The setting was simple in the Coupeville High School cafeteria. A small crowd of players, parents and coaches gathered as Sid Otton prepared to speak for the first time as a high school football coach.
His wife, Marjean, looked on nervously. She’d heard Sid’s speech many times. He’d written it out, and recited it over and over laying in bed — and it was good, she said. But her newlywed husband was soft-spoken, a 6-foot-5 gentle giant, and she was concerned how he would do.
“It was right there when I knew he was going to be a great coach,” Marjean said, tearing up. “There was just something really strong about him that amazed me. I had never seen that in him, because I thought he was so quiet. But when he stood up, I knew he’d be a great coach wherever we went.”
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That speech launched a high school coaching career that has spanned 49 years at three high schools. Now, at age 72, Sid Otton — most recognized for his storied career at Tumwater, where he is about to begin his 43rd season — will retire at the end of this year as the winningest high school football coach in state history.
“Things come to an end somewhere,” Otton said.
He compared his last go-around this season to being a senior in high school.
“You’re going to try to reach a little bit deeper,” he said. “To put a little more here, a little more there — to really walk away knowing you have no regrets. That you did what you needed to be doing.”
Otton — who was inducted into the Washington State Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1996, and received the American Football Coaches Association’s national Power of Influence award 10 years later — has pieced together a career that is widely agreed will go unmatched.
“Sid Otton has set the standard so high, that he has improved the quality of coaching, and the quality of athletic programs in the state of Washington,” said Dick Nichols, a former KGY radio broadcaster who covered Thurston County football for decades.
“He’s the gold standard.”
In terms of winning football games, yes. Otton has amassed a 384-129 career record that includes six state championships and 26 state playoff appearances. He’s 82 wins in front of Washington’s No. 2 all-time winningest coach.
But Otton’s appeal stretches beyond his impressive win-loss ratio. Most of his praise comes from the thousands of players, coaches and community members impacted by his foundational philosophies that celebrate faith, family and football.
“I guarantee there will never be another Sid Otton — I don’t care how many games they win,” Nichols said. “They broke the mold with this guy, and there’s just not ever going to be another one like him. Sid is a special person, and it’s going to be a big, big hole to fill when he retires.”
When Otton walks off the football field for the final time this winter, he will close a chapter that began when he and Marjean got lost driving over Snoqualmie Pass on a beautiful August day in 1967.
They found their way over a hill in Mukilteo, saw the ferries whisking across Puget Sound, and were welcomed to Whidbey Island with a salmon barbeque.
“To me, that was kind of the start of our marriage and just the two of us,” said Marjean, who estimates she’s missed about six games during Sid’s coaching career. “We had to depend on each other. It was a wonderful time.”
Neither recalls the words Sid said that day in the Coupeville cafeteria, but his delivery, Marjean said, was the telling factor.
“It was the confidence he had,” she said. “In his own way, he was able to command their attention, and they responded well to him.”
“Tumwater Winning Football”
The hiring committee at Tumwater asked Sid Otton if he thought he could be too organized. He said he’d rather be that than the contrary.
He learned organization from Sark Arslanian, his coach at Weber State in Utah. Otton had his briefcase at that interview, and each time he was asked a question, he would pull out an example and present it — this is the same man who remembers sitting at a desk in grade school, putting X’s and O’s together on paper, and drawing up plays for his neighborhood football team.
“He was well-grounded in what he wanted to run — what kind of offense and what kind of defense,” said Norm Wisner, who was Tumwater’s principal at the time. “The other part that I remember getting drawn out from him during that interview process was his relationship with kids, his relationship with the community, and his relationship with his coaches.”
Wisner was confident with the hire in 1974, but couldn’t foresee what followed.
“Frankly, it’s proven far more than we anticipated,” he said.
“Tumwater has always been a little football town, but Sid has really put it on the map as being a tremendous place to learn and tremendous place to be a football player.”
Otton was coming off of a successful four years in Colfax — including his first state championship in 1971, as voted by the Associated Press — when he took the job at Tumwater. He said he got an itch to make a move, and was ready for the next step.
