One of the unavoidable realities of sports reporting is that we’re always in a hurry, knowing every day and every edition has a looming deadline. Which can make us folks a cranky and twitchy lot on Friday nights when football coaches discuss the meaning of the universe with their teams for an interminable time after games.
But not when Jack McMillan was holding court.
When I covered La Salle’s games during Jack’s time with the Lightning, which concluded in 2012 after nine years and the final chapter of his Hall of Fame career, I would tuck in behind the circle of players that surrounded him to hear and appreciate his words. Sure he fired up the brimstone on occasion, but he always talked to kids in the most meaningful way.
He reached out, communicated and inspired. And I noticed something that has stuck with me — his players always felt better about themselves after a game whatever the circumstance, win or lose. Jack had strong core values and they were evident at all times.
That’s the first thing that came to mind when word came over the weekend that Jack had passed away Saturday morning at age 81. With such an extensive network of former players, colleagues and friends both here and up north — he coached 19 years at Cascade of Leavenworth — I’m sure there are a multitude of such memories.
For Jack, there was never any gray area in doing things the right way.
“Dad’s always been a big character guy because that’s what you are,” said his son Greg when I visited them on Jack’s back porch during the summer last year. “His teams played with sportsmanship and class, and as a man of his generation integrity is at the core of that. He also taught me to give every ounce of energy you have.”
That visit came about because the McMillans were about to return to their North Central roots. Greg, a longtime teacher at Eisenhower, had accepted the head coaching position at Quincy, and Jack and his wife Sharon were selling their house in Yakima to move to Ephrata, where they were married in 1961.
It’s sad to think that move lasted as briefly as it did for Jack. But with an older brother in nearby Soap Lake, Greg is grateful for the time that the family was closer together.
“Dad was dealing with some health issues and they were getting gradually worse,” Greg said on Monday. “We were all together on Thanksgiving, which was the 60th anniversary for mom and dad. It feels like he was maybe holding out for that.”
Having a few days to process it, Greg noted it was a “poignant kind of thing” that Jack passed away on Saturday when all six of the state championship games were being played.
Having won 234 games in his career, Jack got 13 of those during La Salle’s run to the Class 2B championship game in 2006. That was an old-school, ground-and-pound team that rushed for 60 touchdowns.
I had seen plenty of that when covering Rock Winters’ Zillah teams in 1995 and 1996, when the Leopards were stopped in the state quarterfinals both years by McMillan’s hard-running Cascade teams. The Kodiaks won a 38-36 thriller in ‘95 when Jack, sensing a shootout, opted for two-point conversions from the start and got four of them.
It was a treat to watch Jack guide his 2006 team through an unbeaten regular season and three playoff victories, with Greg on his staff along with fellow Hall of Fame coach Tom O’Brien. Mike Vavricka, who currently holds a position Jack once did as La Salle’s athletic director, was a two-way standout lineman on that team.
And even though Asotin prevailed in that 2B title game in the Tacoma Dome, Jack appreciated and respected the effort of his opponent and especially the stout — if broken — hearts of his own boys. Humble in victory, perspective in defeat.
“This will sting for a while, but we’re going to be OK,” he told me after that championship game. “These kids set the bar very high for themselves. When they stop and think about what they did and how they did it, they’ll look back and say, ‘Hey, we had a great year.’ Thirteen wins, that’s gonna be tough to top.”
Those kids set the bar high because somebody showed them how.
• A memorial service will be held for Jack on Dec. 18 at the Community Church of Ephrata (54 'K' St. SE) at 11 a.m.