|A Coach For The Ages; Whether
Analyzing videotape or conveying knowledge,|
Frank Ahern retains enthusiasm for working with
By Craig Smith
|His idea of a good time is helping a basketball player position his
feet for a jump shot. Or showing a sprinter the proper angle between thigh and calf in the starting blocks.
Or watching hours of videotape to correct a hurdler's technique.
Meet Frank Ahern, the Methuselah of Seattle high-school coaches, a revered urban legend in his second
half-century of helping city youth.
At 72, Ahern has been head coach or assistant on more than 20 state-championship high-school teams in
basketball, cross country and track. As the sports odometer turns to 2000, Ahern's coaching career chugs
on like a vintage car, as constant and strong an influence on the lives of young athletes as he was when
Harry Truman was president.
Ahern's influence has touched team after team, athlete after athlete during a remarkable career that spans
seven decades. This season, he is an unpaid assistant coach with unbeaten Garfield, the state's No.
1-ranked Class 4A boys team and early favorite for next week's state tournament.
Decades of experience are etched in Ahern's kind face. He has lively blue eyes. His
thinning, red-brown hair routinely is covered with a baseball cap, even when he is indoors.
Ask Ahern's athletes, former or current, about him and their voices take on a tone of reverence.
"I would do anything for him," said ex-Garfield great Joyce Walker, who starred in basketball at
Louisiana State and later became the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. "He inspired
me to work way beyond anything I could have dreamed."|
|1948 and counting|
|Ahern (pronounced "uh-HURN") launched his coaching career
in 1948 at Seattle Prep. Name a school in the Seattle area, and Ahern has coached there, it seems.
He has been at Franklin, Cleveland, Asa Mercer Junior High (now middle school), Seattle Community
College, O'Dea, Highline Community College and now is in his second stint at Garfield.
Other coaches have come and gone, but somehow the games and athletes never passed
Ahern by. Many players soar higher and the shorts droop lower, but Ahern prides himself on
adding the latest techniques and technology to his bedrock of fundamentals.
His main teaching aid for two decades has been a video camera. He videotapes his athletes and watches
the tape with them. He points out flaws in technique, then pulls a video from his extensive library to show
He is 5 pounds above his 1958 wedding-year weight of 170 and still has the dexterity to demonstrate proper
rebounding position or correct follow-through in the shot put.
"I never, ever think of myself as being old," he said.
Mark Phillips, who has coached Holy Names Academy to two consecutive Class 3A state girls track
championships, calls Ahern "the greatest" and "my idol."
Phillips set the all-time state record in the 300-meter hurdles in 1986 at Garfield (36.57 seconds) and ran
on the state-record 400 relay team (41.34) the same year. Both records still stand.
"He's a model for me," Phillips said. "I walk around with my video camera. I use the
same sayings he used to use. I train the kids the same way. I make them watch videos for hours."
Ahern's lessons go beyond the courts and playing fields to the classroom. He remains a teacher and
father figure as much as a coach.
"He made me go to class," Phillips said. "He made me stay longer at practice, and he was there at all
times. He was like a father away from home. He sincerely wanted you to get better as a person, an
athlete and a student. . . . I succeeded because of him.
If it weren't for him, I guarantee you that I wouldn't have any state records."
Ahern has taught 13 subjects in his career and now teaches two physical-education classes at Garfield as
a long-term substitute. The head coach is Wayne Floyd, who played for Ahern at Asa Mercer in the 1970s.
"Frank is a fundamentals coach, and I stress fundamentals," Floyd said. "He's a technician."
If Garfield advances to the Class 4A state tournament in Tacoma, Ahern will be there with his video
camera. RoyDell Smiley, a standout on this year's Garfield team, said players figure anything Ahern says
is gospel. "He's been there," Smiley said. "He's worked with a bunch of great players. He takes you
individually and tells you what we're doing wrong. . . . He'll
watch a tape frame by frame and know if you're setting your feet wrong when you shoot."
Jim Harney, 64, played for Ahern at Seattle Prep and then went on to start on Seattle University's 1958
team with Elgin Baylor that finished second in the NCAA tournament. Harney spent 40 years coaching
basketball, the final 24 at North Kitsap High School, before retiring in 1997.
"Frank is the finest teacher of fundamentals of sport that I know of in the
state of Washington," Harney said. "Everything I tried to do as far as teaching the fundamentals
of the game of basketball was from Frank."
|Dad the freedom fighter|
|Ahern learned his tireless work ethic and eternal optimism not from
another coach, but from his father. Dan Ahern was an Irish freedom fighter who began working for less
than a nickel an hour in 1916 at a dairy farm in Kent. The farm was operated by the Christian Brothers,
the same Catholic order that operates O'Dea High School. Dan Ahern returned to Ireland in the early
1920s, then returned to Kent, where again he worked 12- to 16-hour days.
"I was 14 before I saw my father take two days off in a row," Frank Ahern said.
"My father was always optimistic. He never complained, and he always said things would work out."
Frank, the second-oldest of four children, attended Briscoe School in Kent, which was run by the
Christian Brothers. There were no time-outs for Ahern in school. He played every sport, starred in
school plays, sang in the choir and even tap-danced.
