Turf victories pile up for Coury
At 62, Steve Coury is nearly as much of an institution in his community as Oswego Lake.
For 28 years, Coury has coached Lake Oswego High's football team with the deft touch of a master sculptor.
Going into the third-ranked Lakers' second-round Class 6A playoff game with West Salem on Friday night at Lake Oswego, Coury has compiled a 243-84 record (.743), with two state championships, six trips to the finals, 10 visits to the semifinals and 13 times to the quarterfinals.
The defending state champion Lakers (8-2), led by 2018 state Player of the Year Casey Filkins, are one of a half-dozen teams considered as legitimate candidates to win this year's state title.
"You want to get to the 10th week playing your best football," Coury said, "and I think we're doing that."
Even if the Lakers are stopped short of a repeat in the playoffs, Coury has one more game to coach this season.
On Jan. 4 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, he will serve as head coach of the West team in the 20th annual All-American Bowl, a game televised on NBC. Among the players on the West squad is Filkins, the 5-10, 195-pound senior running back who is headed for Stanford next year.
"I was an assistant coach in the game about 10 years ago," Coury said. "It's a great experience with a lot of great players. Being a head coach is an honor, and Casey is playing. He's probably the best player I've ever coached at Lake Oswego, and that's saying something. What a double thrill it will be to have one of my own players in the game."
Coury's legacy at Lake Oswego will be about winning, and he has done plenty of that. He ranks sixth on the career list for coaches at big-classification schools in the state, trailing Roseburg's Thurman Bell (331-154-1), Jesuit's Ken Potter (320-74), Craig Ruecker (309-155 at Reynolds, Glencoe, Redmond and Tigard), Tom Smythe (273-78-1 at Lakeridge and McNary) and Pendleton's Don Requa (272-86-5). Smythe was Coury's coach during his playing days at Lakeridge in the mid-1970s.
If he coaches long enough — and Coury has no plans to retire any time soon — he could pass them all.
"But that doesn't mean anything to me, other than it's cool to be mentioned with those names in our state's long history of football," he said. "I have a great deal of respect for all of them. But that's no big deal in the scheme of things."
Coury regards himself as much a mentor as a coach. It's not all been smooth sailing through his time at Lake Oswego. In 2014, he suspended nine players for the first four games after it was discovered they were smoking marijuana during a preseason team retreat. The next season, the Lakers forfeited a game against Sherwood when it became apparent that, over a period of weeks, about 50 of his players had attended at least one of a series of parties where alcohol or drugs were used.
"I've disciplined kids," he said. "I've kicked kids off the team. None of that is fun. But the important thing for me is the lessons you teach. And in order to teach, you have to live the life that you preach."
Coury and wife Nancy have been married 38 years. They have three children, and two of them — Jordan and Stevie — are assistant coaches on their father's staff at Lake Oswego.
"All through my career, family has been the most important thing for me," Coury said. "And there are values in life that I really believe in.
"In our football program we have two rules: Treat people the way you want to be treated, and do what's right. My expectations for the kids are just that. There are so many great lessons to be taught. You have to learn to get along with people. Discipline, hard work, getting up off the ground — those are values you take from high school football. You're going to use those the rest of your life. I've had a lot of former players come back and thank me for what we've taught them."
Coury wants his teams to be good representatives of the city.
"It's an amazing community," he said. "Our kids have done a great job, and we've done it the right way. That's the thing I'm most proud of. We've built men. We've done all those things that mean more to me than the stats or winning titles."
Coaching was in Coury's blood. His father, Dick Coury, was twice a head coach in Portland in the minor professional leagues — with the Storm of the World League in 1974 and with the Breakers of the U.S. Football League in 1985. Dick Coury's 41-year coaching career included stints as an assistant with nine NFL clubs, including offensive coordinator with New England and Houston. He coached with Philadelphia in the 1981 Super Bowl.
