'He was as tough as they come'
Though, he might give you a different description now.
“I’m just an old retiree that plays a lot of golf,” said Phillips, now 73.
The simple statement — meant as an introduction into a complex, rich history of life, love and sports — is followed with a broad smile and good-natured laugh. That’s just the type of person Phillips is. An outgoing, likeable person who his friends say was one of the fiercest competitors they played with.
A track, basketball and football standout at McMinnville High School in the late 1950s, Phillips went on to compete in two sports in college before settling down into his career as an educator and coach. For his many accomplishments while a prep athlete at McMinnville and the following years of professional success, Larry Phillips, McMinnville Class of 1959, is one of this year’s inductees into the McMinnville High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Larry Phillips was born on April 30, 1940 in Colorado to Vern and Elsie Phillips. Before he was too old, Phillips, his parents and his brother, Chuck, and sister, Bev, moved to Ontario, Ore. Vern sold John Deere Tractors for a local outfit, and Bev was a surgery nurse. The family lived on a small farm outside of town.
On the Columbia Plateau, Phillips did what a lot of young boys did. He played outside for most hours of the day, competing with Chuck (who was eight years older than Larry) and his friends. Basketball was a favorite, but other sports all found their way into the mix.
“Everything was always the world championship,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he gravitated toward basketball in grade school, playing on some traveling teams, but a chance introduction to the high jump while visiting a neighbor set in motion what would become Phillips’ most successful sport. Phillips said he was visiting Doc Savage, a local coach who would go on to have success at La Grande as a football coach. Savage built a high jump standard on his property, and Phillips spent time over there learning how to jump over the bar using the “scissor method.” This was pre-landing pads and the Fosbury Flop, when high jumpers would leap headfirst over the bar and land with their backs on a well-cushioned pad. All Savage did to cushion the landing area was to till the dirt.
“You’d jump over the bar and land on the hard ol’ ground,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ dad heard of an opening at the John Deere supply store in McMinnville in the fall of 1954, and moved the family to the west side of the state. By then, Phillips’ older siblings had all graduated from high school. It was two months into his eighth grade school year, and he knew no one.
Sports helped break the barriers of being the “new kid.” Phillips said he doesn’t remember much of his first year living in McMinnville, though some of the kids in his class had strange dark brown stains on their hands that he just couldn’t figure out.
“Well, of course, I had never seen a walnut or hazelnut orchard before,” he said. “Some of my classmates’ hands were stained from working in the orchards picking the nuts.”
The following year, Phillips — now over 6-feet tall — entered high school, and there was no question that he fit right in. His class elected him freshman class president.
“I loved high school,” Phillips said. “I was so well accepted by the kids, and they treated me so nicely. It was just a really good experience for me.”
Gary Bracelin, a fellow classmate and standout athlete at McMinnville, said Phillips was well liked.
“He’d be the one dancing with the girls at lunch when the music was on,” Bracelin said. “He was very charismatic.
“Everyone wanted to be around him.”
Bracelin, Phillips and fellow 1959 graduate Don Carlson all became fast friends. The three formed the backbone of a supremely athletic and successful class that excelled in sports. Bracelin and Phillips played football, basketball and track together. Carlson split off in the spring to play baseball.
“Gary was the tackle on the football team, and I was the end,” Phillips said. “In basketball, I was the center and he was the forward. Then in track, he did the throwing events and I did the jumps and hurdles. Most of the year we were around each other.”
Mostly what Phillips remembers of his playing days comes from outside the confines of a football field, basketball court or cinder track.
“We were really friends,” Phillips said. “We would go over to Donny’s and have BB gun fights or on days off head down to Sweeny’s and have a doughnut and Coke.
“We did a lot of stuff together. We were just all really good friends, and I think that’s in part what made it so much fun for all of us.”
Probably no one knew Phillips better as a person and an athlete than Bracelin from the years they spent side by side competing for the Grizzlies.
“Larry could make every team he played for better than it was without him,” Bracelin said. Bracelin, who went on to compete in college at Oregon State in track and was also inducted into the Mac Hall of Fame in 2012, said Carlson and Phillips were the best athletes in the class.
“He was probably the best athlete in the class,” Bracelin said.
Bracelin has one story in particular that he thinks about when Phillips’ name comes up. In the fall of 1954 right after Phillips moved to town, Bracelin and some of his eighth grade friends were playing basketball in the park. There was a fence near the court that he said was just over waste high.
“Here comes this kind of tall, gangly kid wearing corduroy pants,” Bracelin recalls. “He took a couple of steps and easily jumped over the barrier.”
A bevy of success
Phillips will be the first to tell you basketball and track were his two best sports, but he was a good football player as well. He didn’t make the varsity his freshman year, but from his sophomore year to his senior year, Phillips played offensive and defensive end for the Grizzlies. Carlson played quarterback and Bracelin anchored the line.
The Grizzlies made three straight state quarterfinals — including his sophomore and junior years — but Mac’s dominance ended after an undefeated 9-0 season crashed to a halt in 1957 when Mac lost 34-13 at Springfield. In Phillips’ senior season, the Grizzlies were 8-1-1 with an ugly tie to Newberg keeping Mac from making it back to the playoffs.
Phillips was a starter his last two years of high school and was listed at 6-foot-2, 155 pounds on the roster printed in the Sept. 8, 1958 edition of the Daily News-Register. He caught a few touchdown passes that year and was selected to the 1958 TYV All-Star team as a tight end.
