George Fox football: A most wanted man
One morning in late July, Chris Casey walked into a Wells Fargo bank branch and walked out with something more valuable than all the money in the vault.
He spotted a sign on the desk of a bank employee: “Success without fun doesn’t last and fun without success isn’t very fun.”
When Casey returned to his office, on the second floor of the Duke Athletic Center, he revisited the phrase. Made some tweaks. Personalized it. When he was done with it, the maxim read: “Excellence without fun nor fun without excellence isn’t much fun.”
The phrase from the bank was now a teaching tool.
“Coaches,” he says, “are pretty good thieves.”
When George Fox University announced it would resurrect its football program after 46 seasons, more than 100 football coaches at all levels of college football sent resumes into the school. As he conducted the search, Athletic Director Craig Taylor had a name in mind all along – a certain Linfield College graduate and football player, a three-sport athlete at Newberg High School and a longtime assistant coach in the Northwest Conference.
“He’s the kind of guy that you want your son around as much as you can have your son around him,” Taylor says. “That involves character development. That involves the way that he expresses and has a voice for his faith. The football credentials are impeccable. The intensity level cannot be charted. He is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met.”
“I always say, he’s the best coach in our family,” says Pat Casey, Chris’ younger brother and the Oregon State University baseball coach.
Chris Casey posted a 49-43 record in nine seasons coaching the Aloha High School football team, winning a Class 6A state championship in 2010. Those credentials were an asset in the eyes of the George Fox administration, which had hired baseball coach Marty Hunter, men’s basketball coach Maco Hamilton, women’s basketball coach Michael Meek, and men’s soccer coach Luis Del Rio from the high school ranks.
“You have these coaches that are deeply connected to the high school system and that helps with recruiting,” George Fox President Robin Baker says. “They’re connected entities.”
It’s a familiar narrative: local boy makes good, returns to his hometown, returns to the university he spent his childhood roaming around and helps bring back a popular sport. In practice, Casey found it difficult to leave Aloha, as he had Whitworth College before that.
“Whitworth had challenges and had some losing. Aloha had challenges and had some losing,” Casey says. “To come to another building situation, I had to think about that. Not that I’m afraid of it – I still had to think about that.”
Building football programs made Casey the coach he is today. He has taken those lessons, retooled them, and made them his own.
When George Fox football played its final game, Chris Casey was there.
Growing up in the shadow of the campus, the four Casey brothers – Chris, Pat, Tim and Brian – served as ballboys, pint-sized companions, child managers and overzealous spectators to entire athletic classes of Bruins. That included the football players, even during their program’s tumultuous final years.
“You’re just so excited to watch a game when you’re that age,” Pat Casey says. “You just think that these guys are Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath. We lived and died on those Saturdays.”
Fred Casey was a football player himself, at McMinnville High School and on a reserve team at Oregon State College in Corvallis. His future wife, Bev, was a Mac High cheerleader who maintained interest in athletics through her children.
The couple had seven children in a nine-year span – Mary Lynn was the first, followed by Chris, Pat, Julie, Tim, Brian and Colleen. Nine individuals jockeyed for space in a three-bedroom, one-bath bungalow at 801 North St., one block from the George Fox campus.
“I can remember washing my hair in the kitchen sink and drying my hair near the gas heater,” Mary Lynn recalls. “We had very little grass in our front yard because it was usually a ballfield, or we had a dozen bikes right on top of it.”
George Fox was the playground of the Casey clan. Locked doors to athletic facilities were simply challenges to be surmounted. The children played basketball and baseball against the college kids and made their presence felt on other parts of campus.
“We might have dumped a couple boxes of soap in a fountain and come back the next day,” Pat says. “That was fun to watch.”
In the evenings, the children would bring their friends or George Fox student-athletes to the dinner table, where everyone would be served. Outside of meals and sleep, the Casey children hardly stayed home. The children would work throughout the year, picking berries on farms in the area, babysitting (for the girls) and performing other odd jobs. Chris would play in Newberg High School’s football games on Friday nights and milk cows at a local dairy at 3 a.m. on Saturday mornings.
On Sundays, attendance at Mass was mandatory. Fred and Bev sought to instill Catholic values and the importance of family togetherness into their children. They were tough, the kids recall, but fair.
“They were a good balance as far as disciplinarians and setting rules and boundaries,” Mary Lynn says. “Always knew could go to either one of them for anything. I probably went to my dad for the biggest issues. I probably went to my mom for the hugs and the softer words of encouragement. They always encouraged us to come home if we had a problem, if we had issues. That’s where our love would be.”