Steve Coury was a tremendous receiver and punt return specialist at Oregon State from 1976-79, ranking second nationally with 66 receptions as a senior. After playing one year with the Canadian Football League Ottawa Rough Riders, the 5-8, 170-pound Coury coached a year of high school ball in Encino, California, then worked for his father coaching receivers for the Breakers in Boston, New Orleans and Portland from 1983-85. Coury was 25 when he started. Most of the players were older than him.
"One of our receivers was NFL veteran Charlie Smith, who had played for my dad with the Eagles," Coury said. "I used to shag balls for him. Now I'm coaching him. But it didn't bother me. I was always confident in myself."
Coury then coached receivers at the University of Pittsburgh for three years. The team's defensive coordinator was John Fox, later head coach with Carolina, Denver and Chicago in the NFL. Coury's grad assistant one year was John Harbaugh, now head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
"Hey, John, go get me some coffee," Coury laughed.
By then married and with two small children, Coury decided the life of a professional or college coach wasn't for him.
"I was out recruiting and got on the phone with my wife one night," he said. "She was filling me in on what was happening with the kids and I thought, 'I'm missing all this.' I never held anything against my dad, but that's the way it was with him. He saw me play once at Oregon State. In high school, he barely saw me play. I wasn't going to do that."
The Courys returned to the Portland area, and Steve took an assortment of sales representative jobs — in trucking, in meats, in carpets — before landing as an area sales rep for FieldTurf, an artificial turf company that outfits many of the athletic fields across the country. All four Northwest Pac-12 schools use FieldTurf.
Coury works 30-plus hours a week, traveling the Northwest from Bellingham to Spokane to Pendleton to Medford, servicing high schools and colleges. He works his FieldTurf appointments around football practice at Lake Oswego on late afternoons through the week.
"It's been a godsend to me," said Coury, who makes a good living with FieldTurf and peanuts as a high school coach. His salary this season coaching the Lakers will be about $6,000.
"If you include the time we spend in the summer," he said with a laugh, "it works out to about eight cents an hour."
High school coaching is a labor of love. Many work as teachers, counselors or administrators at the high school at which they coach.
"It's probably an advantage, because you're present with the kids during the day," Coury said. "I have coaches on my staff who are in the (Lake Oswego High) building, and that helps. On the flip side, coaches like me who work on the outside come to school pretty fresh rather than dealing with all the other stuff that goes on at school. When we get there in the afternoon, we're excited about seeing the kids."
One of the secrets to Coury's success has been the continuity of his coaching staff. Karl Halberg and Brian Newcomer have coached with him for all 28 seasons. Frank Everhart has worked 26 years, Bill Hewes 25, Brian Bartsch 19.
"And the last six or eight years, we've added guys who have played for me, like Jordan and Stevie, Steve Smith, Matt Stutes, Steven Long and Taylor Brown," Coury said. "We couldn't do what we've done without the stability these guys provide."
In 1992, Coury took over a Lake Oswego program that had experienced one winning season in the previous 16 years. He has had only one losing season (5-7 in 2013) and has made the state playoffs every year. From 2000-12, his teams won 13 straight league championships. The Lakers owned a 48-game league win streak from 2004-12. They made the quarterfinals or better in the playoffs every year from 2001-12. His state playoff record: 50-22 (70.3 %).
One of Coury's traditions is the return of his former players for a Thanksgiving morning practice. Since the Lakers are normally still involved in the playoffs, it works.
"Last year, we had 84 former players come back, including some from my first year," Coury said. "They all had a little something to say to the team. It was so cool."
Coury has other traditions. A self-esteem poem titled "A State of Mind" ("If you think you are beaten, you are, if you think you dare not, you won't") is read before every game.
"Every kid learns it," he said. "They recite it now before the game. I've used it since my first year at Lake Oswego. I learned it from my dad. He used to read it at Mater Dei High.
"It hit home with me. I was always too small, too slow, too whatever — everybody told me that, but I never believed it. That poem was what I hung my hat on. It's great for everything you do. I'm a confident person and believe in myself — that's what it's all about."
