A “one-of-a-kind” presence who had a way of uplifting those around him, legendary former Phoenix High School wrestling coach Harry Mondale passed away Friday morning, and the news hit hard among the wrestling community here in Southern Oregon.
From past wrestlers in his program to fellow coaches and long-time friends, the impact the 86-year-old Mondale came rushing to the forefront upon hearing that the originator of the Phoenix wrestling program had died at his home in the early morning hours.
“He was in his mid-80s and I know that people don’t live forever,” said Dave May, who wrestled for Mondale and served one year as his volunteer assistant after graduating in 2004, “but still when you get that call, you feel like you’re prepared for it but you’re never prepared for it. Especially somebody like Harry, who was so impactful to so many people. I would’ve never coached (at Phoenix and South Eugene) if it weren’t for him, so for me he was my mentor. To lose your mentor is tough; it’s been a pretty tough day. He shaped a lot of boys into men, me being one of them.”
Mondale launched the Phoenix wrestling program in 1969 and turned it into a state power, resigning in 2007 but remaining with the program in some capacity even through this past season. He led the Pirates to seven state championships, seven state runner-up showings and 21 Skyline Conference district championships during his 39 seasons.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that’s had any more impact on Rogue Valley wrestling than Harry,” said John Farmer, who served as Mondale’s assistant coach for 10 years before taking over the program from 2008-14. “He was coaching in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s and his goal was always to make the kids believe in themselves and try to not only be the best wrestlers they could be but his ultimate goal was that when they got done with wrestling, they knew how to put in a good, hard day of work and be good people.”
Mondale suffered from health problems toward the end of his coaching tenure at Phoenix that caused him to miss two state tournaments. He underwent surgery to remove an aneurysm in his heart in 2002, had stints placed in his heart to open clogged arteries the following year and developed a leg infection in 2006.
In recent years, Mondale had been undergoing dialysis three times a week going on four years. His son Chuck, who lived with Mondale, said he discovered his father unresponsive early Friday morning when he went to make sure he was up and ready to go to another appointment.
“We don’t know exactly what went down this morning,” said Chuck Mondale, who was later joined at home by brothers Duke and Mike with other brother Tim expected from Boston within the day. “At 4 o’clock he gets up for dialysis and has to be there at 5 a.m. so I’m up at 4 a.m. checking on him and there he was. I think it probably had something to do with his heart and maybe it was a combination of things, we don’t really know.”
What was of comfort to the surviving brothers, however, was the outpouring of love shown to them once word trickled out about their father’s death.
“We’re getting tons of support,” said Chuck Mondale. “There has been people at the house all day long and we’ve just gotten a lot of support from everyone. Obviously we’re shocked and trying to deal with all this here now, but we can’t thank everyone enough for all their support.”
Arrangements for a public service are being made for next Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at Jack Woodward Stadium on the Phoenix High campus.
May and Farmer were among those who occasionally would attend dialysis sessions with Mondale, where discussions over wrestling and whatever else was going on in the world would fill the room as Mondale, as usual, held court with nearby nurses or anyone else who caught his eye.
“Never once did I hear him complain or whatever,” said Farmer, who last visited with Mondale one month ago with wife Georgene and former Phoenix standout Eleazar Deluca. “He always did what he needed to do and then would go home and get ready to do it again. Complaining wasn’t really in his makeup.”
Mondale also played in the 1958 Rose Bowl for the University of Oregon and served as Phoenix’s football head coach from 1986-91. He was a line coach for 17 years prior to that, helping the Pirates to 1979 and ’85 state championships.
A star football player in high school and college, Mondale knew virtually nothing about wrestling when he enrolled at Oregon in the mid-1950s, but Mondale’s line coach was Willard Hammer, who was also the Ducks’ wrestling coach.
“(Hammer) was my inspiration as far as wrestling was concerned,” Mondale said when he retired from Phoenix in 2007. “He passed down all his notes to me.”
Mondale spent considerable time watching film and learning the sport, but his greatest gift as a coach was probably his ability to motivate.
“One of his famous things he used to do, and what I appreciated most, is with kids like me who were not big and strong or the best athlete,” said May, “he’d believe in you and push you until almost that breaking point but he never broke you. He was a mastermind with that. If it was a 6 a.m. run, you were there at 5:55. He just taught you that discipline, and that there was more to life than athletics.”
“You just walked into the (wrestling) room and the guy had a glow,” added May, who now serves as the chief operating officer of the Medford Rogues. “He knew everybody’s name. Whether you were the third-string freshman backup in any sport or if you were his captain, he pushed you the same, he talked to you the same and he coached you the same. Having been a coach and around a lot of coaches, I really respected his ability to do that.”
Mondale earned the respect of his coaching peers, as well, with Crater head coach Greg Haga forging a relationship with the entire Mondale family dating back to his days at Gold Beach High School.
“Harry was an icon that did so much for so many kids, and by kids I even speak of myself as a young coach coming out,” said Haga, who has guided Crater to nine state championships. “He always was competitive and always had great expectations out of his wrestlers.”
“I always say that I love Harry but I hated coaching against him,” added Haga, “just because he would browbeat the referees and was always nagging about something. He was always competitive.”
That tough exterior also came with a genuine quality of compassion that endeared Mondale to any who ventured into his path.
“He was the surrogate dad of our family,” said Jill Stout, who had five children overall but two (Billy Stout and Dave May) who competed for Mondale. “I was a single mom at the time and it was always a case if I was struggling with one of them not getting homework in or whatever, boy, he would step right in and straighten those kids right out. He was always very, very supportive of any child that came through one of those programs at Phoenix or anyone in that school really. He was tough and taught them discipline and self-pride, and we couldn’t have asked for a better coach and friend.”
The Minnesota native, who was a licensed fishing guide, was so beloved by his former Pirates that they bandied together to help build a state-of-the-art practice facility for their coach. The 4,000-square-foot wrestling room was completed in 1997.
Through all the shouting, cheering and cajoling in his days as a head coach, there was no escaping that Mondale was always where he wanted to be and his take on things always stayed true to his heart as he told it like he saw it.
When his 2004 squad finished third at the state championships, Mondale didn’t bat an eye.
“That’s one of my favorite places,” Mondale said then of placing third. “Certainly I’d prefer No. 1, but if I can’t get No. 1, I’d just as soon get third place. You have to work a lot harder to be third than to be second. Second just means you weren’t good enough to be first.”
Mondale was Phoenix wrestling from Day 1 and he continues to be viewed as such throughout the state according to those inside and outside the program.
“He was one of a kind,” said Farmer. “He was a coach’s coach and he was somebody that I respect 100 percent, and I’m going miss very, very much.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry