Thurman leaves behind an enduring legacy
- Lon Austin
- Central Oregonian - Features
When Russ Thurman passed away last Wednesday following an extended illness Crook County lost a great man
Friend, mentor, master motivator — these are just a few of the adjectives that those who knew Russ Thurman use to describe him.
Thurman, who retired from coaching at Crook County High School in 1992, passed away last Wednesday after an extended illness. He leaves behind a lasting legacy when it comes to Crook County High School athletics.
“Russ Thurman was absolutely one of the greatest mentors and coaches we’ve ever had at Crook County,” said Crook County school board member Doug Smith. “He instilled confidence in his kids. He helped you grow into an adult and he expected and got the best from you.”
In 30 years at Crook County High School, Thurman built an impressive resume. While at Crook County he taught physical education, served as head wrestling coach for 28 years, and also had two stints as the school’s athletic director.
In his 28 years of coaching at Crook County, Thurman compiled an impressive 489-78 dual meet record — a mark that may never be equaled. In addition, his teams won 17 district championships. His teams finished in the top 10 at the state tournament 20 times, including three fifth-place finishes, two thirds, two seconds, and two state championships. Thurman also coached 104 individual state placers, and is a member of both the Oregon State and National Wrestling Hall of Fames.
Former Crook County High School wrestler Curt Burger, who recently retired after 21 years as the head wrestling coach at Hermiston High School, helped put Thurman’s record into perspective.
“I finished with just under 300 dual meet wins,” Burger said. Thurman had a great dual meet team. He had a 66-win dual meet streak and we messed up and lost to Pendleton when I was a senior.”
More important than Thurman’s coaching success however, was the kind of man he was.
“He was a guy that really cared about kids,” Burger said. “Looking back, I was lucky to have had some great coaches. The thing I remember most about Thurman and Crook County is the work ethic. He worked us hard and really prepared my brother and I for Oregon State.”
Craig Woodward, who was a senior in 1964-65 on Thurman’s first team at CCHS, agreed.
“He was a really good motivator and a good mentor,” Woodward said. “He taught me more about wrestling than any coach I’ve had. But more than that, I never thought of going to college until he talked to me about it. He was always trying to give guys a leg up.”
Crook County Middle School Principal Stacy Smith, who also wrestled for Thurman felt the same way.
“I loved him,” he said. “He was great. He had an ability to challenge you — to push you and find out where your limits were, but do it in a way where you knew he cared. Thurman was one of four or five teachers that had a huge influence on me. I wanted to be a teacher and a coach because of what they meant to me and I wanted to pay it back to others. Thurman really brought a taste of excellence to wrestling in Prineville.”
The Crook County High School wrestling program had experienced some success prior to Thurman. Nonetheless, Thurman took the program to a different level.
Under coach Bill Yingley, the school won district championships in 1963 and 64.
However, Yingley had limited knowledge of wrestling.
“He was an OK guy, but didn’t really know much about wrestling,” Woodward said. “He would open the book on wrestling and lay it in the center of the mat and then we would have to figure it out. Thurman brought some credentials and some credibility to the program.”
Clint Woodward, who wrestled for Thurman in the 1980s, also appreciated what Thurman did as a coach.
“He was a legend around Crook County,” he said. “Everybody that wrestled for the man had very high respect for him. I think wrestling is one of the sports that teaches lifetime lessons and he was one of my main coaches for wrestling in high school and on into college. He taught hard work and discipline and he was one of the best.”
Thurman built the foundation for Crook County wrestling. He was largely responsible for developing the wrestling culture and tradition in Prineville and still has an impact on the program today. Several of the coaches for the Crook County Mat Club wrestled for Thurman, as have some of the assistant coaches at the high school.
However, Thurman’s most lasting legacy may not even involve wrestling.
“I taught physical education with him for most of the 26 years I was there,” said former Crook County High School track coach Fred Bushong. “We coexisted together in that little physical education office. He was a great guy and the kids really bonded with Russ — not just the wrestlers, but all the kids liked him.”
For years, Bushong and Thurman spent a lot of time together away from school. The two went bird hunting together, ran road races together, and participated in ride-and-tie races — a ride-and-tie is a two person race where one rides a horse and the other runs. The individual on the horse rides for a set distance, leaves the horse for the runner and begins running himself. The two continue to alternate between running and riding until both individuals reach the finish line.
“I really loved the guy,” Bushong said. “He was one of my best friends. There were times when we might not see each other, but I knew that if I needed something he would be there.”
Bushong added that Thurman was a great recruiter for his wrestling program.
“I don’t know what Thurman did but he was a great recruiter,” Bushong said. “He would always have twice as many wrestlers as everyone else. Wrestling is a tough sport and he got kids to stick with it.”
In addition, Bushong believes that Thurman had a lasting impact on all athletics at Crook County High School.
“He had a lot to do with being fair with the girls program, even before title IX came along,” Bushong said. “There were times when I might have been upset with him for the decisions he made as athletic director, but that was the thing about Russ. When he had to make a decision he made a decision and he stuck with it. He was consistent and he was fair.”
Retired Crook County High School physical education teacher Diane Hayes also believes that Thurman created a culture that has helped women’s athletics at Crook County.
“He really did a great job for the girls,” she said. “We were lucky because that helped us with advancing girls athletics. Thurman had a lot to do with making Crook County women’s athletics a power in the state and they are still that way because of what he helped start. He really saw the value in women’s athletics.”
Thurman impacted hundreds if not thousands of athletes, students, and teachers at Crook County High School. His legacy will continue through all the individuals he touched.
“He was so active and full of life,” Hayes said. “He was easy going and even tempered and I thought he treated the kids so well. I couldn’t have asked for anybody I would rather have worked in close proximity with. I’m going to miss him.”
So will everyone else who Thurman impacted.