THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Tales from the road: When brakes fail — and other bus stories (Part 4)

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If you coach long enough, you do a little of everything.

Jim Winger has been a coach for more than three decades — basketball, mostly, but also baseball and some football in the early days.

For a short time, he was the bus driver/coach for Coeur d’Alene’s American Legion baseball team.

It was in the late 1980s. Winger was the assistant coach under head coach John Bridges.

“The Legion bought an old school bus, so we could save money from renting vans, and they fixed it up,” Winger recalled. “We called it ‘Old Blue.’ I was so lucky I was the one picked to drive the bus, I got my chaffeuer (license). So I drove the bus to all our Legion games for a couple of years.

“We were headed to Trail, and there’s that big, long, windy hill that comes down into Trail,” he said. “It was just pouring, and we got about halfway down, and I’ve got it in low, I hit the brakes and I’ve got no brakes.

“I said, ‘Hey, hold on boys, this is a problem.’ We’re going faster and faster. I think on one turn we came up on two wheels and it came up in the air a little bit. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that scared in a moving vehicle.

“And I just kept tapping, and right before I thought we were going to be in deep, deep trouble, the brakes came back. I just kept pumping them, and they finally came back, and I was able to slow it down, and I remember looking back and everybody was white, and Kelly Moffat, who was one of our assistants too, and he had a baseball helmet on backwards, just trying to be funny and make light of it. But that’s as bad a thing as I’ve ever been a part of in traveling. My heart was pounding so bad.

“I still don’t know why the brakes came back ... that was terrifying.”

SANDPOINT TEAMS traveled in style in the late 1970s and early ’80s in the Silver Eagle.

But the good bus wasn’t without its issues. And the players had to do things you wouldn’t expect of high school athletes.

“We were headed for Moscow for a basketball game, and we were driving the Silver Eagle, and we broke down in Spokane,” recalled Duane Ward, boys basketball coach at Sandpoint at the time. “The linkage (for the transmission) was way in the back of the bus, and it would get goofed up every once in a while, and we would have to have a kid back there. There was a door to it, and he had to make sure the linkage was moving good enough so we could shift the bus.”

They would stop the bus, and the kid would jiggle the linkage, and the bus would take off again.

“Anyway, it got so bad that he couldn’t keep up with it, so we had to stop in Spokane and get the bus fixed. And this took FOREVER. I called ahead and got ahold of Moscow and told them what the deal was. And you know how hard it is to make up games, especially when you’re talking about Moscow and Sandpoint. I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get it fixed, and we’ll be there.’ And so we did get it fixed and we finally got into Moscow, and we started the game at 9 o’clock at night.”

POST FALLS’ boys basketball team has traveled to Reno for tournaments twice during the 12-year tenure of current coach Mike McLean.

“One year our plane was delayed in Las Vegas for a couple hours, so that put us in a time crunch,” he recalled. “When we arrived in Reno, we had to drive directly the gym. When we landed in Reno, we had one hour to get to the gym. We rented our vehicles and drove straight to Bishop Manogue High School. We arrived at the school and our opponents were already on the court warming up. I believe we had around 24 minutes on the clock so we had to rush to get changed and warm up.

“We went 3-0 in that tournament,” he said proudly.

“Last year our team and staff flew home from Las Vegas on Christmas Eve. Sitting in the Vegas airport on Christmas Eve with a bunch of Post Falls kids was surreal. We had just went 2-2 in the platinum division of the Tarkanian Classic and beaten a nationally ranked team (Rancho Christian) and beat the defending national champion Chino Hills. Chino Hills went on last year and won the California state championship in the open division.”

LONGTIME BASKETBALL and softball coach at Coeur d’Alene High, Larry Bieber, remembered several interesting bus trips, and “most of them happened on the way to Lewiston,” he recalled.

“Early on, before they had that grade fixed, I think I was a sophomore (boys basketball) basketball coach, we were going down that Lewiston grade, and the brakes were heating up and smoking, and I was doing the white-knuckle thing, and we had to drive off onto one of those things that slows the trucks up (a runaway truck ramp). And Lewiston sent a bus to pick us up and take us to the game.

“We were going too fast (when we hit the ramp),” he said. “It really was amazing, when you go into those things, how quickly it stops you.”

WINGER ALSO recalled bus issues on the way to Lewiston.

“Our bus broke down on the way to Lewiston, on that hill outside of Viola (on U.S. 95), where there’s no room,” he recalled. “The bus just kinda stopped, some engine problem. He tried to get it over, but a good part of the bus is hanging out on the two-lane part of the road. We got the kids off the bus, because the bus was hanging out over the road. So we’re standing as far away as we could from the highway. Moscow was nice enough, they had a bus and they came and got us, and brought us to Lewiston. And then our bus barn sent another bus up to bring us home.”

Some four years ago, Lake City’s boys basketball team was coming back from a game in Spokane, and pulled off at the Northwest Boulevard exit to return to the high school.

“We pull out there and it’s green and ... this car isn’t stopping,” Winger recalled. “He slams on his brakes, and it’s icy, and he’s coming right at the bus.

‘We’re going to get hit by a car,’ he thought.

“I would hate to know how many thousands of miles I’ve spent on a bus,” Winger said. “I coached four sports a year forever (Legion baseball, football, basketball and high school baseball). All those years and have never been in an accident. And this car came and slid and hit us right on the side of the bus. I remember bracing myself, and the car went ‘tap’ — it was hardly even noticible.

“That’s the only accident I’ve ever been in, in more than 30 years of bus travel.”

UNTIL THEY moved the road slightly many years ago, there used to be a narrow bridge vehicles had to navigate on U.S. 95, just south of Dufort Road.

Mike Curtis was coaching the Post Falls High girls basketball team at the time.

“Marlene was our bus driver and we went up there and met a logging truck ... peeled her mirror right off,” Curtis recalled. “Oh, God, did I jump. Did she jump.”

Another year, the Trojans were returning from the state tournament in the Boise area, and were coming up through eastern Oregon.

“Everybody was sleeping, and Marlene was driving and we ended up in Walla Walla,” Curtis said. “She missed the cutoff in Pasco. She was so embarassed.

‘Oh, so sorry,’ she said.

“‘Don’t worry about it, just get us home,’” Curtis told her.

“She backtracked. This was before cell phones, and we didn’t know how much a difference it was (trying to drive north from Walla Walla), so she went back (to the Tri-Cities). And she made me talk all the way home so she wouldn’t get lost again.

“Great gal.”

COACHES: If you are a current or former coach in North Idaho, and have stories you’d like to share of crazy bus trips, humorous encounters with officials (or umpires) or bizarre occurences during games, feel free to email me at

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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