“His goal, he told me one time, was to put a small-town atmosphere into a bigger school’s football program,” Nichols said. “… He wanted to take the culture he was able to instill in the kids in that small town, and transfer that culture into a bigger high school.”
Nichols said Otton called it “blue-collar football” and compared his system to bringing your lunch pail to work.
For five of Otton’s first six years, Tumwater had losing seasons. Nichols urged naysayers to be patient.
“You could see it slowly coming,” he said. “… Once the kids were able to start seeing what he was preaching works, it just snowballed from there.”
The program began to develop into the well-oiled machine it is today, and Tumwater started churning out iterations of one successful team after another.
“You don’t have Division I players rotating through Tumwater,” said former Peninsula and Eastlake coach Dale Cote, whose senior season at Tumwater in 1980 marked the beginning of 17 consecutive winning seasons.
“How do you get players who are average in size, average in athletic ability to believe that they can do great things? He (Otton) continued to set a foundation of how his coaches and the program were going to approach preparation, goal-setting, hard work and setbacks.”
That established consistency. Tumwater has had two losing seasons since 1979 — including 1997, when Black Hills opened.
The T-Birds won their first state championship in 1987 in the Kingdome as a Class 3A team — the highest classification in the state at the time. Four more titles (1989, 1990, 1993, 2010) followed, all under Otton.
“That was the year we went from always knocking on the door to realizing what we were capable of and what the program was capable of,” said Brad Otton, Sid’s son, who held the ball for the place kicker on Tumwater’s inaugural championship team.
“Everything kind of opened up.”
That was the first year Tumwater ran its famous Wing-T offense, and the year the team started platooning. The T-Birds barreled through the season and eventually met Centralia in a Kansas tiebreaker. Two minutes from elimination, they forced a turnover and kicked a game-winning field goal.
That momentum carried the T-Birds through the playoffs to the state championship game, where they knocked off West Valley of Yakima, 21-14.
“The Wing-T looked like a clinic — the buck sweep and everything,” Sid Otton said. “They hadn’t seen it. It just started clicking. It spreads the offense around better and doesn’t put everything right on the quarterback’s lap. We liked it and kept it ever since.”
That win started a golden era of Tumwater football. The T-Birds won four titles in seven seasons, and had a 32-game winning streak that included undefeated title runs in 1989 and 1990.
“That’s what we expected to happen,” Brad Otton said. “We expected every season after that ’87 season that we were going to be playing football until the first week of December.”
Practices, games, playoff appearances — it’s all seemed like clockwork since.
“One of his (Sid Otton’s) sayings is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ ” said Jayden Croft, Sid’s grandson, who appeared in the state playoffs in each of his years at Tumwater. “… He has that set of principles and his job is just to get kids to buy in. If enough kids do that, we’ll succeed. Teams in the past set the bar high, and the kids that come after them want to emulate that.”
Most of the continual success is attributed to how Sid Otton runs the program — he doesn’t yell, or swear, but consistently works with players on maximizing potential.
“His coaching style made it accessible for players to be there,” said Paul Alexander, who was Otton’s assistant for two years at Coupeville. “… He always worked on clarifying just exactly what they needed to do versus what they’d just done — run the play again, let’s keep working on that.”
Otton’s guidance tends to carry.
“You think of the thousands of kids that have gone through that program,” Brad Otton said. “Still, to this day, I’ll see kids that I graduated with … repeat the same things my dad has said over and over. The things that program stands for become part of who you are, and you carry that into whatever you’re doing.”
Sid Otton deemed the program “Tumwater Winning Football” in his first year, which has, by and large, been an accurate slogan. But the “winning” portion isn’t always measured by the score.
“Winning and losing is important, maybe, but winning in life is what’s really important, and that’s what he prepares kids for,” Wisner said.
Loyalty and love
“Everybody comes to weddings. Coach comes to funerals.”
That investment makes Sid Otton beyond compare, said Matt Hinkle, who played at Tumwater in the 1970s and is entering his 22nd year as Shelton’s head coach.
“It just impressed me that when my dad passed away, there they were,” Hinkle said.
Wisner said Otton’s character is the greatest trait he has.
