Fernie local, Del Cleland, has been inducted into the Alberta School’s Athletic Association’s Sports Hall of Fame for his countless years as a coach in multiple sports.
He was nominated for this award by his oldest son, who said, “Nothing happened when you retired and that’s just not right. There’s just too many people who think you did a good job.”
“To me it was a great honour,” said the now-69 year old.
Before moving to Fernie 10 years ago, Cleland taught high school sports in Alberta for 34 years. Throughout these years, he coached volleyball, a track and field team, a gymnastics club and for 29 years, a ski club. As well, he coached his son in baseball for seven years. Before doing this, Cleland received his masters in physical education through the school of physical education in Calgary.
Cleland has been playing baseball since he was a child, and quit when his knees did at the age of 50. While in high school, Cleland was very involved in basketball and track and field. He took up gymnastics while at university studying for his masters in education. Volleyball was new to Cleland, but after taking a course for it in Calgary, he fell in love. He also took up football in University, as a pastime.
Although he dabbled in many different sports, the reason for his recent induction into the Sports Hall of Fame was for his 34 years as a varsity boys and girls volleyball coach at W.R. Myers High School in Taber, Alberta.
Taber is home to approximately 8,500 people, and is located 51 kilometres east of the City of Lethbridge.
Asked at the ceremony what his favourite moments as a coach were, Cleland responded by saying “Thirty-four years, and you want me to come up with two or three highlights? That’s a hard thing to do.”
“I would say that, all of the winning, accolades and medals aside, the thing that I loved most was interacting with kids, and getting them to do more than they ever thought possible.
“Get every last ounce of ability out of them, and then some,” he said.
Cleland didn’t just motivate the kids he coached, he also led them to victory. In his 34 years as a coach, he saw three of his teams become provincial gold champions, four become provincial silver winners, two provincial bronze winners and the winners of 115 tournaments. In addition, his teams won 22 zone championships and 25 league championships.
“We had a good, solid program with lots of success,” said Cleland. “And it wasn’t always with the star players that everybody else had, we just did it with plain old hard work, commitment and attention to detail.”
Competing against bigger schools from bigger towns was always a thrill for Cleland. He loved taking on 4A schools and showing them that 3A schools can compete on the same level. A 3A school is classified as containing 300-800 students. W. R. Myers High School sat at 310 students. A 4A school contains 800-2000 students.
Cleland got his first season ski pass in Fernie in 1977. His kids have grown up skiing on the hill; the family would try and make it west 35 days a year. When Heiko Socher started offering RV sites on what is now Fernie Alpine Resort, Cleland and his family were one of the original six who moved in behind the Griz Inn. During the summer, they would spend their time at Lake Koocanusa.
Cleland retired in 2005.
Looking back on his career, he recognizes the thousands of kids he has taught, and remembers the ones who came back to visit later in life.
“They all get back to me and say the same thing,” he said. “The message is that, as much as when we were in high school it was about sport, as we became adults, it became a whole lot more. The lessons learned through athletics are numerous. They learned how to compete, they learned how to socialize, they learned how to develop compassion for their fellow man, they learned the value of commitment and hard work.
“And that’s why I think that you just can’t do anything better for your kid than put them in sports when they’re growing up because it teaches them so many life lessons.”