Coaching vet takes Wilson assistant job for the game, kids

Spencer McEwen, Wilson High's shortstop, admits he knows nothing about the background of assistant coach Tom Campbell.

McEwen's teammate, second baseman Dillon Nakata, does better: 'I know he coached for Southridge (in Beaverton) and took them to a state title.'

Good, but not good enough. During his 30 years in high school coaching Ñ 28 as a head coach Ñ Campbell won state 4A titles at Southridge (2002) and Tigard (1988), reached the title game five times with Southridge, Tigard and Newberg, and went to the state playoffs 19 times.

Heady credentials for a volunteer assistant whose take for his work amounts to a few meals, and maybe a toddy or two, from Wilson head coach Mike Clopton.

Trojan players can't totally grasp the wealth of knowledge accumulated by the well-respected Clopton, in his 28th season at Wilson, and Campbell. The players do know that Campbell, who resigned his post at Southridge after last season, is not just some yokel off the local diamonds.

'He knows what he's talking about,' McEwen says. 'When he helps me, when I make the adjustment he suggests, I can see the difference it makes.

'The players always listen to what he has to say.'

Neither Clopton nor Campbell, 58, saw fit to enlighten the players on Campbell's breadth of experience when he joined them this season.

'I didn't know he has done so much,' Nakata says, 'but I can tell he knows a lot about baseball. He has tweaked my swing a little, and it has helped. I'm just happy he's going to be able to pass along some of what he knows to us.'

So is Clopton, in his 34th year as a PIL head coach, including six at now-defunct Jackson High. Clopton and Campbell had been coaching rivals and friends for nearly three decades. Once before, when Campbell was between jobs, he spent a spring as an unpaid assistant to Clopton. (Clopton is a master at getting masterful coaching help on the cheap. A volunteer assistant for the Trojans for the past dozen years has been former major league pitcher and Wilson grad Wayne Twitchell.)

When Campbell left Southridge and didn't procure another coaching job, Clopton beckoned.

'I asked Tom what he intended to do this spring,' Clopton says. 'He said, 'I was hoping I might be able to help you.' '

Job gets harder

Campbell is a former infielder at long-gone North Catholic High and the University of Portland who began his coaching career by taking the Portland Lobos to consecutive Casey Stengel League national championships in the early 1970s. Since beginning his high school coaching career at Hillsboro in 1971, Campbell has won wherever he has been.

Now Campbell is second banana at Wilson, working specifically with the Trojan hitters and infielders.

'I wanted to stay involved in the game,' Campbell says. 'Mike and I have been friends for a long time. It's an an opportunity to be an assistant for a change instead of having to be in charge.'

Campbell left Southridge for several reasons. He was retiring as a teacher after 30 years. He wanted to turn the program over to his assistant, Don Fitzgerald, who will have a strong nucleus of talent for his first year. And the rigors of dealing with parents and headstrong players had worn him down.

'Coaching is a ton harder than it used to be,' Campbell says. 'Parents used to be program-oriented. Now many of them are wrapped up in their own kid. They think you are interfering with their son's chance to get a college scholarship. Fewer people understand you are looking out for the program as a whole.

'Kids are tougher to coach today, without a doubt. Whether through private instructors, or Babe Ruth coaches, or fathers instructing them, they have in their heads an easier way to do things.

'People are looking for shortcuts. Every kid comes in and wants to be an all-star, thinking it's an easy process. Well, it takes a lot of hard work. I see too much of kids being out there for themselves instead of taking pride in being part of a successful program and keeping a tradition going. It becomes a 'me' thing instead of an 'us' thing, and that is disappointing.

'I understand times change, and some programs survive, anyway, but there has to be a core of kids who have a pride in the program or it is not going to work.

'Coaching is just a less desirable profession than it was 30 years ago in some ways. It is easier to be an assistant, in that respect. I don't have to worry about certain political things. The baseball part of it, I still love: the instructional part, the games. The baseball part of me was not done. The head coach Ñ I was done with that.'

Passion makes the difference

Clopton says Campbell's value to the Wilson program has been immeasurable.

'I tell people he is the best high school baseball coach in the state,' Clopton says. 'It embarrasses Tom, but I think he is. He is a student of the game. Not a lot of people have the passion he does. He has given me drills and ideas we haven't used before. It makes me a better coach to have him around. He makes a difference, but he stays out of the way. He doesn't much like the limelight.'

Campbell is enjoying his lot in life these days. He works part time as an instructor at the Metro Baseball Academy in Southeast Portland. He has had more free time to spend with his wife, Carrie. He is coaching high school ball without most of the headaches that go with being the varsity head man.

'Being a volunteer, I am not committed as much,' he says. 'I try to be there every day, but if I can't, I don't feel like I'm letting Mike down.

'I have enjoyed the Wilson kids. They are real appreciative, good citizens, easy to deal with. They don't know much about me, and that has been fine. If they see you can help them, the light kind of goes on.'

The head coach thing Ñ is Campbell sure he is done with that? Might he return as a head coach somewhere, someday?

He pauses for a long time.

'Well,' he says finally, 'let's just say I wouldn't rule it out.'

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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