“For his size, he was as tough as they come,” Bracelin said.
Phillips said he played football because all of his friends were. He had never played organized football before playing on the junior varsity his freshman year, but Phillips characterized his mindset thusly:
“I was just the kind of guy who stuck his nose in there.”
The Grizzlies also enjoyed quite a bit of success in basketball during Phillips’ high school days. The Grizzlies qualified for state his sophomore season. Throughout their years in high school, Carlson ran the point, Bracelin was the bruising power forward, and Phillips was the athletic center.
In 1957, McMinnville lost to Grant by eight points in the first round of the championships at McArthur on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene. The Grizzlies rebounded with a 72-43 thrashing of Redmond in the consolation quarterfinals and a 17-point win vs. Albany in the consolation semis. Mac lost to Klamath Union by 21 in the consolation finals and finished the season 18-7.
The following year, the Grizzlies were back at Mac Court under coach Eldore Baisch after a 14-8 season. The Grizzlies were bounced in two games, losing to Pendleton and Springfield— their nemesis from that fall’s football playoffs. Phillips and the Grizzlies again made the championship tournament at Mac Court in the spring of 1959, but again, Mac lost in the first round. This time North Bend sent the Grizzlies to the consolation rounds. After a seven-point win vs. Bend in the quarterfinals, Medford sent Mac home.
Phillips was a First-Team All-TYV selection after averaging 14.1 points per game in league contests and 12.3 rebounds. Just prior to the start of the AAA Boys Basketball Championships in Eugene in the March of 1959, Phillips received a Western Union telegram at school from his sister Bev and her husband Bill:
“Congratulations on being picked on the first string all-conference basketball team. Hope you are as proud as we are. Now let’s make it all the way in track. -- Bev & Bill”
Phillips excelled in track. He lettered every year of high school for track coach Don Maybee, running the high and low hurdles as well as competing in the high jump and long jump. Apparently, though, running the hurdles took some getting used to.
“At our first track meet my freshman year,” Phillips said, “Coach Maybee said I was going to run the high hurdles. I was scared spitless. If I remember right, I think after the first four hurdles, I was in the lead. I was like a jackrabbit out there. Then I started hitting hurdles. I hit every hurdle to the last one, then I fell down and crawled across the finish line.”
Phillips would improve greatly in the high hurdles to the point where he set and re-set the school record in the high hurdles his sophomore, junior and senior years.
“I had two ways to go,” Phillips said. “I could get mad and quit and never hurdle again. But my thing was, I was so mad to think that some sticks stopped me from hurdling that it made me decided that I’m going to win this thing, and they’re not going to win.”
Phillips, whose brother Chuck was a jumper at the University of Oregon, broke the school high jump record his freshman year at 5-feet, 10.5 inches. He won the district meet, which he would do every year he was in school. He reset his school record the next season at 6-1, and added to that his junior year, setting a TYV district record of 6-2.75.
Phillips qualified for the state track meet every year of high school, scoring points in his final three years in the hurdles and high jump.
Bracelin is convinced if Phillips competed just a few years later when Dick Fosbury pioneered his now standard “flop technique” at Oregon State, he would have jumped even higher.
“If Larry would have been around during the Fosbury Flop era, he would have added a lot of inches to his high jump.”
After a brilliantly successful high school career, Phillips was recruited to play basketball and track at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. He said he probably would not have gone to college if it weren’t for his parents packing up and moving from Ontario.
“Once I got to McMinnville, it was never ever, ‘What are you going to do after high school,’” Phillips said. “It was always, ‘Where are you going to college?’”
He went from playing center to playing guard, but Phillips found success in the spring. From 1959 through the spring of 1961, he was a standout high jumper. Phillips broke the L&C school record his freshman year (twice) and set a district record.
Phillips was selected to the First Team of the NAIA All-American Track and Field team in 1960.
Then a change of majors from business to education saw Phillips transfer from Lewis & Clark. He spent the fall of 1961 with the National Guard, training at Fort Ord in California. In the winter and spring of 1961-62, Phillips spent some time at the University of Oregon before landing the next year at the Oregon College of Education in Monmouth.
Phillips played one more year of college basketball in 1963, but he met his future wife, Shirley, who was also a student at OCE. The couple was quickly married and soon after their first child was born.
“That stopped all the nonsense,” Phillips said with a laugh.
Phillips worked full-time as a bartender in nearby Independence and after graduating, his new family moved with him to Mt. Vernon outside of John Day, Ore. where he began his teaching career. Stops at Silverton and North Marion soon followed before they finally settled in Southern Oregon in Coquille. There, Phillips’ six kids grew up and all graduated from Coquille. He coached girls basketball, boys basketball and football for a time, but his true mainstay and passion was track. Phillips was the head track coach at Coquille from 1971 to 1994 when he resigned. A year later in 1995, Phillips retired.
Now Phillips is back in McMinnville, playing golf regularly with a senior men’s club out at the Bayou Golf Course. Shirley died three years ago from cancer, but he said now he has 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren to keep him company.
Reflecting back on his days as a young, spry athlete in McMinnville, Phillips said he will always remember the great friendships he made and how his classmates treated him when he first moved. Fifty four years after they graduated, Bracelin confirms what Phillips thought.
“He was the real deal,” he said.