Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Athletics have been good to Phil Homer

Blaine County educator to be enshrined in IHSAA Hall of Fame

Express Staff Writer

Phil Homer in his coaching days. Courtesy photo

It was a good thing Phil Homer had a formidable roundhouse curveball as a pitcher for Montpelier High School back in the late 1950s, because he couldn't run a lick and wouldn't have been a track star.

He was a fine three-sport athlete. But in the long run, nothing really mattered except character. "You can go anywhere in the state, and whenever anybody mentions Phil they talk about his character," said Chuck Turner, his friend of nearly 40 years.

Sports and life take funny curves. It was on the Bronco Stadium track in Boise May 20 that Philip T. Homer of Hailey took his first official lap as one of the newest members of the Idaho High School Activities Association Hall of Fame during the state track meet's Parade of Athletes.

"Nobody is more deserving than Phil," said retired Wood River Middle School principal Turner, who started out coaching with Homer in Hailey in 1967 and ended up working closely with him in Blaine County School District administration.

Homer, a 37-year educator who served as Wood River High School principal for 10 years and as Blaine County superintendent of schools for 11 more ending with his retirement in 1999, was elected to the IHSAA shrine during the organization's board meeting April 6 in Boise.

Along with four others, Homer will be enshrined Aug. 3 during the 26th annual IHSAA Hall of Fame induction dinner in Boise. Each year, the organization that controls Gem State prep athletics honors people who have dedicated years of exemplary service to Idaho's youth.

Homer fits, like a snug uniform.

"He was always the driving force behind anything academic or athletic at the high school—always willing to go that extra mile," said former Wood River High principal Bill Resko, who succeeded him at the high school helm in Oct. 1988 when Homer became superintendent.

One of the remarkable things about Homer is that he is so readily identified with Gem State athletics, despite the fact that he spent only one memorable season as a head varsity coach. That was in 1969-70, when he guided the Wood River boys' basketball team to its first-ever district tournament championship.

A year later, Homer was asked to become junior high school principal. He took the job and spent the rest of his productive working life in Blaine County school administration. "It was rare in those days to be both a varsity coach and a principal," said another one of Homer's longtime friends, Fred Trenkle of Shoshone.

Unable to coach at the varsity level, Homer went the extra mile and did just about everything else involving Wood River athletics.

For years he was always there, driving thousands of miles, monitoring hundreds of fired-up crowds and making sure countless busloads of kids arrived and departed safely. "They couldn't get rid of me," Homer laughed. "Wood River teams didn't go many places without me."

He coached kids in elementary school. He ran summer basketball camps. He kept the clock at football games and made sure things ran smoothly at basketball games. He communicated with the coaches and administrators of other schools.

Standing side-by-side with parents and school patrons at games, he had the common touch. He hollered at referees when terrible calls went against Wood River. Always, he supported his coaches. As he grew in stature, he argued and won battles for Wood River on statewide stages.

Basketball fans might say the best thing Phil Homer ever did was paving the way for Fred Trenkle.

Of all the mentor-friend relationships Homer has cultivated, few bonds have been more rewarding than the one lasting 30-plus years between Homer and Trenkle.

It started in 1970 when Trenkle, then an Idaho State University senior and basketball team star, was Wood River's assigned guest host bringing the Hailey boys towels during their state tournament visit with coach Homer to Reed Gym in Pocatello.

Three years later Trenkle was a government and history teacher and assistant basketball coach at Wood River High—and Homer was junior high principal. When head basketball coach Bill Bowman decided to leave his post, the administration asked Homer to reassume the coaching job he had done so successfully.

"Bill Mallory (school board member) asked if I wanted to come back and coach basketball. I said, well, we already have Fred Trenkle, and he's been JV coach for a couple of years and I think he deserves a crack at the job. I knew Fred was a basketball guy. He could just watch him and see he knew the game," Homer said.

The rest is Wood River history.

Trenkle won 100 games for Wood River through 1980 and went on to become the College of Southern Idaho's all-time winningest coach and a Hall of Famer for the Twin Falls junior college. He returned to take over the Wood River program in 2003 and guided the Wolverines to the state tournament that season.

"I don't think they will ever equal Fred's record at CSI," said Homer about the highly-regarded Twin Falls basketball program.

Trenkle said, "Phil helped me get the job (at Wood River). I was JV coach, and there was opposition to me becoming head coach, but Phil went to bat for me."

Two of Trenkle's coaching attributes, Homer said, are his ability to organize practices and analyze the opposition. Those things spring from a willingness to work hard and go the extra mile, said Homer. The two men share those traits and a genuine love for the game of basketball..

Homer said, "When we were over in the old green gym, we had one-and-a-half hours to practice and that was it. Fred had to have those practices organized to the minute. One thing I've learned is that successful coaches are successful because they are planners. And Fred is as fine a coach as there is in knowing what the other team is going to try to do."

For 11 years Trenkle and Homer jointly operated the Wood River summer basketball camp at the old high school in Hailey. That is, Trenkle directed the coaching and Homer—always one to get his hands dirty—kept the bathrooms clean during the popular overnight camp.

