Wrestling ‘icon’ Jim Phillips slowly backing off to … favorite steelhead holes

At the Linn County Wrestling Championships meet on Jan. 5, there was a void in the crowd of competitors, coaches, officials and fans who filled the gymnasium at Sweet Home High School.

Notably absent was Jim Phillips, whose name is nearly synonymous with Oregon wrestling for the past 40 years.

Phillips, who coached Lebanon High School wrestlers for 16 years and has been a fixture on mats throughout Oregon and beyond as a high school and college referee, was fishing for winter steelhead on the Siletz River.

Though friends say he’s slowly withdrawing from the world of wrestling, Phillips isn’t leaving the cupboard bare, to use coach-speak. The Albany Wrestling Association, which he’s headed for years, is well-stocked with his protégés.

“In our meetings, in our officiating, he’s gotten me where I am, doing college and officiating,” said current AWA President Jeremy Rhoads, a 1991 Lebanon High School graduate who wrestled for Phillips and has been an official for 25 years.

“He was a big part of my life. People who have wrestled for him are all better people because of him.”

Testimonials from coaches and fellow officials regarding Phillips’ impact on them are nearly word-for-word identical: He’s hard-nosed but caring. “A straight-shooter.” “An icon in wrestling” – and football – and golf, two other sports Phillips coached at Lebanon and then at West Albany.

“Jim was like my second dad,” said current Warriors Wrestling Coach Mike Cox.

“I still refer to him as ‘Coach,’ even though he was never my coach,” said fellow referee Mark Woosley of Philomath, a former Oregon State University wrestler who was recruited by Phillips as an official and has taken over for him as AWA commissioner, assigning officials for local matches.

Phillips, 69, has officiated wrestling at the international and college levels, as well as Oregon high school matches for the past quarter century and is universally considered one of the best in Oregon, twice being named Official of the Year by the Oregon Athletic Officials Association, his colleagues note.

His start didn’t turn heads, Phillips says.

He was born and raised in Tillamook, where he wrestled in high school for a coach “who came into practice on the first day of my freshman year with a book on how to wrestle in his hand,” he recalled. “He’d just retired from the NFL. I really wasn’t a good wrestler in high school.”

He moved on to OSU, where he planned to wrestle, but hurt his knee.

“I went out for the freshman team in golf. The next summer I got hit while setting chokers and I broke my leg. So I went out for golf again.”

He played four years of golf, but never wrestled at OSU.

“(Coach) Dale Thomas told me I’d already tasted the good life in golf, so I might as well not go out for wrestling.”

Phillips arrived at LHS in 1975 to teach P.E. and health, and to assist on the football and wrestling staffs and to coach golf. He was a football coach during the Warriors’ first appearance in the state championships and for “eight or nine” district titles, and when legendary wrestling Coach Dick Weisbrodt became athletic director, Phillips took over as head wrestling coach, winning four league titles before moving to West Albany.

He and his wife Cathy, who taught English at LHS, saw their four kids educated in Lebanon schools – Fred and three adoptees, Sarah, Michael and Megan.

Phillips said he learned “a great deal about coaching” from Weisbrodt. “He was a really good high school coach and I liked wrestling. I paid attention.”

He passed it on. One of his assistants at Lebanon was Steve Thorpe of Sweet Home, who last year became the state’s all-time winningest wrestling coach, exceeding  500 victories in duals.

Thorpe said the reason he took the Sweet Home job was because Phillips advised him to.

Phillips agreed. “The only reason he’s not the Lebanon coach is because of me.”

Thorpe is appreciative.

“Jim Phillips has given me advice that has helped in my coaching for many years,” he said. “To this day, I call Jim when I need advice. I have a lot of respect for Jim. I’m very proud to be his friend.”

Phillips ranks 14th among Oregon coaches in total wins after 15 years at Lebanon, finishing with a 213-103-7 record.

When he moved on to West Albany in 1991, he focused on football and golf, helping the Bulldogs to  multiple state championships in both. He continues to help out with the football program at Stayton High School.

“He was a really good wrestling coach,” said Cox. “But I think he’s a better football coach. His strength is having a team really prepared. He is really, really good.”

Rhoads, who played football and golf, as well as wrestling for Phillips, recalled life in the Warrior wrestling program.

“Dick Weisbrodt, Jim Phillips, Mike Cox, they’ve all brought Lebanon up to a level in wrestling that some people never thought they could.

“Jim was the guy who, you didn’t want to run at 6 in the morning, (but) you’re there to run at 6 in the morning because you’re scared of Jim Phillips … and what the consequences were,” he said, chuckling.

Cox said he attempts to run the Warriors program the same way Phillips did.

