The Coach

  • Written by Kevin Birnbaum
  • Published in NW Stories
Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

Even in the first week of June workouts, the O’Dea High School football team is all   business and hustle. As their maroon-and-gold buses arrive at Seattle’s Genesee Park, the players file off and literally run to the practice field, where they immediately begin drills.

Head coach Monte Kohler is right in the mix, standing in for an opposing quarterback and acting out plays for the defense to react to. He barks out a cadence: “Down … blue 10, blue 10 … set, go!”

Eleven players spring into action and sprint down their angles of pursuit, chasing an imaginary ball carrier. No one dogs it; everyone goes all-out. They have apparently taken to heart the slogans on their team T-shirts: STAY TOGETHER. KEEP FIGHTING!

The strenuous pace of practice is as much about building character as it is about conditioning. Kohler aims to form his players not only into a dominant force on the field, but also into young gentlemen committed to trustworthiness, excellence and the golden rule.

Now entering his 30th season at the helm of O’Dea’s football program, Kohler has long cultivated at the all-boys school an athletic culture very much in his own image: humble, hardworking, no-nonsense and ultimately centered on Christ.

Kohler, a member of Seattle’s Our Lady of Fatima Parish, has never strayed far from the major influences of his childhood in Montana: faith, football and Catholic schools. After attending a Catholic grade school, he played quarterback at Loyola High School in Missoula and went on to play for two seasons at Carroll College in Helena. After graduating, he taught and coached for three years at a public school before leaving his beloved Montana in 1985 to take the job at O’Dea in Seattle. He figured he’d move back after 10 years or so, but O’Dea took hold of him.

“It’s just a special place,” he said of the school, where he can combine his love of athletics and the “second-nature” Catholic faith ingrained in him by his devout parents.

That faith comes through to his players in the way he lives and treats people, said Luke Dacy, a former O’Dea player and assistant coach. “He’s not real preachy … but he’s a man of faith and it colors everything that he does.”

Besides coaching football, Kohler has also served for 28 years as O’Dea’s athletic director. His office, plastered with photos of teams past, overlooks the school gymnasium, where the dozens of championship banners hanging in the rafters bear witness to the school’s remarkable athletic success during his tenure (he also coaches track and teaches honors history).

But he downplays his part even in his football program’s achievements, including 24 league championships and three state championships. “It’s easy when you’ve got good kids,” he says. “I’ve got good [assistant] coaches.”

There’s that humility, mentioned by one of those coaches, defensive coordinator Mike Crotty. “It’s not about him,” Crotty said. “I couldn’t tell you how many wins he has — he never shares that, and he never would.”

For the record, Kohler is one of the winningest high school football coaches in Washington state history. Coming into this season, his O’Dea teams had amassed 283 wins to just 46 losses. The school holds the class 3A state record for consecutive state tournament appearances, with a current streak of 20. In May, Kohler was inducted into the Pacific Northwest Football Hall of Fame.

An ‘old school’ coach
He doesn’t let such things go to his head. As his players will tell you, he’s an “old school” coach, in the best sense of the phrase.

“He values things that maybe have gone out of fashion,” said Dacy, who captained Kohler’s first state championship team in 1991 and coached from 1997 to 2011. “You know, hard work, discipline, doing things the right way, it’s not about you, it’s about the team — those kind of concepts that used to be more prevalent but have kind of been deemphasized in the modern era of sports.”

That old-school philosophy extends to O’Dea’s playbook: Kohler still believes in running the football, even as flashier passing attacks have proliferated in recent years.

“He’s not swayed by what we call flavor-of-the-month offenses,” Crotty said. “No, it’s about execution and blocking people.”

Kohler stuck to his run-first game plan even when he had a receiver the caliber of Nate Burleson, a 1999 grad who went on to be a collegiate All-American and have a successful career in the NFL, including a stint with the Seattle Seahawks.

“I only caught a few balls throughout my career there [at O’Dea], but I never complained, I never even thought it was an issue,” Burleson said. “I was just fine with being a piece of the puzzle … because Coach Kohler made every single player embrace their role wholeheartedly, no matter how big, how small.”

