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Reilly Richey's first day as a coach for the Juneau-Douglas High School football team was one to remember, but for all the wrong reasons.
Richey, now Juneau's head coach, met then-head coach Dave Haynie the day before Juneau's first practice in 1990 and was appointed the team's defensive coordinator. The following day, only eight players showed up for the high school team's first-ever practice and by the end of the practice two of those players were led away in handcuffs.
From that inauspicious start, Juneau created a football program that ranks among the state's best, and was briefly ranked among the top Pacific Northwest teams this year. Richey, who became Juneau's head coach in 1998, just earned the state's coach of the year award for Alaska last week, his second such award in three years.
"To me, considering all the things he has to do, he's coach of the year every year," said Juneau offensive coordinator Mike Hutcherson, who's coached with Richey since 1990. "It's nice to see him get the recognition. His award is our award. He's got his priorities right about developing kids and the wins are just a byproduct of that. He keeps us focused on our priorities. He shows the kids if we're going to be successful it's going to take all of us working together. With him, it's all about developing young men for the long term."
Steve White, president of the Juneau Youth Football League, which sponsors the high school team, said Richey teaches players more than football.
"He teaches the kids character values, like modesty and quiet determination, perseverance and follow-through," said White, father of former Crimson Bear lineman James White, who's now on the University of Montana team. "He's kind of the perfect guy for it."
Richey, who moved to Juneau in 1977 after playing for Humboldt State in California, isn't a Vince Lombardi "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" type of drill-sergeant coach. On the sidelines he rarely raises his voice, and you rarely see him question an official's call. When the all-state awards were announced last week, Richey only told his assistants about awards won by Juneau players. Hutcherson said the assistant coaches found out about Richey's award from other sources.
"If you were to ask him what's the most important thing about coaching, he'd say it's to see 30 or 40 kids make giant steps toward becoming young men," said Jeep Rice, another assistant coach who's worked with Richey since 1990.
One thing many people notice about the Crimson Bears is there's a sense of priority. The coaches and players want to win, but they also know there's more to life than winning football games. Richey said his personal priority list has football fourth, and the priority list he gives his players is "God, family, school and then football."
"He teaches you a lot more than football," said Juneau senior Zac Campbell, who was voted the state's lineman of the year. "Overall he's a great person, as well as a good coach. He tries to teach us to have a quiet confidence and he uses a lot of positive reinforcement. I've never quite seen anyone coach the way he does."
Part of the Bears' priority list comes from Richey's own 13-year battle with cancer. Some of his assistants have had similar personal struggles, such as defensive coordinator Ray Bradley, whose daughter Chrysantha had a heart transplant two years ago. Campbell said that helps players keep things in perspective.
"He's shown us there are definitely other things besides football," Campbell said.
Six weeks after his first wife, Kathleen Isturis, was told she had incurable breast cancer in 1988, Richey was diagnosed with an incurable, small-cell variety of lymphoma. The couple had hospital rooms down the hall from each other at the Stanford Medical Center, and Richey said he underwent six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He also had some of his bone marrow removed before radiation treatments and later replaced.
"I didn't eat for 45 days," Richey said.
Isturis died later that year and Richey married his current wife, Kathi Yanamura, in 1991. In 1993, Richey had a relapse and he was told he had an aggressive lymphoma. Richey said he almost died in the hospital because he'd gone snowboarding in Lake Tahoe, caught a cold and the infection was almost too much for his depleted immune system to handle. Doctors were able to beat back the cancer with another round of chemotherapy and radiation, but they told him more chemotherapy was risky and his cancer would probably return in an aggressive form.
Richey said his life really changed in 1997 when his cancer returned, his marriage was struggling and all of Juneau's coaches, including Richey, were asked to turn in their resignations after a 1-7 season. Richey said he also became a Christian that year.
"I'd hit bottom and now I really feel God's put me here for a reason," he said. "You know, I felt this is where I belong, coaching here, and God wouldn't want me anyplace else. It put a passion in my heart."
Richey was told he had a slow-growing type of lymphoma in 1997. He went to the Livingston Clinic in San Diego, where doctors suggested he change to a vegetarian, almost vegan, diet. He gets yearly checkups to watch the growth of the cancer, which is still present.
"I don't fear my disease like I used to," Richey said. "Now my biggest fears are how am I going to replace a guy like Brett Fairchild (Juneau's quarterback and the state's offensive player of the year). I figure God's in control and he's kept me around all these years for some reason. And the longer I go, there's a chance some new stuff will be developed."
When Juneau's head coaching job was opened for applications after the 1997 season, Richey applied for the position and was hired despite some protests in February 1998. Richey and Yanamura are still together, and Yanamura films most of Juneau's football games and helps Richey with his weekly television show about the Crimson Bears.
"People thought I was crazy to apply," said Richey, who's posted a 21-12 record in his four years as head coach. "They said I must really love coaching to put myself through all that."
This year Richey led Juneau's football team to a 7-2 overall record, its first Cook Inlet Football Conference championship and the opportunity to host Juneau's first home playoff game, a 31-0 loss to eventual state champion Dimond High School of Anchorage. When he won the 1999 coach of the year award Richey led the Crimson Bears to a 7-3 overall record, their first berth in the state playoffs and a trip to the state semifinals, a loss to eventual champion Service High of Anchorage.
But the coach of the year awards were about more than Juneau's success on the football field.
"I think the thing that sets Reilly apart is just what it takes to get a team on the field, and the amount of pressure that comes from the parents down there," said Bartlett High School head coach John Jessen, president of the Alaska High School Football Coaches Association. "As a coach, he has to raise $100,000 before his team takes the field and he still wins. I have to deal with parents with my team, but their kids just play for me. His are shareholders in the team."
Juneau's high school football program has a travel budget that rivals some college programs. Because there is no road access to any of Juneau's opponents, the Crimson Bears have to fly to Anchorage at least three times a year for conference games. When the Bears have home games, the team has to pay to bring the opposition to town.
Each Crimson Bear has to raise more than $1,000 before taking the field, with money coming from players' fees, a raffle and other sources.
"Our program has its disadvantages, like each kid has to raise about $1,300 in fund-raising and fees and we expect the kids to train all year long," Richey said. "But on the flip side, when our kids get their uniforms they've already got so much invested in the team. Before they get their uniforms they've already demonstrated they love the game. It's been exciting to see us go where we have from the Litterbox (the old dirt field) with no stands and only eight guys at our first practice."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.