Coach Phil Zukowski Calls it a Career
Gone Fishin’: Former Adna and Rochester Gridiron Boss Planning Cross Country College Football Roadrip
By Jordan Nailon
Phil Zukowski has coached his final football game and he can hardly believe it.
It’s not that it was unexpected. After all, he’s the one who decided to retire. But after 34 years at the helm of successful high school football programs, Zukowski is treading unfamiliar ground knowing he’ll never have another incoming class of goofy freshman to mold into young men and he’ll never have another senior class to admire as they walk off the field for the final time.
He says he has been proceeding “very hesitatingly” since deciding to retire and drafting his letter of resignation.
“I’ve had it on my computer for a couple days. I just couldn’t hit the print button,” Zukowski said last week after he officially resigned as Cashmere High School’s head football coach.
Zukowski began his coaching career at Adna and then Rochester before moving on to coach Cashmere for 22 seasons. That career included two state championships, 22 trips to the playoffs, and an overall record of 272-99 that places him third in Washington history. His success has not gone unnoticed, either, as he was inducted into the Washington State Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 2012.
The most recent of those state champion teams was in 2008 with Cashmere, but his first came as captain of the Adna Pirates in 1989. In seven seasons in Adna, Zukowski compiled a 56-16 record and advanced to at least the semifinal round of the playoffs in six of those seasons.
“As I was sitting here writing out my last awards night speech, I thought, I need to mention to my seniors that I remember my first team and I’m going to remember my last team,” said Zukowski. “I do remember that first Adna team tremendously, even though that was way back in the ‘80s.”
Zukowski credits his initial head coaching experience at Adna with setting him up for the success he found later at Cashmere where his team made the state playoffs 15 out of 22 years.
“It was great parental support. We were dealing with dads who were loggers and worked hard for a living and in their jobs they know how to take orders and they bestowed those values into their sons,” said Zukowski. “The Adna boys are tough. They were loggers’ sons. They never had a Saturday off. They were always out doing something.”
When his inaugural stint as head coach proved successful Zukowski found himself drawn to the idea of moving up the coaching ladder. He says it’s not that he wanted to leave the Pirates so much as he was stricken by the same affliction as so many Adna cows — Greener Pasture Syndrome.
“All of us go through it. The armor that we wear eventually gets worn thin. But the support at Adna was incredible. Simply incredible and I was a very lucky man to start my career there,” said Zukowski, who wound up taking the head job at Rochester to begin the 1991 season.
“It was a good position for us as a family because we didn’t have to move,” he added.
He compiled a 29-18 record in five seasons running the Warriors. That run included a trip to the playoffs in 1993 where they nearly upset a formidable Montesano team.
“I’ll tell you, it was one heckuva staff and I think we did as good as we could do there,” said Zukowski who counted local stalwarts such as Wayne Nelson, Billy Peterson and Bob Wollan among his coaches.
“I don’t know how people feel about Bob in Chehalis but he’s one of the finest coaches I’ve ever known,” said Zukowski.
As it turns out, those feelings are mutual.
“I was really, really fortunate to happen to be out at Rochester when he got the head coaching position. As a young guy I thought I knew what I was doing but the day that he walked in I realized that I didn’t know anything about what it takes to be successful as a head coach,” said Wollan, who has done plenty of winning since taking over as head coach at W.F. West in 2006.
“If you’re gonna be a doctor you want to go to the best medical school. If you want to be a mechanic you want to learn from the best guys. I just feel so fortunate to have been able to learn under him for three years about what it took to give your kids the best opportunity to win.”
Wollan says the most important lesson he learned from Zukowski is that there are no shortcuts in football, or in life.
“If you’re around a good football program, the whole being a part of the team is way more than just Friday nights. You’re around each other so much. I think it does become a family, a football family. The kids just saw how much he worked and how much he cared that the relationships kind of developed beyond a player-coach,” said Wollan, who noted that he has remained in contact with Zukowski over the years.
“Just because you’re gone doesn’t mean that it’s all over. You’re invited to weddings and if you’re having problems he’s a phone call away,” said Wollan. “Most of the times we get together we just talk about life but there will always be at least one time a year that we get together to just talk about football.”
One dependable place to find Zukowski with football on his mind is at the Tacoma Dome each year for the high school football championships, where his memories of the 1989 title team are particularly poignant. He says he cherishes his relationships with his former players and always looks forward to any excuse to reassemble the old boys and he hopes to be able to organize an all inclusive reunion next summer.
While Zukowski may have had a hard time hitting the print button, he also sounds like a man dipped in rejuvenating waters thanks to the myriad possibilities that exist in the realm beyond his habitual 90-hour work week as head coach.
Proving to be a meticulous planner even off the field, Zukowski already has an itinerary drawn up for next fall that includes stops at some of the most iconic college football stadiums in all the land. A few of the stops that the old coach is most excited about include Michigan versus Notre Dame, Colorado at Nebraska, BYU at Wisconsin and North Dakota vs Delaware.
“What I’m planning to do is jump in the RV with the dog and take the boat with me,” said Zukowski. “My goal is to fish my way from one stadium to the next.”