Home Field Advantage
Chris Casey will return to his boyhood home to coach the revived George Fox football program
By Sean Patterson (George Fox Journal)
Chris Casey still remembers the night he ran away from home.
“I ran a block and a half from our house and spent half a night in Calder (now the Lemmons Center) on the George Fox campus,” he says, chuckling. “I was just a kid mad at my dad for something – I don’t know what. Guess I always felt I had a home at Fox. ”
Casey is again “home at Fox” – this time on a more permanent basis. In late February, he was introduced as future head coach of the university’s revived NCAA Division III football program. The Bruins will kick off their first season in 45 years in the fall of 2014. Casey will assume his new job in January of 2013, after guiding his current team, the Aloha (Ore.) High School Warriors, one last season.
The same Casey who, as a 10-year-old, joined with younger brother Pat to serve as a ball boy for George Fox’s last football team in 1968, is returning to the sidelines in his native Newberg.
Casey can’t help but laugh when he thinks about coming full circle. He is now 54 and about to start a new venture in his boyhood home. In the 36 years since he graduated from Newberg High School, his travels have taken him all over the region, including assistant coaching stops at The Dalles High School (1982-85), Linfield College (1985-94) and Whitworth College (1994-2004).
Still, through all the years, his ties to Newberg have remained strong. His parents still live in town, and his brother Brian is the city’s police chief. “The world is round, let me tell you,” he says. “I literally grew up playing on the fields at George Fox. It was the No. 1 place we hung out. As a kid, I remember football players from the college having lunch with us on Sundays. As a ball boy, I cleaned the ball [George Fox running back] Charlie James used to rush for 200 yards one game. I remember thinking I played a vital role in Charlie’s success that day.”
These days, Casey is cultivating success at Aloha. When he took over the program in 2004, the Warriors had won just 17 games in the previous 14 seasons. They hadn’t made the playoffs since the mid-1980s. Playing in the Metro League – arguably the state’s strongest – Aloha was regularly outmatched on the football field.
When we arrived there were a lot of obstacles to overcome,” recalls Aloha assistant coach Bob Mewhinney, who also coached with Casey at Linfield. “It took a ton of work to change the attitude and implement a new system. But with Chris’s leadership, we were able to turn things around. He believed in the kids. There was a lot of adversity, but Chris hung in there.
Casey refused to use the program’s losing culture – or the town’s disadvantaged socio-economic standing relative to surrounding communities – as excuses. His persistence paid off, as Aloha made the playoffs for the first time in 22 years in 2009.
But the best was yet to come. Led by star all-state running back Thomas Tyner, the Warriors stormed to an Oregon Class 6A state championship in 2010 and Casey was named 6A Coach of the Year. But Aloha’s 34-13 championship-game defeat of Tualatin isn’t what stands out in Tyner’s mind when asked for his favorite Casey memory.
"My favorite moment was watching coach dance with his wife after we beat Westview in 2009,” says Tyner, a highly ranked Division I prospect. “He had told us that if we got to the playoffs he would dance in the middle of the field, so he got out there and danced to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ It was a great moment for the whole community.
Aloha had gone from doormat to champion, in part because it had a coach with an unrelenting work ethic and an infectious belief in the power of community. “No coach in the history of football can outwork Coach Casey,” says Tanner Krahel, a defensive tackle at Aloha who graduated in 2010. “The guy works day and night and puts his heart and soul into his job and his players. He’s phenomenal. He wants more than anything for his players to be the best they can on the field – and more importantly – in life.”
Field as Classroom
To Casey, the field is a classroom. “The best place in our academic system to learn success skills is team activities and team sports – cheerleading, band, speech, drama, athletics,” he says. “Those are great teachers of life skills – things like working hard, getting along with people, handling adversity, finishing what you start, determination, being a team player. I hardly know of any job anymore that doesn’t have a team concept to it.”