‘A father figure’
“It’s not a superstar program,” Dacy said. “[Kohler] doesn’t coddle the great athletes. He expects the same things of the best player on the team and the guy who might never get in the game. … He holds them to a high standard, and he expects them to work as hard as he works, which is hard to do.”

Kohler pushes all his players to their mental and physical limits — and they love him for it.

“He just had a way of making everyone want to work their hardest,” said Cody Fulleton, a 2012 grad now playing defensive end at Dartmouth, who had come back to visit that June workout. “He’s had a huge impact on my life. … We all love the man to death.”

Dylan Ledbetter, now a senior lineman, was thrown into the fire his sophomore year as a varsity starter at a position he’d never played before. Kohler pushed him every day to rise to the challenge, and he ended up making all-league. “He’s pushed me to be a better player and person,” Ledbetter said.

And sure, Kohler’s a great coach, said Myles Gaskin, a senior running back who has committed to play for the University of Washington next year — but it’s not just that. “He’s more of like, I would almost say like a father figure here at O’Dea. He’s just always there to help us, keeps us on our grades, just tries to make us the best people we could possibly be, like beyond football.”

A family affair
For such a natural father figure, Kohler came relatively late to family life. He met his wife of 11 years, Jana, while she was the athletic director at the all-girls Holy Names Academy in Seattle; they worked together to strengthen the bond between the schools, and found themselves drawn to each other in the process. With Jana, Kohler has two children and two stepchildren.

O’Dea football has become a family affair for the Kohler crew. “We are a part of O’Dea, our family is,” Jana said. “It’s not just Monte.”

At games, fifth-grader John serves as both water boy and ball boy; daughter Cody, a third-grader, hands out flowers on senior night and has been known to lead conditioning drills. When O’Dea’s coaching staff huddles at halftime to talk strategy, you’ll usually find John and Cody in their midst. “They’ve done it since they were babies,” Jana said, “and Monte welcomes them in.”

When Kohler starts talking about retiring to Montana, John insists that the family can’t move until after he’s graduated from O’Dea and had a chance to play for his dad. He’ll probably get his way. Kohler’s word may be law on the football field, but his kids know how to break through to his tender side. “His heart gives in,” Jana said. “All these big guys are intimidated by Monte Kohler, and then there’s John and Cody. … It’s quite funny.”

Balancing family life with Kohler’s time-consuming coaching career requires sacrifice, Jana said, but it’s worth it when she sees “all the positive things that he’s doing for all these boys, and especially at that tender age of 15 to 18, where they really need a positive, strong, wonderful, loving role model — and that’s Monte.”

‘The most important thing’
Kohler’s approach to coaching those boys has evolved during his nearly three decades at O’Dea.

“I love football,” he says, but over the years, what he loves about it has changed. As a young coach just out of college, he primarily loved the game itself, the thrill of competition under the lights on a Friday night. “Now, 33 years later, what I love about it is what it does for the young men, what it’s able to teach them, the values and the characteristics and the discipline and the camaraderie that it takes, and the unity and the chemistry.”

All those “buzzwords” become real when you’re part of a team, Kohler said, and they all play a part in forming players into well-rounded “O’Dea gentlemen.”

“We need to develop the whole person, and that’s spiritually, academically and athletically. If we come up short in one of those, we’re not a balanced person,” he said. “We want to make sure that our priorities are straight, and our relationship with God is the most important thing, and then academics, then athletics.”

Kohler takes the spiritual leg of that well-balanced “tripod” seriously. He leads prayers before and after games, and there are team Masses every game day, often in the school gym, sometimes across the street at St. James Cathedral.

“One of the things I always tell the kids at the start of the season at our first Mass is that this is the most important thing that we do as a football team — it’s not playing under the lights tonight. Right here, right now, being able to pray and thank the good Lord for everything he’s blessed us with — this is more important than anything that will happen tonight or here on out.”