "His mantra was, 'Be respectful, play hard and be yourself.' He liked the individuality of people."
Wyttenberg was "the most motivating coach I ever had," Sanders said. "He would say things like, 'The sky is the limit for you; reach for the stars; work hard, go for it.' If you had a bad round, it was, 'Come back strong the next day.'
"He was fantastic. He was the most positive man I've ever met. He was always there for me. He helped me stay focused on golf at a time when it would have been easy to go astray."
"He was the eternal optimist," Closs said. "After a state tournament loss, he would remind us it's important to perform the next morning. If we happened to lose, it was important to come back and play hard the next day. That was a lesson I never forgot, to come back strong from defeat."
Said Bryant: "My junior year, we lost to Grant in the first round at state. But we came back and won the consolation trophy, and he told us afterward, 'I'm most proud of this trophy than any one, because of the way you came back' (after a tough loss)."
Closs' sister, Amy Closs Miller, took a health class from Wyttenberg at Sunset.
"He had a unit that was on 'affirmations and visualizations,'" Closs Miller said. "We learned how to write down our goals in a very positive statement, like it has already occurred, on 3x5 cards, and we learned to say them often during the day.
"For me, he recommended visualizing the perfect tennis match, making it creative and wonderful, and you don't lose a point, and (visualizing) how it would feel when you shake your opponent's hand after the match."
Closs Miller would go on to win the state singles championship that spring in 1980.
Fronk called Wyttenberg "one of the most cerebral coaches I've encountered."
"He was so calm," Fronk said. "I only heard him raise his voice one time, prior to a playoff game with Parkrose. It was pretty intense, and it caught our attention, for sure."
"He showed passion for what he did without being emotional," Walker said. "He was always very calm, but he still exuded passion, and I tried to emulate that. People tend to get frustrated when they do things. It's easy to get emotional. Coach Wyttenberg always had a handle on it. When you're 17, 18 years old, a calming influence is a pretty good thing to have in clutch situations."
Wyttenberg had scruples, too. He coached only once against Robertson, early in Robertson's career while he was at Franklin.
"John had a very good player named Mike Block, and before the game, I'm thinking, 'We're going to get handled,'" Robertson said. "But Block had skipped one class that day, John sat him on the bench and we won. I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is what John Wyttenberg is all about.'"
Wyttenberg was about all the right things, those around him say.
"My father threw his life into showing compassion, fortitude and resolve," Kim Wyttenberg said.
"He taught all of us teamwork, hard work, promptness, attention to detail, leadership, respect and how to deal with adversity," Closs said.
Bryant, who has made a career in high school athletic administration, called his association with Wyttenberg "life-changing."
"My passion for high school athletics was formed under 'Wytt,'" Bryant said. "To be able to play for such a quality person and with such quality guys at Sunset was wonderful. His ability to innovate, his creativity, his love of kids, his love of the game — he passed all of that on to us."
Fronk would go on to quarterback Sunset to a state football championship under coach Don Matthews in 1976.
"You can't beat winning a state championship," Fronk said. "You can't beat playing for a guy like John Wyttenberg. I'm glad he enjoyed a long life, even if his coaching career was probably shorter than it should have been. He was a special man."
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)