The clock had moved past 1 a.m. and Eddie Van Vlack still hadn’t fallen asleep.
A little more than five hours earlier on Monday evening, Philomath High School’s junior varsity boys basketball coach had seen his team lose a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and fall to Cascade. He replayed the game in his mind.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “Every play goes through your mind, every call that you put in, every substitution that you did. And you know, I didn’t get a kid in the game that I wanted to and that drives me crazy … I beat myself up over that.”
It’s the life of a high school basketball coach and he’s been in the game for more than a quarter century — the past two decades at Philomath High. But the sleepless nights will be no more with Van Vlack stepping away from coaching. The game against Cascade was his last as the JV head coach.
Prior to the varsity game’s tip-off on Feb. 20, head coach Blake Ecker took a moment to recognize Van Vlack’s contribution to the program. Ecker’s voice cracked a few times and Van Vlack teared up. Besides spending time together coaching, they are also good friends.
“I think part of it was my wife had surprised me with some coaches and family and friends that I haven’t seen in a while and I didn’t know they were coming,” Van Vlack said. “That made it a little emotional.”
Some of the team’s players also got a little emotional, which warmed Van Vlack’s heart because that’s a little out of the norm for teenage boys. Senior Chad Russell gave his coach a big hug.
Said Van Vlack, “It was more challenging than I thought it was going to be … I was just mentally and physically exhausted.”
Impressive record as JV coach
Van Vlack won 80% of his games as the head coach with a record of 310-78. That included perfect seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
“Yeah, we had a really good stretch there for five or six years,” he said. “I think it was 2014 to 2016, we had a 56-game winning streak at one point in time.”
Why step away from the game? Van Vlack said he came to the realization that there were other things going on in his life that needed attention — primarily himself and his family. The demands of coaching just make it very difficult to enjoy the types of special moments he wants to experience as he gets closer to age 50.
“Things were happening that I never thought would happen in my lifetime but what it did was it makes you realize that family is important,” he said. “I’ve got three grandkids now, my youngest granddaughter was born here at the end of January … and my oldest grandson is going to turn 6.
“I didn’t take him camping once last year — and that bothers me,” he added. “My family made a lot of sacrifices when my kids were young because I was coaching and always gone and I missed things of theirs. And so now, I feel like I get a second chance to not miss those things.”
Beyond those important family-related reasons, the demands of coaching have also changed through the years.
“Times are challenging in the coaching world,” he said. “You’re expected to do more and more and more with less, less, less.”
At the high school level, coaches will often put in a minimum of 30 hours a week working on the program. Van Vlack said it’s basically a second full-time job for at least four months out of the year, seven days a week.
The stress that often accompanies coaching is another factor, Van Vlack said — “It’s just wearing and tiring.”
Despite those reasons for feeling like it’s time to move on, Van Vlack said he will miss the kids. But his job as the Philomath Youth Activities Club executive director means he will still be able to work with youth at least 40 hours a week.
Said Van Vlack of working with high school athletes, “I wouldn’t change it and I’m so glad I did it.”
First job coaching hoops at Eddyville
A Myrtle Point graduate who earned a teaching degree at Western Oregon University, Van Vlack’s coaching career started in Eddyville in 1996 — Glenn Faxon was the head basketball coach and Steve Brattain was the athletic director. After volunteering for the first year, Van Vlack was hired as assistant coach, which included running the JV program.
Two years later, Faxon needed to lighten his coaching commitments and Van Vlack took over as the head coach. Beyond basketball, Van Vlack was also the head baseball coach for four years and served as an assistant football coach.
Straining to remember how he ended up at Philomath, Van Vlack said he believes the first connection occurred when former coach Dave Garvin had contacted him about coming in to help with the program.
“At that time, I was coaching in Eddyville and didn’t really have an interest and then he retired after they won the state title (in 2001-02),” Van Vlack said.
Meanwhile, Ecker, a Philomath High graduate who had played for Garvin, was coaching at South Albany. Ecker took the PHS job with 2002-03 being his first season.