"He and I ran it and Phil was the janitor. He was the bathroom man," Trenkle recalled with a smile. "A lot of it came out of our own pockets. I remember we put up 14 baskets in the parking lot there, and we always let the Wood River kids come to the camp for almost nothing."

Trenkle's competitiveness is legendary, but Homer is up there, too.

"Did we ever go nose-to-nose? Yes," said Trenkle is his usual rhetorical manner. "Did I ever win? No."

"Whether it's fishing or hunting or playing a game, Phil is a competitor, He gets fired up a little," added Trenkle. "But you have to be competitive in this world to get by. You don't have to win all the time, but you have to play to win all the time."

Athletics teaches youngsters that you can't win all the time, a stepping-stone for learning that people won't always agree with you. One of Homer's strengths in his working life was listening to different views and hammering out agreements.

Turner said, "Phil and I both had strong feelings about issues in the district and we might disagree, but we had an understanding. If he needed to expound on something, he would chew on me. That was all right with me. And I could do the same thing with him."

School administrators are supposed to be impartial, but Homer always seemed to get caught up in the game itself and Wood River's cause. The tighter the game, the more intense he got. And the referees—well, let's just say the officials have more than once tended to favor farm town boys over the "rich kids," from Blaine County, but Homer was forever vigilant to such unfairness.

"Oh, Phil will speak up," said Turner. "Calling a ref a numbskull is about as far as he'll go, normally. He is always a gentleman."

Turner added about his mutual respect relationship with Homer, "The last 10 years I was working with the schools he was superintendent and I was principal at the middle school. My goal was to get him to swear at me once a week—and all but two weeks I was able to do that. But we both knew we were doing everything for the sake of the kids and the system. Above all, he has been my role model, friend and confidante."

The football field at the middle school is now named Chuck Turner Field and the football field at the high school is named Phil Homer Field, and it all dates back to their days together as assistant football coaches on the great Wood River grid teams from 1967-70.

There have been good days, and days that haven't been as good.

Homer said, "Athletics teaches you about life. You learn that not every day is a good day, just like in life. I remember listening to Lou Holtz talk about one of his great players, Billy Ray Smith. What Holtz said was Billy Ray Smith wasn't a great player because he never got knocked down, because he did. What made Billy Ray Smith a great player was that when he got knocked down, he got back up. And that's life."

Son of a railroad man

Raised in Montpelier at Bear Lake in southeastern Idaho, Homer was the son of a 40-year Union Pacific railroad conductor. That and the fact that all four Homer children became educators have something to do with Homer's Democratic leanings.

At Montpelier High School Homer played end on the football team, ended up as leading scorer on the basketball team and was a pitcher/first baseman on the baseball team. He tried out for the baseball team when he went down the road to Utah State University in Logan, but "I didn't have the foot speed," he said.

"I did have a heckuva roundhouse curve," he said.

He graduated in education from Utah State in 1961 and got his first job in Soda Springs, where he coached junior varsity football (an undefeated team in 1963) and basketball and was assistant baseball coach. Homer earned his masters from Utah State in 1965 and ended up in Pocatello for a year, teaching English and coaching at Irving Junior High.

Native South Dakotan Richard L. "Dick" Jones, a social studies teacher at Hailey High School from 1960-62, went to Genesee for a couple of years and came back to Hailey with his Masters to become Wood River High School principal from 1965-70. Certainly one of Jones' best moves was hiring Phil Homer in 1966.

Jones talked him into coming to Hailey, Homer recalled. And the two quickly became fast friends. Jones, son of a bricklayer, became Homer's mentor. Their leadership abilities and interest in the outdoors were very similar. In Jones' view, education was the backbone of a free and democratic society. Homer felt the same.

Working as an assistant coach for Bill Bowman in football and basketball, Homer built some outstanding records with junior varsity squads. The group that became Homer's district champions were 15-3 as freshmen and 16-2 as sophomores.

Bowman took district runner-up Wood River to the state tournament in 1969, but that team, which had Scott Bowlden as a senior, went 0-2 at the big Gem State dance. Homer took over the varsity job the next year and inherited a strong group of seniors including Daryle James, Mike Kimball, Denny Patterson, Rick Thompson and Alan Miller.

They went 10-10 in the season but peaked at tournament time, beating Filer by a bucket after being down five with 45 seconds left. "It was a modern day miracle," said Homer, who remembers minute details and key moments from Hailey's amazing two-week tournament tear.

"We had two-point wins on back-to-back nights, and Mike Kimball had the big bucket with seven or eight seconds left each night," said Homer. "Then we went down to Buhl for the championship games and they beat us the first game, but the second night we took control and won by 10 points. I never felt it was in doubt."

Homer said, "It was Wood River's first district championship since they consolidated the schools in 1964."

At the state tournament in Pocatello, Wood River debuted with a thrilling 53-52 victory over Preston. Homer said, "It was a great victory for me because I was from Montpelier and Preston always kicked us around. The next game we played Shelley and missed two free throws and a layup that would have tied it, and they beat us four or five. Aberdeen beat us in our last game."

