Caring is not often a word athletes say when talking about their high school football coach.
But it was the first word that jumps out to La Center senior Max Muffett’s when asked to describe longtime Wildcat coach John Lambert.
Lambert strives to be a coach he would want to play for, and in 21 years as head coach at La Center, the 48-year-old playcaller is on the cusp of career win No. 150 with that sentiment in mind. He could earn that milestone Friday when the Wildcats (4-0 overall) face King’s Way Christian.
And it’s possible he could do so within a week of a longtime friend and a fellow head coach’s milestone victory. Hockinson’s Rick Steele sits at 98 victories through four weeks of his 15th season with the Hawks. Hockinson (3-1) travels to Woodland Friday.
Both men cherish their upcoming milestones, but know it isn’t possible without the hundreds of players who helped put a stamp on success for their teams.
Said Steele: “It’s something for me to be proud of for this program … and it’s a testament to them.”
First meeting in 1986
Steele and Lambert first met in 1986. Steele, then 22 and a young firefighter in the Vancouver Fire Department, got hired as one of two freshmen football coaches at Hudson’s Bay High School.
In the program was Lambert, a 15-year-old sophomore. In 1999 when Lambert got hired to lead La Center, the first coach he called was a longtime familiar face to lead the defense, as well as work with the linemen.
“Rick was at the top of the list,” Lambert said. “He is everything I would want to have in a coach if I was playing.”
Their first season together, La Center went 5-4 — a major feat for a program that made national headlines for its losing. And Steele still remembers all six of the offensive linemen he had to work with all season.
The two seasons coaching under Lambert at La Center got Steele to cherish more than good memories and a great friendship with Lambert. It also grew his appreciation and love for small-school football from the crowds to the kids.
“Those fans,” Steele said. “They loved those kids and they packed that place every Friday. Home or away, it was packed. … I loved coaching those two years with John.”
Tom Lambert, John’s son, is in the midst of a stellar junior season as La Center’s quarterback. He is one of five kids in the Lambert clan, the oldest of which is 18-year-old Jane and the youngest, 3-year-old Scott.
Tom Lambert knows firsthand exactly how much his dad cares about the La Center Wildcats — referring to his dad as a “tough teddy bear” — he also knows a bit of what Steele brings to the table, too.
Steele and Lambert teamed up to coach the Clark County Youth Football team Tom Lambert played for in 2013. That year, Steele stepped down at Hockinson after a promotion to battalion chief in the fire department. He returned to Hockinson in 2014.
And since then, Hockinson is 59-6 entering Friday with two state championships and another handful of league titles to its resume.
It certainly doesn’t surprise John Lambert that Steele has a pair of state titles to his name. He’s seen the potential in him for the past two decades.
“He’s direct and to the point, but he does it with a soft hand and an encouragement,” the coach said of Steele. “He gets fired up, gets kids excited. He’s fun to be around and I think the kids really respond to that.”
In Steele’s 34th year coaching, Hockinson remains thes only school he’s been a head coach. But he knows he wouldn’t be the coach he is today without a longevity as an assistant at Hudson’s Bay (12 years), La Center (two) and Prairie (three) and working under multiple head coaches.
“I had to spend time being an assistant coach to find out all I could about the game,” said Steele, who played offensive guard at Bay in the early 1980s. “And the good ways and bad ways to teach it.
“I had a lot of good people to learn from,” he continued. “… That was beneficial for me.”
Steele and Lambert are two of the area’s longest-tenured football coaches.
With 21 years at one school, Lambert is the county’s dean of high school football coaches.
Even 33 years after that first meeting and 20 after first coaching together, the two coaches still share a close bond, talk every weekend and even share plays occasionally.
As long as it comes after the usual yearly meeting between their teams. Steele said he hopes the Hockinson-La Center series is renewed next year. Their 2017 meeting — a 42-6 Hockinson win — was the teams’ last game.
Lambert said his former players claim he was tougher in his younger years,. He was an assistant for two years at La Center, a year at Bellevue and a year at Cheney before taking over at La Center.
So when Lambert recalls his biggest successes, and perhaps the bigger things still to come, he dwells more on the relationships and the journey than the wins and losses, 149 good and 72 bad (.674).
Lambert has led La Center to 18 winning seasons in 20 years, and on the verge of a 19th in 21. He has ventured to three state semifinal games, but hasn’t yet gotten to the championship.
“Obviously that’s something we want to do, but I’m not going to lose any sleep if we don’t,” Lambert said. “If I simply judge it on if we won state titles, I think that’d be really shallow. But yeah, I want one really bad.”
Now 55, Steele retired from the Vancouver Fire Department since January 2018, yet the adrenaline rush in coaching remains.
Firefighting and coaching go hand-in-hand, he said. It starts with that same adrenaline rush he had as a first-year assistant coach, first-year head coach at Hockinson in 2004, and as he approaches career win No. 100.
“I loved commanding fires,” he said. “It’s kind of like football — you show up at a scene and it’s all mayhem. But you get a chance to do what you’ve been trained to do and if you’re good at it, there’s great satisfaction.
“That’s what football has been for me for many years.”