“He was my first hire as a head coach … I hired him as the freshman coach,” Ecker said. “I took over that summer and ran the summer league … we had a JV coach already in place and we kept him. … I remember going into the office and talking to him about his basketball stuff and telling him, ‘consider yourself hired.’ So, it was a good hire.”
Working under Ecker for the past 20 years, Van Vlack said he’s never had the desire to move up into the head coaching position.
“Most people, when you’re an assistant coach, you want to move up the ranks,” he said. “I never had the desire to want to do that … He never had to worry about me, you know, trying to take credit for things or want his job at any point in time or any loyalty or trust issues or anything like that.”
It’s all about working with the kids
About nine seasons ago while the team was in Reno, Nevada, for a team camp, Ecker asked Van Vlack if he’s take on a new responsibility during games.
“We started talking and I said, ‘hey, look, why don’t you start doing the subbing … and I’ll just coach the game, work on the game part of it,’” Ecker recalled. “So we started doing that and that gave him a lot more freedom and opportunity to be a part of the varsity program as well and have a stake in it.”
That’s not a task that Ecker would hand over to just anybody.
“We have been together for so many years getting to know each other and understanding what we want to both accomplish,” he said. “That will be hard to replace somebody like that.”
Van Vlack said other coaching opportunities would surface from time to time but it was never anything that he wanted.
“The nice thing about being a JV coach is that the primary focus is working with the kids and I don’t have to worry as much about some of the administrative stuff,” he said. “When you coach, the primary reason you coach to work with kids but the other thing is the relationship that you have with the other people you’re coaching with is critical and we’ve been fortunate.”
Van Vlack and Ecker got to know each well over their 20-year run together.
“You spent many nights in hotels together, doing summer stuff, doing all-star stuff, and we became really good friends along with it.”
And that’s what Ecker said will impact him the most.
“That’s probably the hardest part of it is not having that camaraderie during the season,” he said. “If I coach next year — I always think that I need to reassess at the end of every season — it’ll be tough because he’s my right-hand man and has been for quite some time, a trusted companion and adviser.”
Ecker said he’s given some thought about who might replace Van Vlack.
“I’ve thought of different candidates and different people to ask and there’s a few people in the community that are out there and interested in taking that position,” Ecker said.
Whoever comes into the position, it will be different.
“We built that relationship where we hunt together, we fish together, we crab together and those things have built over the course of years,” Ecker said. “That’s what you want out of coaching and out of basketball — building relationships.”
Ecker admits that it can be a challenge to build relationships with players. Van Vlack could often step in.
“I do the best I can to build a relationship with our boys and sometimes it’s hard because I’m the big, bad coach that has to lay down the law sometimes and that’s difficult,” he said. “Eddie has the cush job in regards that he could be the nice guy and the cool guy. It is what it is but he’s been a great asset over the years and it’ll be different going forward.”
Realization that motivation, interest was waning
The players that have gone through Van Vlack’s JV program includes some of the top names in Warriors basketball history over the past 20 years — Ben DeSaulnier, Riley Davis, Mike Lundy, Cal Stueve, Austin Gerding, Ethan Manning, Nolan Jackson, Derek Davis, Marshall Brattain, Logan Williams, Ben Edmonds, Ky Fisher, Dylan Bennett and many others.
“We had some phenomenal kids,” Van Vlack said, “and when the varsity is successful, it allows you to keep some kids that would probably at a lot of schools be playing varsity. It makes my job much, much easier, let’s be honest.”
A few years ago, Van Vlack started to wonder how much longer he wanted to coach. For example, he said he would always watch film twice for each game and even compiled statistics for the JV team — which is actually not very common at that level. Around 2019, he stopped.
“The last three years I haven’t been doing stats and film, you know, I lost a little bit of my motivation and interest,” Van Vlack said. “The first part of 2019 was the first year I started thinking, ‘man, do I really want to do this?’”
Through his years in Philomath, Van Vlack has also coached in other high school sports, including assistant football coach and head softball coach. Plus, there were his daughters’ youth teams.
Ecker said Van Vlack stepping away from the JV program hasn’t really affected him too much yet — he still has his assistant and friend with him on the bench until the end of the varsity team’s season.
“I’m still going to make him work — whether he likes it or not,” Ecker said.