All four Casey boys exhibited competitive streaks, with Chris considered the toughest. Pat remembers Chris playing in a street baseball game with a broken leg locked in a cast. Chris played third base on defense, sitting in a chair. One of the participants hit Chris in his broken leg with a line drive.
Baseball ended up the game of choice for Pat, Tim and Brian, all of whom spent time in the minor leagues.
“He was very skilled,” says Pat. “I think Chris, if he chose to be, could’ve been anything he wanted to be. He could’ve been a college baseball player, he could’ve been a college basketball player, but he wanted to be a football player.”
At Linfield, he learned about leadership.
Chris Casey joined the Wildcats football team in 1978 after playing for two years at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham. Physically small for a defensive back at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, he made his presence felt on the field.
“When he tackles, you’re going to know it,” says longtime Linfield coach Ad Rutschman, a College Football Hall of Fame member. “When he hits, he’s going to make an attempt to light things up. He got the most out of his abilities.”
The Wildcats won Northwest Conference championships twice during Casey’s career, going 32-7-1. What left a more indelible mark on Casey was the tutelage of his head coach – how Rutschman taught the game of football, how he treated as players and how he focused on individual development.
“Outside of my parents, he’s had the most impact on my life as an adult,” Chris says. “Just a tremendous person and coach. Almost my total coaching philosophy is stuff I’ve stolen from him.
“The biggest thing I took from him was just the value of athletics in people’s lives. The tremendous impact that it can have in a human relationships standpoint. The best place to learn something – if you’re talking about science, is a science class. When you’re talking about human development, human relationships, teamwork concepts, I think in our academic arena the best place is team sports to teach those things.”
“He’s an absolute gentleman, he’s a fine individual and he’s one heck of a nice man,” Fred Casey says of Rutschman. “Chris has some of those attributes.”
Chris Casey taught briefly at Tigard High School and coached at The Dalles High School before returning to Linfield in 1985 to obtain his master’s degree. Rutschman added him to his staff as defensive line coach.
“He was somewhat of a perfectionist,” Rutschman says. “He just had expectations of people doing things the way that we wanted them done and he was persistent at it.”
One day in 1994, Rutschman received a call from Kevin Bryant, then the athletic director at Whitworth. The Pirates were searching for a defensive coordinator and Bryant needed a reference.
“He said, ‘Tell me a little about Chris,’” Rutschman recalls. “I said, ‘Well, the first thing that you probably need to understand, he’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable.’”
In Rutschman’s telling, he stops there, lets the words linger. After a long pause, Bryant asked him to explain.
“I said, ‘Well, he’s going to get to work before everybody else,’” Rutschman continues. “’He’s going to have some expectations of the defensive players he’s going to be working with that are going to be greater than their expectations. Nobody’s going to outwork him; that’s going to make some people uncomfortable.’”
Sometime later, Bryant approached Rutschman at a Northwest Conference athletic directors’ meeting. Chris’ name came up.
“Boy, you hit that on the head,” Bryant told Rutschman.
It was very important to Casey that he edited the phrase from the bank employee’s sign. He liked the concept, but he disliked the language.
“I don’t like using the word success,” he says. “I like using the word excellence because I think excellence is way above success. You can be successful at something and not even be close to excellence. Excellence is your maximum achievement in what you’re doing.”
Casey doesn’t demand focus from his players; he demands “laser focus.” He eschews discussions of barriers for “getting over the barrier.” The importance of a mundane or undesirable task in football is explained by what he calls “triple-O: order over obligation.”
Wording and phrasing are important to Casey. His orientation toward detail demands this. He will repeat any grouping of words in casual conversation in different times. He will start a sentence, stop it, start again, even stop again until he gets it just right.
Casey’s predilection for repeating himself is just that: repetition. Before he preaches, he practices.
Numeracy is hardly a component of personality. Yet, spend time around Casey and the number seven appears everywhere. He is one of seven children. Touchdowns and successful extra-point kicks are worth seven points. The seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, the Christian day of rest. Chris is 56 years old, preparing to coach his first game with the Bruins – seven is a factor of his age.
Rutschman would tell his Linfield players after a practice to name seven things they failed at that day. That resonated with Casey. It is acceptable to him to fall down seven times.
Just as long as you stand up eight.
At Whitworth, he learned about patience.