A few years ago, a former female student who had been impaired in an automobile accident took great effort to recite the poem to the Lakers beore a game.
"You talk about impactful and emotional," Coury said.
A former Lake Oswego player, Jeff Young, has ALS. For 18 years, he has visited practice once a week and attended games.
"Jeff always delivers a message to the team," Coury said. "How can you not learn from that guy? He talks to them, and you can hear a pin drop, that's how tuned in they are. These are the small things we do."
The year Coury suspended nine of his players, one of their duties was to feed the homeless in downtown Portland through the season.
"It was an eye-opener for the kids," he said. "I wish we could force all of our kids to do that, or to help the elderly. These are the things that are more important than football games."
Coaching high school football is different from when Coury started at Lake Oswego in 1992.
"No question, it's harder now," he said. "Families are more involved and more invested because of the outside influences. Everybody is paying a trainer to train their kids. Everybody is paying a service to promote their kid. Everybody is listening to other people. There are seven-on-seven leagues and college camps to distract the kids. They think because they're on some list they're getting recruited, and their expectations are way out of whack.
"Kids are into instant gratification. It's like, 'If it's not working out for me, I'm done.' Or they transfer to another school. My thing is, let's worry about our high school team and not where you're going to college or how many touchdowns you might score."
Despite all the success, squad numbers in the Lake Oswego football program have plummeted in recent years. This season, Coury had about 80 players, including 21 sophomores and only 16 freshmen.
"That's down about 40 from six years ago," he said. "I'm really worried about even having a program in two years — it's that depleted."
The Lakers had a freshman team this season, but it played an independent schedule rather than one affiliated with the Three Rivers League.
"We've had to do that the last three or four years," Coury said. "We can't hang with Tigard, Tualatin and West Linn, programs that have the numbers."
Part of the problem is Lake Oswego's enrollment this academic year is 1,253, the second-lowest in the seven-team TRL and eighth-lowest among the 53 6A schools in the state. The biggest enrollments are at David Douglas (2,483), Westview (2,403) and Clackamas (2,347).
Parental concerns about head injuries have played a factor in participation in the sport throughout the country.
"It's hard to argue," Coury said. "What do you say? Guys do get hurt. But the rule changes have made the game safer than ever before. The equipment is better. We don't do a lot of contact in practice — never have. The positives that come from football outweigh the dangers."
Coury and his coaches do what they can to drum up interest in football. He talks to youngsters in the Lake Oswego middle schools. He is involved with youth programs. Flag football started four years ago for boys from third to sixth grade. It hasn't seemed to help.
"Seven years ago, we had 325 in youth football," Coury said. "This year, we're down to 70. The last four years we've had low numbers of freshmen. Depth becomes a problem, which means quality of practice becomes a problem.
"It's a downward spiral and a scary deal. We've built such a great program in a lot of ways, and I don't mean the wins and losses. We have so much to give. Kids can benefit from football, but it's going to just drop off the cliff."
Coury will continue his coaching career for at least the near future.
"I feel like I still have a lot to give, a lot of energy," he said.
It will be no great surprise, however, to see him soon move on to another school. He believes the Lakers' squad numbers will be sufficient in 2020. But after that, all bets are off.
"I'm very discouraged at where it's going and not being able to help the program to keep going in the direction we want to go and at the standard we want to be," he said. "That is more of what's going to dictate what's next, if there is anything next."
A few years ago, he was contacted by Tualatin High about its coaching vacancy and admits he had interest in the job. He decided not to go after it.
"But I wasn't as discouraged at that point," Coury said.
Chris Miller will leave his job as head coach at West Linn after this season. That would seem to be a possible Coury landing spot, though he declined to address that subject.
"I know I'm not the only one to feel like I do," he said. "It's happening at a lot of places. And I'm not saying I would take a job somewhere else.
"I live in Lake Oswego. I love it here. We've built a good program, and we're going to try to keep building it. But I see what's going on. What can we do? It hurts to see it going down and not being able to stop the slide."
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