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Baird’s odyssey brings him back to Kitsap

Dick Baird is never too far away from football, even while at home in rural Kitsap County. - Jesse Beals/Staff Photo
Dick Baird is never too far away from football, even while at home in rural Kitsap County.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/Staff Photo

Head past Gold Mountain Golf Course, straddle the Mason-Kitsap County line and eventually emerge through the wooded terrain at Erickson Lake.

Some might say Dick Baird couldn’t be farther from his coaching tenure at the University of Washington or playing days at Washington State.

Others might argue that Baird has the best of both worlds. There’s a quiet serenity here that feels like the Palouse. The tranquility of rushing water from his days at Husky Stadium on the shores of Lake Washington, now resting in his backyard.

This is home for Baird, who turns 62 on May 27, and his wife Kim. He’s a Seattle native — a 1964 graduate of Roosevelt High School — and coached under Don James and Jim Lambright from 1984 to ’98 at UW, but said he always knew he would end up back in Kitsap County.

It stemmed from an event toward the end of his time at Olympic College, where he was defensive coordinator from 1978 to ’80 and then coach in 1981 to ’83.

“Our house burned down,” he said. “We were renting this house and we lost everything, but the whole community rallied around us. I ended up getting better stuff than I had.”

Baird felt a commitment to the West Sound from that point on. It’s a trait Lambright noticed as UW’s coach from 1993-98 and since then a Baird’s friend.

“One of Dick’s strongest traits is extreme loyalty,” he said. “When he’s your best friend, he’s got your back.”

That also could aptly describe his relationship with football. Baird is proud of his achievements on the gridiron. After graduating from Roosevelt, Baird was a three-year starter at linebacker for the Cougars and served as captain his senior year.

WSU never advanced to a bowl game during his playing days, but the Cougars finished 7-3 and came within a win of reaching the Rose Bowl when he was a sophomore in 1965.

He also credits his time in Pullman for getting him involved in coaching. Baird appeared in several theater productions, including “Guys and Dolls,” and directed two plays.

He said his writing ability was noticed by those at the student newspaper, The Daily Evergreen, and he was hired as the sports editor. In that position, he covered WSU coaches Bobo Brayton (baseball), John Chaplin (track and field) and Marv Harshman (men’s basketball).

“There were some great coaches I got to cover,” he said. “That’s where I made the decision that I wanted to work with kids.”

Baird served as a part-time assistant coach under Jim Sweeney in 1968-69 at WSU and then returned to Seattle to earn his teaching certificate from UW the next year.

He was an assistant at a pair of schools in Burien, Kennedy and Highline, before taking the coaching job at Mount Rainier, where he stayed from 1975 to ’77.

Baird took a teaching position at Central Kitsap after a levy failed in the Highline School District and moved to Olympic when it opened in 1979.

He coached several sports at both high schools in addition to his duties at Olympic College, where he helped turned a struggling program into a winner. Each year, he also got to coach against the Huskies’ junior varsity team.

“He asked what will it take for me to get on here?” said Lambright, who was UW’s defensive coordinator at the time. “I said, ‘Shave your beard and cut your hair.’”

It wasn’t easy for Baird. Many graduate assistants aren’t far removed from their college days. UW’s two graduate assistants this year, Anthony Gabriel and Luke Huard, both graduated in 2002.

When the Huskies kicked off the 1984 season against Northwestern, Baird was a 38-year-old family man.

“I’m sure I was the oldest graduate assistant in the world,” he said.

Still, there never was any question that taking the position was the right move for him.

At the time, UW was one of the premier football programs in the country. Don James guided the Huskies to Pac-10 championships in 1980 and ’81 and the ’84 team won the Orange Bowl, finished 11-1 and was ranked No. 2 nationally to end the season.

“I wanted to see if I could make the move to the next level, and Coach James gave me the opportunity,” Baird said. “It’s kind of been the vehicle of life for me.”

He quickly was elevated to recruiting coordinator, which Lambright said was an obvious move based on Baird’s connections at high schools and junior colleges in the state in addition to his playing experience.

“You couldn’t ask for a better representative when you bring a family in,” he said. “He writes well, so sending letters out, communicating on the telephone ... they were automatically easy things for him and a great fit for us. It was a very natural sequence and a natural complement to his talent.”

On his mantle rests a commemorative national championship ball from the 1991 season. Baird helped recruit the talent to that team that featured 11 players drafted the next spring by NFL teams.

“Winning the national title probably was as exciting as anything that happened to me in the game,” Baird said. “Winning the pee-wee championship was the most important thing in my life. I think it’s all relative. As (former Pacific Lutheran coach) Frosty Westering always said, the big time is where you’re at.”

Baird also never forgot the time he spent in Kitsap County while he coached at UW. The Huskies signed several players from South Kitsap, including punter Eric Canton and offensive linemen Tony Coats, Benji Olson and Andrew Peterson, during his time there.

“It was kind of every other year, we recruited a South kid because we knew they were coming out of a really solid program,” he said.

Coats and Olson signed in 1994 when the Huskies had their scholarships reduced and couldn’t participate in a bowl based on an NCAA charge of “lack of institutional control.”

“I took just as much pride in the fact that we did just as well in recruiting and on the field after the sanctions,” he said. “It was a blight, but I never felt like we cheated.”

Baird, who also coached wide receivers and linebackers at UW, was fired along with Lambright and the rest of his assistants after the Huskies finished with a 6-6 record in 1998.

While he doesn’t know “why we got fired,” Baird said he never has had any resentment toward the program. He writes a frequent column about UW football for Dawgman.com and also makes appearances for the “Husky Honks” show on KJR AM.

Baird realizes that a faction of WSU fans resent his involvement with their rival, but he notes that he twice was turned down when he applied to be an assistant with the Cougars.

“I don’t root against the Cougars,” he said. “Those kids on the (1965) Cardiac Kids team understood where I’m coming from. The diehard Cougs — they hate my guts. I’m a turncoat, a Benedict Arnold.

“I was very proud to play for the Cougars,” Baird said. “I’m kind of a Husky and a Cougar at the same time.”

Baird said he wants both programs to get back to winning. Neither program has been to a bowl game since WSU won the Holiday Bowl in 2003. He also thinks the Huskies would be well served to view other programs when it comes to a decision on Tyrone Willingham’s future.

“Look at Kentucky with Rich Brooks and look at what he’s done,” he said, referring to the coach who led the Wildcats to a bowl the last two years after three consecutive losing seasons. “Washington State stuck with Mike Price and he led them to three 10-win seasons.”

While looking at his lake from a distance, Baird can sympathize.

“It’s a real pressure-cooker kind of job,” he said. “I decided I had done it long enough. People still call me coach and it’s a privilege to be called coach.”

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