One of Shelley's assistant coaches was Roy Smith, who will enter the IHSAA shrine with Homer in August along with Dale Thornsberry (Buhl and Twin Falls), Rex Johnson (Meridian) and, posthumously, John McCarthy of Pocatello High School.

Athletics fine-tuned Homer's leadership abilities, which have served him well his entire life. He always fought for his coaches. "I tried to help coaches through tough times and they appreciated that," he said.

"Phil is a leader," said Turner. "He doesn't do anything half-baked. When he was an administrator he expected performance out of his staff and his coaches. He's just a very enthusiastic and positive person. Between he and Dick Jones, they were role models for the rest of us."

Trenkle said about Homer, "You just don't question his fairness."

His reputation for fairness broke down barriers and paved the way for agreements between disparate groups. Behind the scenes, Homer fought for Blaine County for 11 years as superintendent. He served 15 years on the Fourth District Activities Association Board of Control, and five years as its president.

As chairman of Idaho's Superintendent's Finance Committee, he spent three years at the Legislature that is often hostile to Blaine County interests. He established a permanent levy that has secured state funding for Blaine County at a steady rate.

During the 1980s he stumped for tax override after tax override to operate local schools. Faced with a growing population, he initiated a new building plan. Facility improvements and the establishment of a core curriculum and assessment tools to measure student progress were two milestones on Homer's watch.

Among the achievements of his 11-year term as superintendent were the Silver Creek Alternative School, the Blaine County Education Foundation and the new Wood River Middle School.

One of Homer's greatest behind-the-scenes victories regarding athletics happened in 1997 when the IHSAA Board of Control considered a proposal to split Gem State athletics into five divisions instead of four.

Wood River's student population was borderline and would have put it into a division of bigger schools under the five-division proposal. But Homer's impassioned presentation before the IHSAA convinced high school administrators to keep the status quo—and bought Wood River about six years to compete with smaller schools in the 3A Sawtooth Central Idaho Conference.

At no time in his life was Phil Homer's leadership more evident than in the days and months following the sudden death of superintendent Dick Jones in 1984. The mourning of the community was sincere. Dick Jones was a good, friendly man. And suddenly he was gone, of a heart attack at the young age of 50.

Homer, saying it wasn't yet "his time" to become superintendent, accepted the role of acting superintendent in the wake of Jones' death. His more immediate responsibility was consoling a grieving community.

Out of the tearful audience in the high school auditorium at Jones' funeral service rose a man who walked slowly to the podium to deliver the eulogy. In his grief, Phil Homer could have been excused from the job of providing solace and direction. Jones was his friend. Jones was the man who brought him to Hailey.

There seemed to be no words to lead the community out of its sadness, but Homer somehow provided understanding. And he's done that at countless funerals along the way.

Turner said, "Anytime tragedy has struck, whether it has been personal or district wide, Phil has stepped up and led people. They have looked at him to do that—I know I have. But he came to the fore. He has a way of focusing and assuming leadership. He's got the ability to control himself in those tight situations."

Education and athletics have molded Homer's character.

Two brothers, Glay and Rulon, are both educators. Glay is the retired Bear Lake school superintendent. Rulon is principal of Davis High in Kaysville, Utah and is president of the Utah Secondary Schools Principals' Association. Phil's sister, Sheila Hirschi, is a middle school teacher in West Jordan, Utah.

Homer is grateful for what a life in Idaho education has given him.

"I've been so involved in Idaho athletics, I really don't know what we'd do if we didn't have that kind of outlet for kids. I still get excited about being a part of this great program. I think it's great we've expanded opportunities—right now, my granddaughter is playing on the Boise High varsity softball team. We didn't have that years ago," he said.

Have kids changed?

"Yes, I think they have. Kids these days have a tougher time playing a secondary role on a team or in a program. Back then, kids just felt good to be on the team. I remember a kid like John Montgomery, he was a kid who could sit on the end of a bench and it didn't matter if he played one minute or 20 minutes.

"Many parents these days think their kids can go on and play sports in college, and the fact is very few kids are able to do that. I just wish we could just let these kids play for the enjoyment of it, and for the sake of being part of something."

These days, Homer, 65, spends retirement time traveling to visit his family and working around the state as an education lobbyist. He and his wife of 44 years, Bernice, have four children and 10 grandchildren.

Oldest son Michael Homer, 43, is a development engineer for Boeing in Everett, Wash. He and wife Susan have four children. Carol Homer Hanes and her husband Robert of Meridian have two children.

Kim Homer Tower and her husband Chris live in Boise have two children. Youngest son Brian Homer, a 1991 Wood River graduate, still holds the school record for 3-point shooting. He played some college basketball and ended up graduating from Albertson College in 2001. Brian works as an engineer for Micron. He and his wife Julie have two children, and another on the way.

"Phil and his whole family have been so good for me. They've taught me a lot of lessons," said Trenkle.

Attentive to his family, faithful to his church, Homer is known as a man who has cared about his community.

Homer said in an interview when he retired six years ago, "I've gotten along in this community because I've been kind and I've been caring and I love people and kids. Therefore I'm out and visible and listening to what people have to say."

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