Orson Christensen’s nomadic coaching career, which is entering its 50th season, has brought him back home to Whidbey Island.
After coaching college football for 26 seasons and high school for 23, Christensen is set to help head coach Tony Maggio at Coupeville High School this fall.
Christensen, a 1957 graduate of Oak Harbor High School, and his wife of 53 years, Dianne, always wanted to come back to this area once his “playing days” were over.
He’s back, but he is still playing.
Christensen stopped coaching several times but never considered it retirement. When the opportunity came to help Maggio, he grabbed his not-very-dusty whistle and accepted the job.
This is Christensen’s 15th stop on his coaching carousel: Winlock High School, Avenal (Calif.) High School, Thomas Jefferson High School (Federal Way), W.F. West High School (Chehalis), Olympic Community College, University of Puget Sound, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Eastern Oregon University, Dakota Wesleyan University, Western Washington University, Vashon High School, Aberdeen High School, Rainier Christian High School and Wapato High School.
And, yes, Diana, “is amazing,” he said.
Why all the moves? He said there are a variety of reasons, but the most dominant is the positive feeling of rebuilding a shattered program.
At each stop, Christensen, 75, took over a program that had not had a winning record in the previous three seasons.
His first stint as a head coach was at Avenal, a school with a history of losing. He helped lift the team to second in the California Interscholastic Federation Central Sectional playoffs.
“The reaction of the community was awesome and left me with the motivation to repeat that experience,” he said.
“I seem to have the ability to get young men to believe in themselves and rise to a higher level, and I enjoy seeing them grow. I was also helped by being blessed with some pretty good athletes along the way.”
During the years he has won eight championships and collected 17 other top-three finishes. Five times he was named Coach of the Year.
After a successful run at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln from 1982 to 1987, he left for Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande to be closer to an ailing family member.
It took just two games to break Eastern’s three-year winless streak, but it took longer to build it into a winning program.
“It was the biggest challenge,” Christensen said. “I learned to lose.”
Besides losing, the Eastern program and its players had a bad reputation in the community. Christensen eventually elevated both the team’s record and its character.
The highlight of his career, he said, is “centered on the many young players and coaches I have worked with over the years.”
He added, “It is pleasing to know that you have had some positive influence on the lives of several people.”
“As a coach,” he said, “I have endeavored to be a positive moral influence in providing positive direction to my players. My players know I care for them and want the very best for them in their lives after football.”
Now that influence has come to Coupeville.
Maggio said, “I am always looking to improve our program so I jumped at the opportunity to have him come work with us.”
Christensen said, “I am titled ‘passing game coordinator,’ but I think my actual role has been to share my experience and provide a sounding board for the development of various aspects of the football program.”
When he left college coaching to return to high school coaching in 2001, Christensen kept hearing from others how kids have changed for the worse. That’s not what he encountered.
“I hear that, but I don’t see that.”
Christensen lettered in four sports at Oak Harbor High School and went on to start on both the offensive and defensive lines at Pacific Lutheran University, playing along side another Oak Harbor grad, Mike Teel. His freshman coach was Marv Harshman, who went on to become one of the Northwest’s most successful and admired college basketball coaches.
Christensen, like his first college coach, is building quite the legacy.
Fifty years he has roamed the sidelines. Will there be a 51st?
“Who knows,” he said.
Here’s betting there will.