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Lasting impressions

In 45th season, record-busting coach loves his job
by: L.E. Baskow, Oregon City coach Mike Doherty gives one of his players a hint on what to do in the game against Centennial last week. Known as a disciplinarian, Doherty has shaped decades of athletes and, observers say, shown a lot of humility and patience in the process.

When Mike Doherty started coaching high school basketball in Oregon, Mark Hatfield was the state's first-term governor, the Vietnam War was in its beginning stages and thongs were worn on the feet, not on a woman's tush.

The year was 1962, and plenty has changed since then - even Doherty, at least a little.

But in his 45th season, Doherty is still coaching winning basketball. His Oregon City Pioneers are 4-0 and ranked fourth among the state's Class 6A teams, boasting 6-9 bookends Jared Cunningham and Sam Schafer to go with prize point guard Brad Tinsley.

And Doherty, who just turned 70 but carries himself about two decades younger, says he is having as much fun coaching as ever.

'Oh, yeah,' he says, 'except I'm not sure I could teach full-time and do this. It's at least 11 months of the year now, and I spent more time with fundraising than ever. Thank goodness I have some great parents who help out.'

Doherty, who retired from the classroom eight years ago, has won more games than any coach in the state's long basketball history. Going into tonight's home game against Lincoln, his career record is an astounding 743-340.

He has won three state titles (McNary, 1968; Corvallis, 1980 and '84) and had countless playoff teams as his profession has taken him from Washington High to McNary to Reynolds to Corvallis to Baker to Hermiston and finally to Oregon City. The Pioneers made the state playoffs seven times in his first eight seasons.

'The winningest coach in Oregon history - how could you ask for better than that?' asks Tinsley, a 6-3, 190-pound junior who is regarded as one of the state's top players this winter.

Doherty is the last of an era of great Portland-area coaches, a list that includes Barry Adams, Nick Robertson, Ken Harris, Dick Gray, Sonny Long and Ernie McKie. Doherty's contemporaries have all retired. He keeps marching on, and says he has no plans for retirement.

'I know I'm going to eventually,' Doherty says. 'Our program is pretty healthy right now, so we have some good years coming up. But I'm sure there is an end out there not too far off.'

But not too close.

'He'll come home and go, 'Oh, there are some really good eighth-graders,' ' says his wife, Sue, who doubles as his scorekeeper and chief supporter.

There are no mandatory retirement age guidelines at Oregon City, for which Athletic Director Bruce Reece is grateful.

'Let's talk Joe Paterno,' says Reece, referring to the ageless Penn State football coach. 'I don't know how much Joe does, but Mike does it all over here. He's in the gym by himself all the time. He does a fantastic job. We're pretty fortunate to have him.'

Coach calls shots, even now

Centennial coach John Poetsch was raised on Mike Doherty. John's father, longtime coach Paul Poetsch, served as an assistant to Doherty at his first job at defunct Washington High. The junior Poetsch was an assistant to Doherty during his first year at Oregon City.

'I have a ton of respect for Mike,' says John Poetsch, 43, whose Eagles were on the wrong end of a 99-56 whipping from the Pioneers last week. 'I admire the way he has done it, at different schools in different decades with different styles and completely different types of teams. He is so flexible in that way. He is rigid in his principles and the values he sticks to, but the applications are fluid. He has adjusted to the changes of the game through the years.'

But Barry Adams, who battled Doherty's teams for more than three decades on the hardcourt, says there is always a common denominator.

'I haven't noticed a major change in his defenses nor in much of Mike's offensive philosophy,' says Adams, 70, who retired in 1997 with 656 career victories, then first and now third on the state's list. 'His teams have always shot the ball from the perimeter a fair amount. He would always man you (defensively) if he thought he could beat you with it, but if he didn't, he'd (play) zone.

'That his kids play his way has always been important. I don't care what school or what bunch of players he was with, they were his team. As I watch kids play today, I don't know whether the coach or the kids are calling the shots. It may be a tossup. No doubt about it, Mike is calling the shots, and he knows what he's doing. That's what good coaches do.'

No team's the same

Doherty has had disciplined, halfcourt teams and fast-paced teams. He has had teams that were perimeter-oriented and teams that pounded the ball inside. He has always been willing to adjust to his talent.

'Many coaches get wired into a system stemming from where they played, how they were brought up in the game,' Doherty says. 'I've never felt that kind of allegiance to a certain style. I prefer the more up-tempo game, but if I don't have the personnel, I'm willing to go the other direction.'

Doherty's stern countenance and adherence to discipline have made him unpopular with some players and parents over the years. It has happened, too, in Oregon City, though Reece insists, 'Mike is regarded highly by the majority of the people he serves here.'

Maybe Doherty has mellowed, if only just a little.

'He is patient with you,' Tinsley says. 'Well, he is old-school, which is kind of hard. He doesn't say a lot of positive things. But if you make a mistake, he will stop and explain it rather than yelling or cussing at you. He is a good Christian guy.'

'Mike has gotten a bad rap on some things,' Poetsch says. 'He has a great sense of humor and a good personality. People see him as kind of a stern disciplinarian; a lot of times they don't see the humanity there.

'And he is a humble guy. For a guy who is approaching 800 wins and has three state titles, he doesn't like a lot of attention. He's not comfortable with people flattering him. In the coaching ranks, that's kind of an unusual thing, to have somebody whose ego is so kept in check.'

Pioneer eyes stay on state

Doherty is having great fun with his current team, especially coaching Tinsley, who has a little Pete Maravich in his game and is a Division I college prospect.

'Brad is as good as any player I've had - and might be the best - with his open-court vision and passing ability,' Doherty says. 'And he might wind up being the best overall guard I've coached before he is through.'

Tinsley says the Pioneers' goal is to make it to the 6A state tournament at Eugene's McArthur Court in March. The path is difficult. Top-ranked and defending champion Lake Oswego is the Three Rivers favorite, and the league runner-up must travel to the Southwest Conference champion - probably No. 2-ranked South Medford - for a first-round playoff game.

'It's pretty tough for me to start imagining too big a thing with this team,' Doherty says. 'But we're going to compete and go as far as I can.'

The Pioneers may make a run at the state title. If so, their venerable coach will have a major hand in it.

'Mike is as good at anybody at lasting,' Adams says. 'He has outlasted everybody else.'

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