Palisade’s Steve Phillips proud to retire again
Palisade's Steve Phillips proud to retire again
Somehow, although his lips stayed closed, his countenance would expand into a rippling smile, the cheeks dark red and bulging beyond the frame of his face.
That’s how Steve Phillips’ players knew they’d done a darn good job.
And 31 seasons of Phillips-coached basketball players have seen it.
Phillips, 57, on Tuesday announced his resignation as head boys basketball coach at Palisade High, a position he held for four years.
“Me and my wife just thought it would be a good time to spend a little more time traveling,” Phillips said, “and doing things we want to do together.”
Phillips coached at Meeker High School (1980-81) before taking the helm as boys basketball coach at Central High from 1982-2000, leading the Warriors to three state final-four appearances, three final-eight finishes, three trips to the Sweet 16 and, in 1990, a 25-0 record and Class 3A state championship.
The high school wins — 309 of them to 219 losses — were not what mattered most to Phillips, say those who know him.
What mattered was the well-being of his players, the very thing that just might bring Phillips back to coaching some day.
Phillips didn’t need tricks or blistering demands to get players to hustle like this season’s Palisade boys, who were well-known by locals for flailing into passing lanes and diving head-first for loose balls.
The players wanted to please their coach.
And their reward was simple.
“Every time we came in the locker room after a win he just got the biggest smile on his face from ear to ear,” said senior Kane Gunther, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer this season. “It was that knowing that you did a good job and you pleased him.”
His disciplinary methods were simple as well.
“The only time Steve got mad, and you knew he was mad, he stomped his foot, and everyone in the gym could hear he stomped his foot,” said Mike Paronto, a member of Central’s 1990 state championship team. “And he’d say, ‘Michael!’ “
Phillips had a certain routine with that championship team. Before each game, they ate pancakes with syrup and spaghetti.
“They loaded us with carbs and we went out and played 32 minutes of defense,” Paronto said.
The trademark of merciless defense Phillips stamped on his players perhaps came from his toughness — Phillips played quarterback at Western State College before he began his coaching career.
After polishing his legacy at Central, Phillips was the men’s basketball coach at Western State for three seasons.
Then he broke away from coaching, becoming the District 51 athletic director from 2003-07.
But he just wanted to coach kids again, so he took the head coaching job at Palisade.
“I was so happy to have a chance to go out there and finish the way I came in,” Phillips said.
In his first season at Palisade, the Bulldogs were 7-18 and qualified for state.
This season, Phillips and the Bulldogs flipped that record to 18-7 and made a second-round appearance at state.
“I could probably coach another 10 years,” Phillips said. “It was just time. I really enjoyed my time at Palisade; it’s been awesome. The kids have been great and the parents have been great. It’s just great everybody embraced what’s going on out there, generating a craze and excitement for Palisade basketball.”
Phillips led the Bulldogs to a 14-game winning streak this season. The ninth man off the bench often would enter the game and be as scrappy and effective as a starter. The Bulldogs compiled the streak with man-to-man defense and fast-breaking offense, all of which was generated by genuine love for his kids.
The players would dive and flop and take a knee to the gut for a charge call, all to see Phillips’ beaming post-game smile.
The joke between Phillips and Palisade Athletic Director Mike Krueger, who as an assistant at Grand Junction in the early 1990s coached against Phillips, is that Phillips (and Krueger) are stereotypical “old school” coaches.
If being “new school” means winning comes first and athletes should be treated according to their level of stardom, then Phillips certainly is the old-school sort.
“His passion for kids was always more than his passion for the game, which is incredible,” Krueger said. “I think what he’ll miss is the kids. I know that’s going to be the hard part for him.”
Sure, Phillips is done at Palisade for now, and said assistant Brian Taffel is a strong candidate to become the next head coach.
But has Phillips torched the coaching bridge?
“He told me if the timing was right,” Krueger said, “he’d come back and coach the freshmen. The door’s always open. It’s never closed.”