From the day Dave Curtis arrived on the DeSales campus in the fall of 1977 until now, the Irish football program has been led by a mere handful of head coaches.
That’s 41 years of coaching stability seldom seen at the small-school level and highlighted by five state championships, six second-place finishes at state and postseason appearances practically every single year.
Curtis coached the Irish for a decade and his teams qualified for the playoffs seven times, reaching the Kingbowl in Seattle for the first time in 1985 when DeSales lost to Concrete 42-21.
Kim Cox, a Curtis assistant coach for six seasons, took over in 1987 and was the Irish head coach for 13 seasons over a 19-year span. Cox led DeSales to its first state championship in 1991, repeated in 1997 and 1999 and ultimately endured a three-year period beginning in 2003 in which the Irish posted an impressive 35-4 record overall and lost in the state championship game each year.
John Graham, the son of legendary Reardan coach Dan Graham, held the Irish head coaching position for two seasons and took DeSales as far as the state semifinals in 1993.
Pat Graham (no relation), who quarterbacked DeSales to its 1991 title, coached his alma mater to a state championship in 1998 and lost twice in the state semifinals during his four years in charge of the program.
And Mike Spiess, who took the reins for the first time in 2000, has served as head coach for 13 seasons during his 20 years at the school. Spiess guided DeSales to its most recent state championship in 2007 after losing to Willapa Valley in the 2001 title game.
So it’s been quite a run of success.
But as the 2019 season draws near, DeSales finds itself sailing into uncharted waters.
Spiess, head coach for the past seven seasons, advised school administrators early this spring that he was no longer interested in running the program. His decision came shortly after the school made the monumental move to drop down in WIAA classification from the Class B 11-man ranks and will play 8-man football this fall.
For the record, DeSales has historically been eligible to play 8-man football because of its enrollment numbers. But since opening its doors in the fall of 1959, the Catholic high school has always opted to play up a classification and compete as an 11-man program.
Also for the record, Spiess said his decision to step aside as the football coach had nothing whatsoever to do with the school’s decision to play 8-man football. To the contrary, he said, he was in favor of the move.
“It was really our only option, based on the numbers we have had for the last several years,” Spiess said. “It was strictly a numbers thing.
“At our end-of-the-season meeting, we only had 16 kids committed to football and very small incoming classes. There are 14 kids in next year’s junior class, and only two of them are football players, and there’s one football player in our incoming freshman class, although we might pick up a couple of more.”
Spiess decision, he said, was more personal in nature.
“I have to do what is best for my family, and two years ago we decided it would probably be best if I started to move away from Catholic Schools as an employee,” he explained.
“My passion for teaching and coaching at DeSales is just not there any more. What I told the kids, and what I told their parents in a letter, was that my passion for coaching isn’t there and that I expect my players to play with passion.
“If I can’t coach with a lot of passion, I can’t expect my players to play with passion. It has nothing to do with the 8-man situation.”
Spiess confirmed that he has inquired about teaching positions in Walla Walla Public Schools, where he taught for 14 years before making the switch to DeSales, where he graduated in 1980. At this juncture, however, he has not resigned his teaching position at DeSales.
So far, none of Spiess’ assistant coaches have shown an interest in taking over as the head coach. Irish athletic director Nick Hazeltine said there is an ongoing search to find a replacement.
“We’re just trying to be patient and find the right fit for our football program,” Hazeltine said. “We don’t have a specific time frame, but we do have an ongoing search.
“We just opened it up to everyone, but as of now we haven’t seen a specific person.”
Couple that with learning the intricacies of 8-man football — there are differences to be sure — and the DeSales football program finds itself in a situation it hasn’t experienced in the last 41 years.