PORT ORCHARD — Becoming South Kitsap basketball coach was the only job John Callaghan ever wanted.
When he left Port Orchard in 1976 for Eastern Washington, his eye was always on returning to his alma mater. He didn’t want to coach in college. He didn’t want to coach anywhere else. He wanted to be the head boys basketball coach at South Kitsap. And for 21 seasons, he lived his dream.
But the time finally came to let someone else take the reins. Last week, Callaghan officially submitted a formal notification to athletic director Kelly Kirk of his retirement from coaching at South Kitsap. Callaghan will continue his teaching job at Marcus Whitman Middle School for one more year.
Including his time as a middle school coach and an assistant coach, Callaghan has been teaching the X’s and O’s of hoops in the South Kitsap School District for 37 years. This fall will be the first since 1983 that Callaghan won’t be on the bench next to a group of players ready to take on a new season.
“I don’t know if it’s kicking in yet,” Callaghan said in an interview with the Independent.
“It probably will during the summer and definitely next November. Right now, this is our downtime, anyway. We usually pick up with the workouts after spring break.”
“The ultimate players’ coach”
When Callaghan took over the program in 1998, South Kitsap hadn’t been to the state tournament since the coach’s own senior year in 1976. But that drought didn’t last for very long.
Current assistant coach Brian Cox was an underclassman on the 2001 squad that was the first of six consecutive South Kitsap teams to qualify for the 4A state tournament.
In describing what made Callaghan unique and successful, Cox referred to him as the ultimate players’ coach. One of the team’s long-standing traditions is to allow each and every player to speak in the locker room following the final game of the season.
“He’s just consistent throughout the program the way he treats his players, from the varsity to the C-team,” Cox said. “He treats every player with the ultimate respect. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from John over the years.”
That connection wasn’t limited to his players. Thousands of students also matriculated through his middle school gym classes and he brought that same attitude to his full-time day job.
“When he comes in the building here, he comes right up to them, chitchats with them,” Kirk said. “They still have a connection with him even after they leave Marcus.”
Callaghan himself was flattered but also seemed somewhat befuddled, by Cox’s assessment. He mused that the positive relationships he had with his players begins with the common bond they share — love of basketball and the mutual desire to be a part of the program. And coaching has always been fun for Callaghan, even during losing seasons.
“I would hope that I was a positive influence on any of the kids I taught or coached,” Callaghan said. “I think you can only be yourself.”
He has also been fortunate to have his family along for the ride, which allowed him the time to pursue his passion for coaching at South Kitsap.
His son Ryley and daughter Kelsey both spent tons of time hanging around the gym, being floor sweepers at the Tacoma Dome and developing their own interest and love of basketball. Both went on to play for South Kitsap and then played in college as well. Kelsey is now a coach at Olympic and Ryley is currently finishing his teaching degree and coaching at Corban University.
“My wife Denise has always been there for me,” Callaghan said. “If it doesn’t work for your family, it’s not going to work. My kids always loved to come to the gym.”
A South Kitsap legend
Callaghan’s resume speaks for itself. 304 wins, four Narrows League championships and one district championship. His teams qualified for the 4A state tournament six times, placing in five of them.
South Kitsap also made one state finals appearance, losing 65-56 in 2004 to a Kentwood team featuring Rodney Stuckey, a future NBA player, and his brother Ronnie. The Wolves survived being placed on the same side of the bracket as Franklin, then the defending state champions, and top-seeded Bethel. South Kitsap took down Bethel 49-47 in the semifinals to reach the championship game.
But what makes attending a game at South Kitsap unique is how Callaghan and his players are received after games by the fans. Whether they win by 30 or lose by 30, it seems every person in the gym wants to stop and see Callaghan for a quick handshake or a hug, or to share a laugh — even after a blowout.
“The community has always been supportive,” Callaghan said. “There are a lot of people who don’t even necessarily have a connection [to the program], like a son or grandson, but they come to the games and support us anyway. We’ve always been very fortunate in that regard.”
Callaghan hopes to be able to hand over the keys to the program to Cox, his assistant and former player. He recommended Cox to Kirk in his retirement letter.
“He’s just a class act,” Callaghan told the Independent. “The kids love him. That would be great.”
For his part, Cox said he plans to apply for the job. The application process is set to begin soon, and although there is no set timeframe, the successor would likely be chosen after spring break, but before Memorial Day, Kirk said.
As for Callaghan, he retires fifth all-time among West Sound boys basketball coaches in wins, behind only the household names of Les Eathorne, Ken Wills, Larry Skogstad and Jim Harney.
Callaghan won’t be going far. With his daughter still nearby and his son planning to return to the area, Callaghan said he would still be happy to assist the program. It likely won’t be an uncommon sight to see him cheering his Wolves on in the stands as well.
“John is still passionate about the game, and you can see that on the sidelines,” Kirk said. “I walk through the gym all the time and he’s preparing really specific stuff for the team. To have that much passion and desire after 40 years is pretty amazing.”