‘The Wing-T Man’: Legendary Canby Football Coach Erv Garrison was Larger than Life

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It was a moment the two Canby Cougar football players would never forget. They stood on the edge of the field at Dallas High School with their coach, the legendary Erv Garrison. The rest of the team was in the locker room.

It was one of those days that was made for football. There was an autumn crispness to the air, and a mist hung over the empty field and bleachers like an expectant blanket.

“You know, men,” one of the players later recalled Coach saying. “There’s something almost sacred about the calm before the storm. Take a moment to breathe it in.”

They took a moment. Maybe a second or two. Then, Coach Garrison put a finger to one nostril and blew a huge snot rocket out the other side. Moment over.

Everyone has a Coach Garrison story. He was a “character,” colorful and larger-than-life, according to Mike Doty, one of Garrison’s assistants who took the head coaching reins when he retired.

“He was an old-school, blue-collar coach who demanded a lot from the kids,” Doty said. “But he was also a great storyteller and motivational speaker and he had a great sense of humor. In his later years, he took on a grandfatherly aura. People loved him.”

Ken Buckles, who played and coached under him at Milwaukie and later coached against him, remembered Coach Garrison as a mentor, role model and father figure.

“I loved him and miss him,” he said. “Under Coach Garrison and his many great assistant coaches, the Cougars were tough, physically and mentally.”

Coach was known for demanding quiet focus — which, in practical terms, meant absolute silence — in the locker room before games.

While at Siuslaw, where he spent only four years but helped kick-start a reign of dominance that would span five decades, he once led his team to the visiting locker room before a postseason game against the undefeated, No. 2 ranked Brookings Bruins.

Siuslaw began their traditional pregame ritual: 10 minutes of silence, with the lights off. The players were to spend the time gathering their thoughts and focusing on their assignments on the gridiron.

The Bruins had a…different approach. The Vikings could hear them in the home locker room above their heads, playing loud music, laughing, stomping and reveling — celebrating, like they’d already won the game.

Coach Garrison burst in the room suddenly and flipped the lights on. He started yelling.

“You hear that, boys?! We don’t need to play this game because Brookings thinks they’ve already won it! They’re up there, dancing on your grave!”

They wouldn’t be dancing for long. Breathing fire, Siuslaw romped to a 42-14 victory in their first postseason game in school history, behind a three-touchdown performance from all-state running back Tooey Emery.

Coach spent nine years in Milwaukie, where he similarly impressed upon his players the importance of quiet stillness and tranquility. Once, a terrified freshman approached him before a game and nervously squeaked, “Coach? Is it OK if I pee?”

Coach Garrison barked, “Yes, but be quiet about it!!” According to legend, anyway.

A longtime friend and fellow coaching legend, Mouse Davis, recalled that he cared about two things: football, and family — whether they were in that order, he left unsaid — and that no one could motivate young men like Coach Garrison.

That Coach Garrison and Coach Davis would be lifelong friends is almost bizarre, a fact that seems to prove the old adage, “opposites attract.” While Mouse Davis would revolutionize football with the pass-happy, “run and shoot” offense he pioneered at Portland State, the man he affectionately called “Ervie” would forge his reputation with a style that could more appropriately be called “run and run … then run some more.”

Canby was a moribund football program when Garrison came here to coach in 1979. The Cougars had gone 0-9 and had scored only a single touchdown the year before, and hadn’t seen a postseason game since 1950.

But “failure” was one of those words that just wasn’t in Coach’s vocabulary. Within a couple years, he had the Cougs trending upward, then gave them a breath of excitement with their first playoff game in almost three decades. The next year, he told players they were going to turn that “breath” of excitement into a hurricane.

Hey — we told you the guy could motivate. At Canby, Garrison reached molded the clay of earnest and impressionable young men into a distinct team culture and play style in his own image.

It was hard-nosed, smashmouth football. You’d beat us, maybe, but you’d always take your lumps.

“I think it was when he came to Canby that Coach finally became who he really was,” Mouse Davis said. “He had tried a variety of things, run a variety of offenses, but it was when he came to Canby that he became the Wing-T man.”

Coach loved the Wing-T, a run-heavy formation that was as compact and conservative as the man himself, featuring a bruising fullback and two big tight ends.

An article in The Oregonian from that era sums things up nicely: “In Canby’s Wing-T offense, the Cougars run, run, run, and they pass about as often as Reagan and Gorbachev get together for a summit meeting.”

His quarterbacks averaged only seven pass attempts a game — less than two every quarter.

One former Canby player recalled how Garrison motivated him to become greater than he was. Henry Gonzalez, class of ’84, remembered how he was getting beat up on a brutal “two on one” drill, where you had to fight through a double team then make the tackle on the running back.

He was sleepwalking through it, getting obliterated and just praying for the next water break, when he overheard Coach Garrison tell an assistant, “Boy, you can really tell the players who went to football camp from the ones who didn’t.”

“Well, I hadn’t attended football camp, and hearing those words from our head coach triggered something deep inside me,” Gonzalez said. “From that moment on, I vowed that I would slam my body violently into anyone who stood in my way. I would prove Coach wrong and earn a starting spot.”

He did, and he also earned a nickname, one that sticks even now, almost four decades later: Hammerin’ Hank.

Coach Garrison posted a 90-36 record during his 12 years at Canby and twice led the Cougs to the state semifinals. So strong was his influence on the program that the Wing-T remained the school’s standard formation until this past season — almost 30 years after his retirement.

In his younger days, Garrison had been a standout football player — somewhat ironically, as a quarterback — as well as a track star. In 1958, he took fifth in the nation in the javelin with a throw of 217 feet, 5 inches.

In his retirement, Coach enjoyed hunting, fishing, traveling with his wife, Joanne, spending time with his family, and visiting the old family farm in Nehalem, where he had grown up helping his father’s logging crews and had always figured on a career as a lumberjack. He was said to love being around people, appreciated a “good visit” and enjoyed swapping stories.

Coach Garrison died in February 2017. He was 83. The Spirit Bell, which is rung every time the Cougs score a touchdown on their home field, bears his name.

We have a couple more profiles for you as we wrap up our series on Canby’s sports heroes, with two more recent stories of courage in the face of overwhelming odds and adversity. That’s next time, on Canby Then.

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