By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Mind over matter

News-Register fileJim Barks works with McMinnville High School discus throwers during a 1996 practice.
News-Register file
Jim Barks works with McMinnville High School discus throwers during a 1996 practice.

McMinnville track and field may not have risen to prominence if not for one fateful baseball practice in the spring of 1966.

Jim Barks, then a sophomore at Mac High, wanted to join the Grizzlies’ baseball team. Barks had played junior-high baseball (though not football – he wore braces, and his mother forbade him to play until the braces were removed) and was hoping to impress coach Scooter Rich enough to earn a spot.

“I wasn’t awesome, but I was a pretty good third baseman and I was a relief pitcher,” Barks said. “In those days, kids would try out for the baseball team. There were always kids that got cut.

“I remember about the third or fourth day of practice – we’re taking infield. And Scooter lined a shot to me at third base, and I have never seen a ball come that fast in my whole life. It was one of those defining moments, even though it was absolutely so fast, it was like it was in slow motion. I had never seen a ball come that fast toward third base in my whole life.

“And I did manage to stop the ball and throw it back, but I remember – and I don’t think it was this dramatic – but I remember putting my mitt down and walking over to the track practice. I don’t remember the exact details, but in my mind it was traumatic.”

Baseball’s loss is track’s gain. Barks was inducted in the McMinnville High School Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 after distinguishing himself as the Grizzlies’ head track and field coach from 1983 to 2009. (Barks serves McMinnville’s current head coach Vic Downs as an assistant in charge of the Grizzlies’ pole vaulters.)

On that fateful day in 1966, Barks found a familiar face at the track – Don Mabee, the McMinnville football coach at the time, was also the track coach at the time. He evolved into a talented thrower, excelling in the discus and shot put. Barks also dabbled in the 100-meter dash. “I had decent speed,” Barks said, “and I liked throwing things.”

Barks looks the part of a thrower in build – thick and barrel-chested – but his short stature hampered him in an event traditionally dominated by high-school Goliaths. “That part I had to overcome by making sure my technique was better than other kids,” he said. His obsession with proper technique would later become a hallmark of his coaching.

“He could see things that people were doing wrong or what they were doing right. He could tweak their steps or the hold of their hands,” said Vic Downs, the Grizzlies’ current head track and field coach.

Barks graduated from McMinnville High School in 1968 and matriculated to the University of Portland. The Pilots had a track program when he set foot on campus but eliminated it shortly thereafter to put in a soccer field. UP is a Catholic institution, and it satisfied Barks’ spiritual needs. After attaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in education, his coaching career began at a small, all-boys Catholic school in southeast Portland.

Today, Central Catholic is an athletic powerhouse in both boys’ and girls’ athletics. (The Rams won the Class 6A girls’ team state title in 2014.) Barks started out as an assistant football coach and assistant track coach; former University of Oregon head coach John Gillespie oversaw the track and field team after Barks’ fourth year. Barks had applied for the head job and didn’t get it.

“I met John and we became very close friends. I went to his office and I shut the door and I said, ‘John, here’s the deal – I want to be a head track coach and I want you to help me to be the next head track coach when you decide to leave Central Catholic. I want you and I to get together with what you believe are my shortcomings and what things I need to work on, and I want to work on them with you so that when you leave, if you ever do, you would recommend me as the person who should take the job.’”

Gillespie and Barks became fast friends. Two years later, Gillespie left Central Catholic and Barks applied for the job. (He had, indeed, received a recommendation from Gillespie.) He was hired on in 1978 and led the Rams to two consecutive third-place finishes at the state track and field championships.

He had attained his dream job at a time of personal upheaval: he and his wife were having children – and he was looking for a suitable place to start a family. Barks applied to five different school districts at the time, including McMinnville, and received job offers in all five. He decided to accept a job at McMinnville Junior High School (now Patton Middle School) teaching mathematics.

Barks was also named junior-high football head coach upon returning to McMinnville. His fellow teacher and coach Bob Abrahamson approached him one day at school and tossed him a set of keys. “You’ve got the track program, too,” Abrahamson said.

Barks spent three years as junior-high track coach before a seismic shift occurred in 1983: McMinnville High School would absorb ninth-graders into the school. A number of teachers would follow the students into the big building. That coincided with a vacancy in the McMinnville track program.

“I told (former Athletic Director) Ben Schaad: ‘I will guarantee you two things,’” Barks said. “’I will guarantee you participation.’ I had noticed since I came back that the McMinnville track team only had about 35 or 40 kids. The second thing I guaranteed Ben Schaad, I said, ‘We will be competitive in whatever league we’ll be in.’”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Under Barks, the Grizzlies have won four girls district championships (1986, 1995, 1996, 1999) and two boys district championships (1997, 2002). McMinnville had 14 individual state champions and 239 individual state qualifiers during Barks’ tenure as head coach.

“He also had emphasis in the right things – dual meets, keeping that as a part of track and field,” said Downs. “Some people want to just kill it. But it’s a community thing. Dual meets are really intimate. You get to know the coaches you’re going against better. Jim is really about having relationships not just on his own team but on the other teams.”

In 1996, McMinnville won its first state track and field team title in school history as three Grizzly girls turned in a meet to remember at Hayward Field. Shana Ball scored 25 team points by herself, winning the 4A girls’ shot put and discus throws. Ball’s sister, Alisa, finished fourth in the girls’ high jump. Karina Elstrom won a state championship in the pole vault, the very last meet of the event – the clinching moment for the Grizzlies.

The state championship is a point of pride and a major feather in Barks’ cap, but high-level achievement is one small part of his love of the sport.

“Track and field has an event for every sized kid,” Barks said. “Whether they’re a big kid, they can throw; whether they’re a short kid, they can pole vault; whether they’re a fast kid, whether they can jump – there’s an event in track and field for every kid.”

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