“What he does with his coaches, and his standing in the community, is beyond reproach,” Wisner said. “He’s a fine person.”
Loyalty and perpetuating a sense of family are cornerstones of Tumwater’s program. Pat Alexander, who has been Tumwater’s defensive coordinator for the better part of 41 years, said Otton’s philosophy on life is gripping.
“Everybody just kind of looks out for everybody else,” Alexander said. “It’s just a family that comes together and takes care of each other.”
Before former Tumwater athletic director Bob Shaner, a longtime friend to Otton and Alexander, died in 2014, Alexander spent many of the final days at Shaner’s side.
“I said, ‘You know, Bob, I love you,’ ” Alexander said. “There was a big silence, because we were raised in an era where men didn’t say, ‘I love you.’ He said, ‘You know, I love you, too, Pat.’ ”
When Shaner died, Alexander spoke about the conversations they’d had at his funeral.
“Sid came up to me as soon as I was done and said, ‘Pat, I need you to know I love you,’ ” Alexander said. “I said, ‘Well, I love you, too. I’ve known that all along.’ ”
Tumwater’s football program shares that sentiment openly. The players’ job is to love each other, and the coaches’ job is to love the players, Alexander said.
“This is not an August to December relationship,” Alexander said. “This is the rest of their lives.”
Bill Beattie — who was a senior on Otton’s first winning team at Tumwater in 1977, which finished 9-2 — still visits his coach seeking advice, even in his 22nd year as Olympia’s head coach. They talk football and trade coaching tips.
“I would not be doing what I’m doing today if it was not for that man,” Beattie said.
Beattie calls Otton a father figure and the ultimate role model.
“It’s what he instilled in me how to be successful on and off the field,” Beattie said. “The way you treat women and family. That’s what high school athletics are supposed to be. That’s probably his biggest attribute is just building young men.”
Hinkle — who, like Beattie, has met Otton several times on the opposing sideline — said he models parts of his program after what he was taught at Tumwater.
“He gives kids a sense of self-worth,” Hinkle said. “He has that ability to pour into you the feeling that you’re the most important piece of what they’re trying to accomplish. And he does that for every kid. There’s tremendous buy-in because of that — you don’t want to disappoint him.”
Near the beginning of Cote’s career at Peninsula, his team traveled to Tumwater for a jamboree. He said he was awestruck to be standing across the field from Otton.
“Even today, I’m not coaching anymore, but when I think about leadership, when I think about doing things the right way, when I think about family — I learned a lot from him in my formative years about how to carry yourself with character and integrity,” Cote said.
Tumwater won the jamboree game — of course, Cote said, though the teams didn’t officially keep score — and Otton greeted Cote afterward, as he’s greeted many people who have admired his career along the way.
Paul Alexander has followed Otton since Coupeville, and he watched Tumwater compete every time the T-Birds played at the Kingdome. He said the lasting connections Otton has made throughout the journey have made him successful.
“He remembers people,” Paul Alexander said.
Marjean recently uploaded a photo to Facebook of Otton, Pat Alexander and Steve Shoun — a Tumwater assistant and statistician since 1983 — all of whom retire this year. A former player left a comment that said, “Three of the greatest influences in my life.”
“I read that to Sid,” Marjean said, “And he said, ‘Yeah. No. 31. Red hair.’ ”
A family affair
Growing up in Lewiston, Idaho, Otton’s grandfather — and namesake — would take him onto the street to kick footballs.
“I was probably a better athlete in grade school than later on,” he joked.
He was the youngest of four boys. His father was a car mechanic, his mother — who turned 100 at the end of July — a teacher.
“That was considered happy days,” Otton said. “You didn’t lock your doors. Everyone was playing outside.”
It was a great childhood, he said, the kind he eventually helped create for his own kids and grandkids.
“He’s a family man,” Croft said. “He and my grandma are really big on family, and being a cohesive unit. Competitive nature, but always bringing it back to family.”
Otton played two years of junior college football in Boise before transferring to Weber State and playing two seasons there. He met Marjean near the end of his senior year in January 1966.