It’s a philosophy Casey adopted from his mentor Ad Rutschman, the legendary Linfield coach who won three national football titles – and one baseball crown – and is enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. “Coach wouldn’t use the word ‘extracurricular’ because [athletics] involve learning,” recalls Casey. “It’s not ‘extracurricular,’ it’s ‘co-curricular.’ I don’t think we should have anything here on campus that’s organized where learning doesn’t take place.”
Casey’s priority to “build championship-caliber people first and foremost and a championship-caliber football program secondly” is a conviction that, Rutschman believes, makes him “ideal” for George Fox. “Chris is a man of character, commitment, integrity, honesty and excellence,” Rutschman says. “He believes in what George Fox stands for. I don’t know of anyone who would be a better fit.”
With 22 years of playing and coaching experience in the Northwest Conference, Casey is prepared for the task at hand. He’s also a proven winner.
As defensive coordinator at Whitworth, Casey helped reestablish the Pirates as a Northwest Conference playoff contender after a string of subpar seasons. During his last five years at Whitworth, they won a NWC championship, made it to the national playoffs and went 29-19. The defense led the conference in scoring defense in 2001 and produced the conference’s defensive players of the year in 2000 and 2001. Overall, 16 Pirates were named first-team all-league defenders during Casey’s tenure.
At Linfield, he spent nine years helping Jay Locey, now the assistant head coach at Oregon State, run the Wildcats’ defense. Casey was a member of the 1986 squad that won an NAIA Division II national championship, and he won two conference titles as a player for Linfield (1978-81), where Mike Riley, current Oregon State coach, was his position coach.
“Every place Chris has gone the program has risen – he’s a winner,” says George Fox Athletic Director Craig Taylor, who championed Casey among a nationwide pool of 80 candidates for the head job. “He knows the Northwest, he knows our conference and he’s the kind of guy you want your son to be around. We couldn’t think of a more qualified candidate.”
All in the Family
Casey stresses the fundamentals. He’s big on conditioning and preparation. Ultimately, though, he puts a premium on character development – and it all starts with relationship.
To Casey, students are like family. Walking the halls at Aloha, he offers a greeting to everyone who crosses his path. He asks one student how they did on a test. He asks another how his basketball season is going. To another, he questions why they aren’t in class after the bell, because “academics is where it’s at – it’s important,” he tells them.
To Casey, students are like family. Walking the halls at Aloha, he offers a greeting to everyone who crosses his path.
We’re pretty tight-knit around here,” he says in between greetings. “That’s what happens when you go through so much together – the tough times and the good times.
Casey has recently spoken at two players’ funerals. He makes himself available for counseling. He takes late-night calls from distressed players.
He obviously wants to win on the field, but winning in life is more important to him,” says his brother Pat, who coached baseball at George Fox before taking over at Oregon State and winning two national D-I titles. “Coaching is a big roller-coaster ride. You deal with all kinds of things, on and off the field. Chris has made a positive impact wherever he’s been, and I’m sure he’ll do the same at George Fox. I’m happy for him.”
Casey admits starting a program from scratch is a monumental challenge, but he relishes the opportunity. “I want to be a part of enhancing the George Fox experience,” he says. “It’s already a great school. I’d love our program to be something students can rally around – a source of community pride. I’ve just been so impressed with the school and with [President] Robin [Baker’s] and Craig [Taylor’s] commitment to this.”
Hard work: the great equalizer
“People live in one of two worlds – a world of excuses or a world of answers,” he says. “People who live in the world of excuses are always finding a rationale for not doing something, for not succeeding. People who live in a world of answers work hard enough to where they find an answer to overcome, to achieve, to solve problems. We’re going to live in the world of answers. Hard work is the great equalizer.”
His recruiting criteria? Find players who are teachable, put the team first and are willing to lead. “Ideally, we want student-athletes who are looking for a Christian experience and, more so than even athletic ability, I’m looking for work ethic, attitude, coachability – those things.
“Give me a bunch of guys who do that and we’re going to be winners.”