THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: TALES FROM THE ROAD: Phantom footballs, and backhoes in the air

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Duane Ward is known mostly as a former basketball coach at Sandpoint High.

Two stints as Bulldog boys basketball coach, then later two stints as girls coach.

Of course, he also coached other sports there, including middle school girls hoops.

One year, he was coaching freshman football with Bill Barlow and Tom Albertson.

Barlow, son of legendary Sandpoint (and Coeur d’Alene) coach “Cotton” Barlow, would later become head football coach at Sandpoint High.

Albertson would move up the coaching (and administrative) ranks in Sandpoint, and is now superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District.

On this day, all those years ago, the Bulldogs had a game in Post Falls against the Trojan freshmen.

“I had an appointment, and I couldn’t ride on the bus (with the team),” Ward recalled. “I had to drive to the game. I left after the bus, and I drove up there (to Post Falls), and there they (the Bulldog players) were, warming up, running offensive plays, but they didn’t have a football.

“And I remember, I walked up to coach Barlow and I said, ‘That’s a pretty good idea — you guys are working on some visualization and imagery, huh?’ “And he said, ‘Hell no, we forgot the footballs.’

“Here I thought they were trying to get these kids to concentrate and visualize what they were supposed to do, and the fact was, they were practicing without a football because they forgot them,” Ward said with a laugh.

ANOTHER ONE of the hats Ward wore at Sandpoint High, his alma mater, was athletic director.

It was the 1980s, when soccer began to filtrate into the high school ranks. There was some land (and some wetlands) northeast what is now Sandpoint Middle School, but back then was in its final years as Sandpoint High School.

“That used to be just field, and we got the idea to develop that into fields that could be used for all the different sports, but primarily it was because of the impetus of soccer becoming big,” Ward recalled.

“So I knew a number of people that worked for the city and county; back then those guys would donate time and equipment. And so we started working on that field, leveling it off, and one of the school board members, Blaine Stevens, he came driving by on Pine Street, and he thought, ‘What in the heck is going on?’

“I’d gone ahead and done all that, and I hadn’t gone through the school board, or anything,” Ward remembered.

“So, I had to have a meeting with some of the school board members, and I had to tell them what was going on, and apologize to them. And I also had to go to a public school board meeting, and apologize.

“Which was OK, because we got the project going, and it ended up being a good idea, and they further developed it, and now we have a nice soccer field there, and a nice softball field, and part of a practice field, for freshman football.”

How does that old saying go, it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission?

“That was kind of the idea I had,” Ward said with a laugh.

“The reason it became an issue was because of the protection of the wetlands, which I hadn’t even thought of, and somebody raised some heck about that.”

IT’S ALMOST hard to believe of a program that has won six state titles and was once the dominant wrestling program in North Idaho, but Sandpoint High’s wrestling room once consisted of a long, narrow hallway.

This was at the old high school, now the middle school.

Ward was the AD then.

Inside the grounds of the rectangular-shaped school was a grassy, commons area. Ward and some others had an idea to build a wrestling room off that long, narrow hallway, going into the commons area.

“We had a lot of wrestling parents well-versed in construction,” he said.

“To begin the project we had to dig some footings inside the quad,” Ward recalled. “Well, we were going to dig them by hand but the ground was hard as a rock. One of the wrestling parents that worked for the city said, ‘I have access to a backhoe; if we could get a backhoe inside there someway, we could dig those footings.’

“Well, I knew Steve Tillberg, and he was a crane operator, and he had a lot of experience building bridges and doing steel work,” Ward said. “And he brought his crane down, and hooked it on to that backhoe, and lifted that backhoe up over the top of the school, and put it down in the quad, and we dug the footings with that backhoe, and then he lifted it back up out of there.”

That must have been something to see — or not see, depending on who happened to be watching.

“I could see that thing breaking loose and coming down through the roof of the school,” Ward said. “And nobody ever knew about that except for me and those guys that did it. And I still have a video of it.”

Now, a few others know about it.

SEASON TWO of TALES FROM THE ROAD is in the works.

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 bizarre occurences during games, please contact me at

This started out as a basketball series, but funny stories are funny stories ­— no matter the sport. So coaches of all sports are invited to contribute — as well as officials, bus drivers and others associated with local high school athletic programs.

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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