“The story is that he saw my legs and thought, ‘I think that girl would make good football players,’ ” Marjean laughed, noting that her brother played at Wyoming.
Otton, who was a lineman at Weber State, had left Utah briefly to try out for the Dallas Cowboys. When it didn’t pan out, he said he called Marjean, she picked him up at the airport, and they drove to a jewelry store.
They were married that September and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year — on Sept. 16, the night Tumwater plays Bellevue. Marjean said she’s used to that happening. They just go out to dinner on another night, she laughed.
“She’s not only an awesome wife, but it takes a special wife to be a coach’s wife,” Otton said. “She’s done about anything you can imagine to help, so that’s been pretty neat.”
His career has heavily influenced the progression of their family, and vice versa. They have three kids — Tim, who was born in Coupeville in 1968; Brad, who was born in Colfax in 1972; and Tana, who was born in Tumwater in 1974, on Otton’s first day as a teacher at the high school. They have eight grandkids.
“For us, Tumwater football was part of our life,” Brad Otton said. “Living so close to the school, we were a part of everything from such a young age, it didn’t seem like I was part of a program, it just seemed like a part of our life and a part of our family.”
Tim and Brad both played for their father, and Tim has been one of his assistant coaches since 2002. Tana is Tumwater’s volleyball coach, and implements some of her father’s coaching techniques into her own program. Two of Sid’s grandsons, Croft and Cade Otton, have played for him.
Cade Otton, a senior and University of Washington commit, will be the last. Sid Otton said part of the reason he stayed as long as he did was to see his grandsons through the program — at the prompting of Tana (Jayden’s mother) and his daughter-in-law Sally (Cade’s mother).
“His main goal is to make men out of the boys,” Croft said. “I think Cade and I were the players we were because we were able to see that in our own family lives.
“Seeing those values within our family, within our everyday lives made us believe in his system and what he brings to the community. I think believing in that wholeheartedly is what made us who we are as players and people.”
Long gone are the days when Sid Otton and Marjean would pack up after a Friday night game and hop a 4 a.m. flight to watch Brad play at the University of Southern California, only to turn around so Sid could be at a Sunday night coaches meeting.
“It’s been a great ride,” Marjean said. “We won’t ever regret that. It’s a great life. Now, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do.”
The memories are contained in the front room of their home, steps away from the high school. Photos, news clippings and footballs line the walls, telling the story of Sid Otton’s career as a mellow, effective leader.
“Who he is out there is who he is in here,” Marjean said. “It all comes back to the great foundation he’s set for this family.”
“One last song”
The last first day of practice. The last team picture. The last chicken he’ll eat at Tumwater’s preseason unity camp.
“People start checking things off,” Sid Otton said. “Once you get to games, the thing just flies — prepare, game, prepare, game. I just want to slow it down a little bit and try to enjoy these moments, seize the moments, and have a great time with these guys.”
Marjean buys season tickets every year — two seats on the 50-yard line — but Otton isn’t sure if he’ll sit there yet. He has one more year walking Tumwater’s sidelines to decide.
The mantra printed on the back of Tumwater’s practice shirts this year is, “One last song.” It’s a reference to a Tumwater tradition.
“After every win, we sing a song in the locker room. It’s our victory song,” Cade Otton said. “ ‘One last song’ means we want to end on a victory and sing one more song.”
Ideally, following a state championship win, Cade said. But, perhaps, the saying is a gentle nod to the the swan song season his grandfather is about to begin. One final act before he closes his career.
“It’s been an awesome T-Bird ride, it’s been great,” Sid Otton said. “It’s not over yet.”
Sid Otton’s winning legacy in Washington state
Tumwater’s Sid Otton will complete his 49-year high school football coaching career with the most wins all-time in state history at the end of this season (*—active in 2015):
Tumwater, Colfax, Coupeville
AB Murphy, Cascade, Renton, Bellarmine, Stanwood
Gonzaga Prep, Lakeside (Seattle)
Snohomish, Camas, Sultan
Cashmere, Rochester, Adna
Puyallup, Kentwood, Liberty (Renton)
Skyline, Rogers, Gig Harbor, Eatonville