PORT ANGELES — After getting passed over again and again, it would have been easy for Tom Wahl to question himself.
Administrators and community members rejected him three times for the Port Angeles head football coaching position.
Yet after the job opened up for a sixth time in his 10 years last spring, Wahl felt compelled to throw his name into the running once again.
“I felt pretty foolish doing it to be honest,” said Wahl, a former freshman coach and varsity assistant who has piloted the Roughriders (6-0 in league, 8-0 overall) to their best start in 43 years this fall.
“I kept telling my wife, ‘How stupid do I look in the community’s eyes to keep getting rejected on this?’ But I guess that’s just the way I am.
“I’m a person who doesn’t give up and I’ll keep pounding because I really felt like it was me who had some ideas that were going to help to motivate and I knew the ability and the potential of the coaches I had here.”
The premise seems almost fitting: A rejected coach taking over a band of rejected players.
Port Angeles’ seniors had, after all, seen two head coaches come and go in the past three seasons.
That included last season’s historically bad 0-10 campaign under Dick Abrams, who stuck around for only one year before resigning in April.
Thus, the idea of a familiar face — one they had played for as freshmen on the Rider C team — seemed like the perfect fit.
“We had a big senior class, and our senior class worked really hard on getting kids out who hadn’t played before,” senior captain Cody Sullivan said.
“But I know also that we couldn’t have done it without people liking the coach, and a lot of people liked the fact that coach Wahl was the coach this year.
“A lot of players came out to play for him as well.”
Motivation has been perhaps the biggest contribution Wahl has made to the Riders’ unprecedented turnaround this season.
From the beginning, the 52-year-old delegated much of the play-calling, scheming and game management to his assistants: offensive coordinator Bob Withrow, defensive coordinator Vic Reykdal and special teams coach Dave Uranich.
Wahl spent most of his time organizing a program, rallying the community around a forgotten team and getting the players to commit to working hard in the offseason and bonding as a unit.
Within days of his hiring, he began getting players into the weight room every morning, organizing spring practices and putting together a team for a summer 7-on-7 passing league with Sequim, North Kitsap and Kingston.
The latter were all teams Port Angeles would face this season in the new Class 2A Olympic League after the Riders dropped down from 3A to 2A.
“Part of starting this program is having more than just football Monday through Friday,” Sullivan said. “It’s a team Monday though Sunday, and I think that’s one of the things coach Wahl has incorporated.
“It’s like in a machine. You have your pieces that work well as their own piece and that’s our assistant coaches and our coordinators. [Wahl] is kind of the glue that holds everything together. He’s the motivating factor for our team.”
In one of the greater rarities in high school football, Wahl doesn’t even wear a headset during games.
While most coaches insist on listening in on all play calls, ultimately reserving veto power, Wahl chooses to leave his offensive and defensive coordinators unencumbered.
It was something he had never done before at previous head coaching stints in Alaska and Germany. Yet it was something he felt was necessary.
“We all know where our confidence level was and it wasn’t very high [after three straight losing seasons],” Wahl said.
“So I really saw myself as being a person who’s got to be in charge of motivation and make that my primary focus along with organization and trying to be liaison to the community.
“I have complete trust in my assistant coaches. I’ve been able to observe them for the last 10 years, so I know what their abilities are.”
That trust has done wonders for a coaching staff that’s seen six different regimes since 2000, according to Withrow.
“That’s why we work so hard for him,” Withrow said. “We’re here some nights after a game until one or two in the morning getting ready for game film and then we’re right back here Saturday morning with the kids going through film.
“It’s a different feel. It’s a lot of responsibility and it’s shared. I think that’s the way it should be.”
Wahl and his players get up extra early on Saturdays as well.
In one of the many new traditions Wahl has installed into the Rider football program in his first season, he and his players run down to Peabody Creek after every win to do some “victory pushups” each Saturday morning.
Wahl also began the tradition of awarding a “White Helmet” to players who distinguished themselves on the field and in the classroom (seniors Nathan Cristion and Troy Martin have each donned a white helmet this fall).
Perhaps most importantly, Wahl also reached out to his senior class with other special activities like organizing a trip to Saturday’s UW-Stanford football game in Seattle and hiking Mount Angeles together.
“[The seniors] are the ones who really want to win,” Wahl said. “They are the natural leaders on the team and they will drag the rest of the kids along if they step up.
“Those are the guys you really need to focus on. If you got the seniors hooked and do a lot of motivation stuff with them, then the rest of the team will come along, so that’s why I’ve done that.”
Of course, there is something else about this particular senior group of 16; a bond Wahl said he has felt ever since he coached them during their freshman year.
“We goal set with them when they were freshmen and they had some strong aspirations to do big things their senior year,” Wahl said. “I applied for this job four times, and it gave me the strength to persevere.
“I always kind of felt that with these guys, who we goal set as freshmen with, that we were going to be back together sometime and here we are.”
And now they are on the brink of something almost unimaginable: Worst to first.