Opinion: La Center coach’s biggest win came during a lost season

La Center High School football coach John Lambert proved he believes in so much more than winning and losing when he stuck to his principles in 2008.

John Lambert got his 150th win this season, but we celebrate his winning decision in 2008

Numbers do matter in the sports world. Milestones are recorded.

La Center High School football coach John Lambert reached 150 wins last week. That is quite an achievement, even more so when considering that he got all 150 of those wins at one school.

La Center coach John Lambert stands for so much more than wins and losses. He has 150 wins now, but it is the way he lost in 2008 that should be celebrated. Photo by Mike Schultz
La Center coach John Lambert stands for so much more than wins and losses. He has 150 wins now, but it is the way he lost in 2008 that should be celebrated. Photo by Mike Schultz

Until Lambert came along, one might have thought it would take close to 100 or so years to accumulate 150 wins at La Center.

Yeah, the program’s record was that bad.

So 150 wins should, indeed, be celebrated by his school and his community.

This is the 19th football season I’ve known John Lambert. I honestly do not care how many games he has won. I am more impressed with the games he has lost, how he has lost them.

I’ll take you back to the 2008 season, his greatest moment.

Two weeks before the season kicked off, the Wildcats were everybody’s favorite to win the Trico League, to do some damage in the playoffs. They would have their traditional tough non-league schedule, but then they would likely dominate.

One could argue, even today, it was Lambert’s best team. That is saying something because he has had three teams reach the state semifinals.

Everything changed the day before the 2008 season. His quarterback and his top two running backs were kicked off the team. Not by the school. Not by the administration. But by Lambert and his own, personal integrity rule.

Those three players had violated the school’s code of conduct. The school’s rule, at that time, was that a violation would mean missing half of the regular season. However, Lambert had his own team rule that went above and beyond the school’s rule. If a football player violated that code of conduct, the player was done for the season.

No exceptions.

Every parent and every player knew the consequences.

John Lambert is an educator first. He told me then, and he told me again this week, he had to stick with his rule. Even though the decision likely cost La Center a league title, and it definitely cost the Wildcats a long playoff run.

Some might think losing three guys should not change a team’s entire season. For one, it turned out to be more than three — I’ll get to that in a bit — but losing three starters, including one of the best athletes in the region, is a tremendous deal to any program, but more so for a small school. This is a Wing-T offense, and those three players likely would have had 80 to 90 percent of the touches on offense that season.

One of the athletes ended up moving to another school district so he could play football that year. The new school had to honor the La Center ruling — the athlete would be suspended for half the season — but the athlete could play down the stretch.

(I am not naming any of the athletes from 2008.) 

That athlete went to a Class 4A Greater St. Helens League team and in the final four weeks of the season, that athlete led the league in rushing.

He did that against 4A competition after not playing for more than a month. That’s how good he was. Now consider that player dominating in the 1A Trico League, and doing so on both sides of the ball. Oh, and add the other two players who were suspended, who were also among the best in the Trico League.

“I really do think we could have won the state title that year,” Lambert said.

Yes, La Center’s season was torpedoed the day before the season started.

“It was a long walk from the office to the football practice. It was miserable. I had to tell them they’re off the team,” Lambert said. 

While on this subject, it is a good time to salute the La Center administration, as well. The admin backed its coach. It would have been easy for the admin to also say, “Sorry, John, but we’re going to stick with the school’s rule, not yours.” 

When the administration backs the head coach, it can create a great team that lasts years and years. 

By the way, the entire school now uses the Lambert Law. (OK, it’s not really called that, but I digress.) Matt Cooke, who was an assistant coach under Lambert, became the school’s athletic director in 2013 and he changed the consequence for a violation. Nowadays, if any athlete in any sport at La Center violates the code of conduct, that athlete is out for the season.

Back to the 2008 football team. So with those three guys gone, the starting center that year had to change positions, and he became the starting quarterback. (Gotta love small-school football where the center can become a QB.) That meant the Wildcats lost four starting positions on offense.

Two weeks later, that athlete broke the code of conduct. 

But here is the most amazing thing about this story. No one from the school knew that the athlete violated a code. The athlete turned himself in.

Lambert doesn’t just teach football. He preaches character. Honesty matters. 

Just like that, the Wildcats were without another starting quarterback.

The Wildcats went 4-6 in 2008. The program had nine consecutive winning regular seasons until that year.

Lambert lost that streak.

But he won so much more.

One of the suspended players later confided in Lambert that it was a big deal that an authority figure stuck to his philosophy.

“He said, ‘You always follow through with exactly what you say, and not everybody does that,’” Lambert recalled.

He is not alone, of course. This season, Rick Steele of Hockinson made it to 100 wins. He, too, has had to kick players off of a team earlier in his career. That team, he said, was not a championship caliber squad, but it still probably cost him a win or two. Steele also conducts “man class” every week in his program.

In fact, our region is full of quality coaches in all sports. Our community should be grateful so many choose to teach our young men and women about choices and consequences.

Still, none of us really, really know how we will react when our principles are challenged until they really are challenged.

Back in 2008, Lambert could have just gone with the school’s rule, right?

No, no he couldn’t. 

Not if he wanted to look at himself in the mirror. Not if he really wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of his players. 

The Wildcats have another solid team this year. They are 5-0 going into Friday’s home game against Stevenson.

Lambert reached 150 wins a week ago. The school recognized him for that accomplishment, as well it should.

Me? I prefer celebrating the 4-6 2008 season — John Lambert’s greatest season.

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