“Jim was the only wrestling coach I ever wrestled for,” he said. “The way we run the program has not changed much. We’re dealing with kids and it’s education first. Jim would give up a win to make sure kids are doing the right thing.”

During Phillips’ time at Lebanon he’d been active in developing a local mat club for youngsters – that included Cox and Rhoads – and began officiating those matches, mostly freestyle and Greco.

By the time he arrived at West Albany, Phillips was an established official at the collegiate level and he continued to referee across the nation.

“I was officiating wrestling in college when I was still head wrestling coach in Lebanon, before I ever officiated high school wrestling,” he said. “One of the reasons that I started doing a lot of college wrestling was that my son Fred wrestled for me and then went to OSU, recruited by a guy named Mark Johnson.”

Fred Phillips, who now coaches at Pendleton, transferred to Southern Oregon after Johnson left for Illinois, but Jim Phillips continued to work college matches across the nation.

“There was a lot more college wrestling that took place in the Northwest in those days,” Phillips said. “If I was not traveling to the East Coast, I was was reffing on the West Coast. To do that level of officiating, you really have to work at it. You have to travel all over.”

He officiated at national championships, in the Big 10, in the Pac 12.

“One of the good things about being at West Albany was that they were really good about giving me comp time,” he said, noting that he was gone 23 nights one season.

He said he enjoyed coaching, particularly wrestling and golf, but he also loves being on the mat as an official., Phillips has a distinctive, in his words, “very vocal” style, telling competitors what he’s seeing.

“I don’t see it,” he’ll bark as a wrestler strains to score points on a takedown or near-fall. After more straining and grunting, Phillips will point and yell, “that’s two!”

“The reason I officiate is because I want kids to get a fair shake,” he said. “I want coaches to as well. I often think a lot of officials don’t officiate for the right reasons. I officiate for kids and coaches. I sat in that corner a long time and I often felt some officials don’t do that. If I don’t see control, I want the kid to know that. Oftentimes, officials don’t say anything. The kid doesn’t know what they want.”

Phillips has officiated in a number of  international matches, one a World Cup dual between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union held at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum in the late 1980s.

“That was really cool,” he said. “I was ecstatic.

He said he learned from top international-level referees, who held clinics that emphasized officiating responsibly and decisively.

“Rick Tucci, who did several Olympics, was one of those guys. He would ask, ‘What did you see?’ and  you’d tell him what you saw. I think Rick was one of the best all-time in the U.S. I’ve tried to use the techniques he taught me.”

“Jim’s style is more about managing the match than controlling the match,” said Woosley, whom Phillips recruited when Woosley was coaching in the Philomath Mat Club.

“I told him I didn’t have time (to officiate),” said Woosley, who has two kids and runs a commercial flooring business. “He said, ‘Well, you need to do it. I’m not going to give you an option.’”

“He’s hard on people, but he makes them better people,” said Rhoads, who was a classmate of Phillips’ son Fred. “If you’re not a good official or you’re not doing the right things, he’s going to tell you.  I kind of like that philosophy because if you aren’t told, you don’t know. He has a way of trying to get the better out of people. That’s what he did in wrestling as a coach and as an official. He’s brought a lot of officials up to where they are. I would say he’s the biggest influence in officiating in the state of Oregon in the last 20 years.”

He’s respected, his colleagues agreed.

“Coaches and fans, because they’ve seen him so much, they know what to expect out of him,” Rhoads said. “I don’t remember ever hearing a coach actually question Jim Phillips – because he’s that person. If Jim says so, that’s it.

“When we talk to people and we have someone come up and say, ‘I don’t know if I agree with Jim,’ we look at him and say, ‘If Jim’s telling you that, it’s partially true, at least.’ Just work on it.”

Phillips is also intensely loyal and caring, friends said.

“There’s very, very few people in his life that he’s probably given up on,” said Rhoads. “I’ve never gone more than few months without talking to him. He’ll call you out of the blue just to see how you’re doing. In all parts of my life, even in tragedies, he’s only been a phone call away.”

Phillips is slowing it down a bit – he quit officiating at the collegiate level several years ago.  But he’s still active in local officiating and he’s in better physical shape than “most of

these guys half his age,” as Rhoads put it.

He’s spending more time fishing for salmon and steelhead, and he’s got five grandchildren to keep track of.

“I don’t really have a plan,” Phillips said. “I’ve been fishing a lot.”

His daughter Megan Phillips is a teacher and the dance coach at LHS and he’s got two granddaughters who, he said,  are big into dance.

“My wife and I love dance,” he said. “We spend lots of time going to dance classes and competitions.”