By Greg Price
It was a trip down memory lane for myself as I observed Del Cleland’s induction into the Wall of Fame for W.R. Myers School, an institution he roamed along the gym floor for more than three decades.
I had the pleasure of covering Cleland’s teams near the tail end of his coaching career and I must say, he is one of the most memorable coaches I’ve ever interviewed in my nearly 20 years of covering southern Alberta sports. Emerging as an extremely green reporter from the journalism program at Lethbridge College in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had heard of Cleland’s hard-nosed coaching philosophies from locals which made me a tad intimidated.
That attitude bore itself out as I witnessed his coaching on the court as I took action pictures at the W.R. Myers gymnasium.
There was no hesitation in Cleland…if he felt a player was not performing to the level he thought the athlete was capable of either mentally or physically, the hook was a quick one where another player was put into the rotation.
I was not witness to Cleland’s teams practice sessions, but as testimonials from former athletes at Cleland’s Wall of Fame induction attested to, practices were even grittier than games were.
Cleland would even have students in his classroom run stairs if he caught them yawning over the subject matter.
I have covered many different high school athletics coaches over the years, where coaches have been very measured in their responses in the coverage I’ve given to Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association over the decades as I’ve done game coverage. I get it, you are talking about some athletes who are barely into their teens years, which Bobby-Knight-like tirades are unnecessary for the most part.
But Cleland was one of those rare, un-PC like coaches who truly spoke his mind, where I wonder if it ever got him in trouble with parents of players after they read The Taber Times on a Wednesday morning.
Gauging by the tone of comments in the brief years I interviewed him, Cleland was not one to have the unrealistic expectations of a provincial-winning volleyball team year in and year out. He simply wanted every one of his athletes to realize their full potential, and if he felt his athletes were slacking on that endeavour, whatever their skill level, he would let them know about it.
Cleland preached mental toughness as much as he did physical toughness with his athletes.
One incident I remember vividly was an opposing coach complaining about me being there at Myers gym, saying the camera was a big distraction to his athletes during warm up as I took practice shots to get a feel before the match started. I can’t remember if I was using flash photography at the time as advances to photography equipment now makes flash unnecessary for most sports. Still relatively green in my journalism career, I made my way to Cleland during a break to ask if he found my camera work detrimental to his team like the other coach stated.
He quickly dismissed the notion. It was so many years ago that I cannot remember exactly what he said, but with a paraphrase it was something like ‘if an athlete is distracted too much from the task at hand because of a single camera…they are not much of an athlete. Our gym, our rules’ in which he quickly thanked me for the promotion of the program afterwards. Looking up at the referee, he nodded with a sheepish smile, perhaps knowing already how Cleland was going to respond to the inquiry, also granting permission as long as I stood in designated areas.
I really do not know if you are ever again going to see a coach like Cleland and his ilk in high school athletics. Both in the style of coaching and the longevity. More than three decades of continuous service will be the rarest of the rare, not likely to be easily replicated in today’s teaching environment.
So a tip of the hat to Cleland on his well-deserved accolade.
You certainly left an impression on this news guy. Also a tip of the hat to any teacher who spends extra time off the clock moulding young minds, be it athletics, the arts or any other extracurricular activities in going the extra mile.
As Cleland’s induction onto the Wall of Fame proved with a standing ovation in a packed gymnasium, the impact a coach has on a child’s life resonates far past when their time is done in school.