YAKIMA, Wash. -- Every time Greg Sparling goes to work on the Central Washington University campus, he is reminded of the university’s remarkable basketball history.
“It’s right there in front of you,” Sparling says, referring to the entrance of Nicholson Pavilion’s basketball arena. “Up above the doors there’s a picture of Leo on the left, a picture of Dean on the right and the name Nicholson between them in big capital letters. It’s great.”
So were they — Leo, for whom the building is named, and Dean, who followed in his father’s footsteps. For 59 years they coached the Wildcats, totaling 1,114 victories to become the winningest father-son combo in college hoops history.
Dean Nicholson won 609 games at Central. Leo won 505.
But for 17-plus seasons, Sparling has been quietly creating his own niche.
CWU’s 81-75 victory at Saint Martin’s on Nov. 29 was Sparling’s 300th. He’s a clear third on the school’s list.
“Hard to believe,” Sparling says. “And I have no idea where the time has gone.”
It flies when you’re having fun, the saying goes, and Sparling says he’s experienced a good bit of that during his tenure.
“The best part is graduation out on Tomlinson field,” he says. “Lots of hugs, handshakes and thank-yous, and then you see guys go off and have families and do positive things with their lives.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Sparling’s career has not been all fun and games.
It began, for example, under the worst possible circumstance. His high school coach, close friend and longtime mentor, Gil Coleman, left the Wildcats to then 26-year-old assistant Sparling late in the 1995 season, and days later died in a Seattle hospital after an extended battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The low point came when Sparling drove with G.E. Coleman (Gil’s son, who then was 13), G.E.’s mom and Sparling’s wife Kristin to say goodbye to Gil.
“I’ve gone over Snoqualmie Pass a gazillion times without giving it a second thought,” Sparling says. “That day it seemed like a two-day drive.”
Then after Sparling had become well-established at Central, and had guided the Wildcats from the NAIA ranks to the much more competitive NCAA Division II level, back-to-back losing seasons had some observers calling for his ouster.
A 9-18 record in 2004 followed by an 11-16 mark in 2005 were CWU’s first negative marks in 40 years, and resulted largely from the defection of senior-to-be standouts Kasey Ulin and Chris Bond after the 2003 season.
“You lose two major scorers that late in the game,” Sparling says, “and it’s tough to find people who can play and also fit in. Then people want a quick fix, and there’s not a quick fix.
“But that whole experience made me grow as a person and as a coach. You find out that people you thought were your friends really weren’t your friends. There was a lot of backstabbing.”
Since then, however, Central has rolled up seven consecutive winning seasons, highlighted by a 21-7 mark in 2008 and a 26-4 record in 2011 that included GNAC regular season and tournament titles. The latter squad, which featured an all-Yakima backcourt of Humberto Perez and Drew Harris, is thought to have been among the best in school history.
And CWU’s current squad, anchored by Washington transfer Mark McLaughlin, has shown considerable promise en route to a 5-2 start and seems a true threat to become the sixth Wildcat team to reach the D-II playoffs in the past eight years.
Then-Western Washington coach Brad Jackson, after absorbing an 82-68 defeat at CWU in 2007, said, “It’s good to see Spar winning again. He’s one of the good guys.”
Also, the wounds from Gil Coleman’s death and the rough days of 2004 and 2005 have done a substantial amount of healing, in large part because G.E. Coleman, who recently celebrated his 30th birthday, is Central’s associate head coach.
And Sparling’s own family has both grown and grown up. He and Kristin, who as Kristin Lesparance was a CWU track and field athlete, have two sons — Coleman (15) and Jake (13), plus dogs Tersie and Charlie.
Coleman Sparling, a 6-3 freshman, is on the Ellensburg High varsity basketball team while Jake has taken up rodeoing.
“I’ve lived in Ellensburg my entire adult life,” Greg Sparling says, “and I’d never gone to the rodeo before. Now I’ve learned more in the last six months about roping than I’d known my whole life. But I’ve got a very happy 13-year-old cowboy.”
Not to mention a treasured job. And through 17-plus years of hard work and perseverance, a well-deserved place among Central Washington’s coaching elite.
• Roger Underwood can be reached at 509-577-7694 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.