The Pirates were a moribund program when Casey took over as defensive coordinator and strength and conditioning coach in 1994. Whitworth had recorded losing seasons in nine of the 10 years before Casey arrived in Spokane. John Tully was hired as head coach the next year; the Pirates would win four games over the next three seasons. (Tully resigned as Whitworth’s head coach in November after 19 seasons.) As Casey tells it, the coaches and the players struggled to maintain focus.
Coaches met more often with players in one-on-one situations and asked for greater input into program decisions, according to Casey. More team-building exercises were held. The Pirates needed to understand what it meant to play excellent football and how to have fun doing it.
“We had to just be much more intentional in doing those things,” he says.
At end-of-practice gatherings and in coaches’ meetings, the Pirate staff would emphasize positives. Who gave great effort. What skills were learned. Which coaches ironed out inefficiencies in their work.
“The most important thing is your attitude,” Casey says. “That sets the stage for when you come back (to practice). Because what you leave from an attitudinal standpoint is what’s going to be your mindset until you get back again.”
Gradually, the program turned around in the win-loss column. Whitworth posted a 6-3 mark in 2000, the most wins for the program in 22 seasons. In 2001, The Pirates went 10-0, winning the Northwest Conference title.
Casey has never sent a tweet or written a blog post. He’s never owned an iPod. He’s never played a video game. He does not text – though he will dictate messages for an assistant coach to text to a player.
“It’s good to be king,” Bruins offensive coordinator Ken Ingram says.
Casey is no Luddite. His quarrel is with overuse of technology and its “distracting” allure.
“We don’t do a good job of, I think, how do you figure this out? How do you face it? How do you fix it?” he asks. “We don’t want to do it anymore because we want to push a button and have the thing taken care of instantaneously.
“The neat thing about church, family and athletics … to me, they all go together. Those three places still teach the old-fashioned values. You’ve got to be a team player. You’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to finish what you start. You’ve got to stick with it.”
Faith, family and athletics are Casey’s constants. They’ve been there since birth. The way they shaped his morals, he cannot see in Angry Birds or Facebook profiles.
“Our whole lives have become reset, redo and spell check,” he says. “We’re just looking for the quickest fix.”
At Aloha High School, he learned about community.
On the field, the Warriors had struggled. Aloha had not made the OSAA state playoffs since 1989. Open enrollment policies allowed many athletes to transfer from Aloha to more affluent schools like Westview and Southridge within the Class 4A Metro League
Casey had called Bryant, who had moved on from Whitworth to become the Warriors’ athletic director, to recommend another football coach for the head gig during the Christmas break of 2003. Bryant expressed interest in Casey joining him back in Oregon.
“I almost took the job out of courtesy to (Bryant), to be honest with you,” Casey says.
He knew little about Aloha’s recent history in football, and he did not press for information. He encouraged the Warriors to think about themselves, what they could control and how they could improve.
Meanwhile, Casey saw two positive signs for the future health of the football program. The youth football system in Aloha, run by a Nike executive, had a solid foundation. The community itself was anxious to support school activities.
“It has this unbelievable spirit about it,” Casey says. “The entire community revolves around Aloha High School. But I also found that they didn’t feel very good about themselves. Football helped that.”
The Aloha coaching staff emphasized fundamentals down through the youth ranks. Ingram, who taught at an Aloha middle school while assisting the Warriors for five years, started a “Warrior Club” for prospective players in grades 6-8 to gain strength and speed. Casey would visit middle schools and have lunch with boys interested in football.
Progress, again, was deliberate, as the Warriors won 16 games in Casey’s first five seasons. The 2009 season snapped Aloha’s 22-year state playoff drought, and the Warriors won the Class 6A state title in 2010, the first in school history. Current University of Oregon running back Thomas Tyner headlined a deep and athletic squad that, Casey claims, had the top four running backs in the state at the time.
“Mickey Mouse could have coached the 2010 team and probably won a state championship,” Casey says.
Casey’s hiring at George Fox was formally announced Feb. 28, 2012, but – in an unusual move even for a startup program – the Bruins allowed him to coach Aloha during the 2012 season. Casey and his wife, Kathleen, still live in Aloha; their four children attend schools in that district.
Hours after an interview, a reporter happens upon Casey outside the Duke Athletic Center, sporting an Aloha Warriors T-shirt and George Fox athletic shorts, about to embark on an afternoon jog. Casey wears Aloha blue and gold nearly every day.
He is a Warrior in Bruins clothing.