Gillaspie takes Pied Piper magic to Sitka

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

In my five years here at the Clarion sports department, I've come to know numerous coaches and administrators pretty well.

But only once have I been to a coach's home for dinner, and that was this spring when I drove out to Nikiski to have brats and steak with Steve Gillaspie.

After eight years of coaching various sports and teaching at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, Gillaspie and his family left the Kenai Peninsula Thursday for Sitka, where Gillaspie will teach at-risk middle school students.

So why does it matter that I went to his house for brats and steak, plus a nice little salad? Because that dinner represented what made Gillaspie so special as a coach and educator -- the ability to get to know somebody, and then get that somebody to do something they'd never considered doing before.

In school, journalists (and by journalists I don't mean Ahmad Rashad) are taught never to get "too close" to sources, because tomorrow those sources could screw up and it could be time to write unfriendly things about them.

Keeping this in mind, I outdid even the state Legislature in masterfully manufacturing excuse after excuse when Gillaspie's dinner invitations started coming with the regularity of credit-card mailings last fall.

This spring I finally cracked, went over and had a dinner I thought I'd never have, and suddenly realized how hundreds of Gillaspie's students and athletes have felt over the years.

Gillaspie had gotten me to come to dinner just like he'd coaxed so many athletes to not only go out for sports, but to win things in them they'd never imagined.

"He takes it personally when he sees good athletes walking around the halls not doing anything," wrestler Abe Porter said after the Bulldogs won the Class 123A state wrestling tournament in 1997. "And he's a good smooth-talker."

Former Nikiski assistant principal Don Glaze, Nikiski basketball coach Reid Kornstad and former Nikiski track coach Jim Arness have all called Gillaspie the Pied Piper for the way athletes would flock to the sports he coached.

The Pied Piper effect was first seen in wrestling, a sport for which Gillaspie was the head coach for six years.

The year before Gillaspie got to Nikiski, the 1993-94 school year, there were about 10 Bulldogs in the mat room. In Gillaspie's first year, there were about 18. By his third year, numbers had ballooned to 40 and Nikiski was winning the first of what would be four straight state championships under Gillaspie's tenure.

"It's just a cycle of kids," Gillaspie would always say, shrugging off the accomplishment like his new Southeast neighbors shrug off rain. "I'm not going to sit here and say I'm the one who caused it."

But plenty of other people will, among them Glaze, Kornstad and Arness.

As a teacher of health, physical education and weight training for grades seven through 12, Gillaspie used his wacky blend of charisma, humor and honesty to become a special athletic mentor to students.

How special?

Each week during the prep season here at the Clarion, we do a feature on a high school athlete. When I do my features, I ask each athlete who would be a good source for their story.

Time after time, Nikiski athletes, even those who'd never had Gillaspie as a head coach, would suggest that I talk to Gillaspie about them.

Last fall, I asked one of those athletes, 2002 graduate Nigel Penhale, why everyone always suggested Gillaspie.

"I don't know, he's almost like the godfather," Penhale said. "He's always there for us."

And "always" means off the field, too. Gillaspie said he has an open-door policy in education. That not only means open classroom door, but open door to the home as well.

In Kotzebue, Gillaspie said it was common knowledge that if students needed to, they could walk in his house in the middle of the night and flop down on the couch.

When Gillaspie went to leave the tight Bush community after three years, a line formed around the gym at his last sports banquet, each athlete and parent wanting time for a personal goodbye.

In Nikiski, the Gillaspie residence had one extra bedroom. Last year was the first time in his eight years at the school that the room wasn't filled with a student.

Opening a house to a student is warm and fuzzy and all, but it also carries a fair amount of risk. Gillaspie gladly stuck his neck out for students. In his words, "That's what education's about. We're here for the kids."

Gillaspie's willingness to speak out about kids being slighted rubbed a few wrong over the years.

In 2000, when the Alaska Schools Activities Association created two separate seasons for wrestling, many of the big wrestling programs in the state wanted to move to spring.

But Gillaspie irritated many coaches by holding out against moving Nikiski to spring because he felt the move would kill wrestling in the Bush, where basketball rules the spring and where wrestling teams save money by traveling in the fall at the same time as volleyball teams.

"I talked to people in the Bush, and I knew wrestling wouldn't survive if we all moved to spring," Gillaspie said. "Wrestling in the fall isn't ideal, but I think everybody's realizing now that we can do it."

Gillaspie coached a lot of state-champion caliber athletes during his time at Nikiski, but two athletes that sum up his career best are 2002 graduates Tony and Wayne Aitken.

Both were coaxed into wrestling by Gillaspie in seventh-grade physical education class. Both thought about quitting more times than a smoker throughout their careers, but their parents and coaches, one of whom was Gillaspie, kept getting them back out on the mat each year.

In the fall, Wayne took fourth in the state at 130, while Tony was fifth at 140.

"For me, they're what sports at the high school level is all about," Gillaspie said. "You take kids without a lot of the God-given gifts that a lot of kids walking the halls have.

"These kids never thought they'd have success, but they work hard and turn out better than they thought they'd be. That's the biggest thrill for me -- watching something like that."

A lot of effort and heated words have been put into trying to determine the value of educators on the peninsula lately. Teachers like Steve Gillaspie show how impossible determining the real value of an educator can be.

Thanks for the steak, Steve.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to

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