"The Christian Brothers had us active all the time," he said. "The time and effort the Brothers put in
was unbelievable. Briscoe was my Camelot."
Ahern went to O'Dea, where he played basketball and graduated at age 16. At Washington State,
he played varsity basketball for two years. He claims that wasn't much of an accomplishment because
World War II had started and all that were left on campus were "17-year-olds and 4Fs."
At Washington State, Ahern met another pivotal person in his life, Jack Friel. Ahern's one-word description
of Friel is telling: "scientific." It's a word others might use for Ahern.
Friel imbued an appreciation for the physics of sport into Ahern, along with the strong belief that
proper technique brings the best results.
"What we had was a great coach in Jack Friel," Ahern said. "I thought that if anybody would just listen to
him, they were going to get better." This attention to detail led Ahern to begin assembling his library of
books, articles, films and instructional videos in basketball and track.
Ahern's cramped but organized study in his Rainier Beach home is packed with shoe boxes of videos.
No Oscar performances can be found in Ahern's unique library, which includes titles such as "Common
Errors and Hurdle Corrections" and "Progressive Teaching of the Women's Discus."
|Frank's trophy room|
|"You have a trophy room?" a visitor asked.
"Sure, here," he said, leading the way to the living room and pointing to photos of his six adult children
on their wedding days. Ahern's list of accomplishments begins not with his athletes, but with his family.
All of the Ahern children, now ages 33 to 40, made deans' lists in college. He has 15 grandchildren.
Paul, the only son, earned 12 letters in high school and was a state diving champion for Kennedy, the
parochial school in Burien attended by all the Ahern offspring. All participated in a variety of sports.
On this day, father and son have been on a 15-mile bicycle ride through the Green River Valley.
"I couldn't have had better parents, I couldn't have had a better brother and sisters, I couldn't have
had better children, and I won the wife lottery," the old coach likes to say, referring to his wife, Dona,
who taught at Kennedy when the children were there.
Where are the plaques commemorating Ahern's induction into various halls of fame, including the state
track coaches, state cross-country coaches and Seattle Prep? "They're up there," said Ahern, pointing to
a face-down stack atop a bookcase in the den. After two years at WSU, Ahern went into the Army during
World War II but didn't serve overseas. He eventually resumed his studies at Seattle University, where he
was a 5-foot-8 guard on Chieftain basketball teams. SU Coach Al Brightman once said Ahern was "as
good a perfectionist as I ever expect to see."
In 1948, Ahern began his Seattle Prep coaching career as a basketball assistant while completing his
studies at Seattle U. He was promoted to head coach at Prep in 1952 and two seasons later became
the first Prep coach to win a title in the old Cross-State League, which stretched from Tacoma to Bellingham
and across the Cascades.
He moved to Franklin High School in 1958 and won his first state championship in cross country
in 1964. In the 1970s, Ahern was at Asa Mercer, where his basketball team won 68 consecutive
games. Four of those players Jawann Oldham, James Woods, Carl Ervin and Eli Carter
were on Cleveland teams that won the 1975 state AA championship and the 1976 AAA title.
The 1976 team was selected team of the century by The Seattle Times.
Ahern believes strongly in the value of sports, especially in city schools where sports can be the magnet
that keeps students from dropping out. Leave it to Ahern to cite statistics, a staple for any coach, to
support his argument. "Less than 2 percent of students who become actively involved in interscholastic
activities drop out of school," he said.
|Bloom where you are planted|
|Ahern doesn't smoke, drink or swear. He remains a straight arrow
who can set an example for his players no matter what the standards are.
He likes sayings. One of his favorites: "Bloom where you are planted." He doesn't know where he first
saw it, but it was particularly pertinent at Asa Mercer, where at first he didn't like being reassigned to the
middle school. Later, he grew to cherish his years there. One year, 92 percent of the students in his
physical-education classes passed the Marine Corps Fitness Test.
Ahern knows he made the right choice with his life.
"If you work with these kids and put a lot of time in with them, it's something neither one of you forgets,"
he said. Why does he keep working when most men his age are retired? His wife says he needs to stay
busy with sports and kids to be happy. One of his "Ahernisms" provides the best answer:
"When your vocation is your avocation, you never work a day in your life."
By that definition, Ahern has been taking it easy.
"If I had the choice of being anybody in the world," the old coach said, "I'd like to be me."|
|Ahern at a glance|
Height: 5 feet 8. Weight: 175 pounds
Residence: Rainier Beach area
Coaching stops: Seattle Prep, Franklin High School, Asa Mercer Junior High, Cleveland High School,
Seattle Central Community College, O'Dea High School, Highline Community College, Garfield High School
Sports: Has coached basketball, track and cross country. He is now a volunteer boys basketball
coach and boys and girls track coach at Garfield High School
Children: Theresa, attorney; Rosemary, teacher; Jeanne, commercial real-estate broker; Paul,
Boeing engineer; Ruth, program director for convalescent center; Mary, teacher
Honors: State cross-country coaches' Hall of Fame, state track coaches' Hall of Fame, Seattle Prep
Hall of Fame
Playing history: Played basketball at O'Dea High School and at Washington State and Seattle
| The Seattle Times 27 February 2000|