March 2022 ~
Dozens and dozens and even more dozens of his blue-clad athletes would be in 360 degrees of action around him, and Mark Cotton (Grant, Coach 1960s-80s) would remain the picture of calm and control.
For nearly three decades, armed with his clipboard of notes, he was seemingly aware of everything that happened to his Grant High teams, and he kept track of it all, without having to run frantically here or there or raise his voice or show any sign of major concern.
When it came to coaching track and field or cross country, Cotton was the epitome of a field general, and he was one of the best ever in Oregon by any measure.
Here is some of the life story of the man who was inducted into the PIL Hall of Fame in 1991, not long after his illustrious coaching and teaching career at Grant:
Mark Cotton was born to a Methodist minister and his wife in 1930 in Klamath County. Native Americans in the area made moccasins for the new baby (he still has them).
The family moved almost every year until they settled in the Eastern Oregon town of Fossil for Mark’s fifth, sixth and seventh grade years, during World War II. Mark spent eighth through 12th grade at Echo High, about 110 miles from Fossil and nine miles southeast of Hermiston.
Growing up, “I loved all sports,” Cotton says.
He was about 5-10 and 95 pounds at Echo, which had only 15 boys (two seniors) his freshman year. He played four years of six-man football on a sandy home field that had no grass until his senior year, when he started at quarterback.
In basketball, he was the only sophomore on a team that placed third in the state, then started his junior and senior years.
He also played a couple of years of baseball at Echo, where “there was no track, and track was non-existent, except for a county track meet.”
Cotton then spent five years at Willamette University, majoring in physical education (with a minor in math) and earning bachelors and masters degrees.
He played junior varsity football his freshman year and didn’t go out for track, as he had to work as much as possible.
Chester Stackhouse, a football coach in Pennsylvania, came to Willamette when Cotton was a sophomore and started the long-running Willamette Relays track meet. The new coach had a significant influence on Cotton, who wound up earning three letters in track at Willamette, primarily competing in the pole vault and mile relay.
“Stackhouse was a go-getter in track,” Cotton said. “He taught us to start everything on time and keep total records.”
While studying at Willamette, Cotton took a class in each of the sports. He learned more about track and field by reading books and attending clinics, including ones at the University of Oregon in the summer under legendary Ducks track coach Bill Bowerman.
“I immersed myself in every event,” Cotton said.
That would pay dividends in the years to come, as “I always felt I could coach every event, and I couldn’t tell you which event is my favorite.”
Something else that made those years at Willamette special: A coed named Jane arrived on campus as a freshman, when Mark was a sophomore. She had grown up in Ferndale, Washington. They quickly became inseparable.
Jane always liked sports, though girls had few opportunities to play in her day.
“She was very fast,” Mark says, telling a story that proves it. “When she was about 40, we went to an all-comers meet at Mt. Hood Community College, where I pulled a muscle in the pole vault. There was an invitational 200 for women, and the next thing I know Jane has gone out to the car and put on an old pair of tennis shoes. She came back and beat all the young girls by 10 yards.”
Cotton was on the Willamette Bearcats football team, too.
“Not that I was ever a great athlete, but I do feel I should have gotten to play a little more football there,” he says. “My senior year, our last conference game was versus Linfield, and we won 19-6. I tackled Ad Rutschman quite a few times and had a pick-6 to seal the win. Then we beat Chico State and I played cornerback and had an interception. My last play in college football was an 80-yard return for a touchdown.”
Mark and Jane were married in 1953, just after he had finished his fifth year at Willamette. A week later, they moved to Grants Pass for his first job.
He taught one year at Grants Pass High, then volunteered for the draft and ended up in Germany, serving mainly as a truck driver and courier and coaching the Northern Area Command track team in Europe.
Son Greg was born in Germany in 1956. Greg would star in high school track for his dad and then at Linfield College, specializing as a decathlete (he was state prep champ his senior year). Greg eventually succeeded his father as Grant’s coach in cross country and track, earning a spot in the PIL Hall of Fame as well.
In 1956, Mark Cotton returned to Grants Pass for one year and was freshman coach for football, basketball and track while helping the varsity football and track teams.
He got a job at Hermiston in 1957 as its head track coach. Daughter Trina was born there in 1957. Son Brad came along there in 1960.
Early in 1962, the Hermiston principal came to Mark and said he had heard through the grapevine that Portland’s Grant High might have an opening for a head track and field coach the following school year.
At the principal’s request, Cotton had promised that he wouldn’t look for another job (he had turned down a job at Madison the year before).
“But if Grant offers it to you, all bets are off. You have to go,” the principal told him. “Grant’s the best track job in the state.”
Sure enough, while at the 1962 state basketball tournament, Cotton interviewed for the Grant opening in a room at the Eugene Hotel, and the Portland school quickly picked him for the job.
Cotton replaced a highly successful track and cross-country coach in Denny Sullivan, also now a PIL Hall of Fame member. Sullivan was stepping down at Grant, but “he supported me for the next 20 years,” Cotton said.
Twenty-eight years of Cotton at the Grant helm followed. During that era, the Generals claimed many, many championships, with Cotton impacting countless young lives and helping scores of youngsters achieve results and make lifelong memories.
“Grant was a wonderful place,” Cotton says. “Great students, athletes, faculty, school.”
It didn’t hurt that the school had 3,200 students in the early 1960s, as he recalls, and that the PIL was strong in athletics.
Cotton coached some lower-level basketball at Grant, whose head of the program was another legend, Ed Rooney.
Frank Buckiewicz was the football coach, with Frank Wolf an assistant and soon to take over the program. Roy Harrington coached Grant baseball. Bob Shewbert coached wrestling. All are famous names in PIL history.
The coaches helped one another, Cotton said.
“My first year, I had seven freshmen out for cross country and needed more,” Cotton recalls. “Buckiewicz tells the boys in his P.E. class, ‘Coach Cotton needs the best 25 freshmen,’ and they all show up, and we go on to win the city championship in freshman cross country.”
Grant’s athletic director was Vern Butts, “probably the strongest man I can remember,” Cotton says. “He could have been a pro in baseball or anything. He could sit on a chair at half-court and make baskets.”
And district athletic director Paul McCall “always made sure we had enough equipment for our large teams.”
Large teams were the norm for Cotton, even at Hermiston, where 100 of the school’s 250 boys came out for track. Cotton’s first Grant teams had about 125 boys for track and quickly grew to 100 in cross country.
“It was very important to have as many kids as possible have that experience,” he says.
Cotton’s command and presence was such that you couldn’t and didn’t say no to him.
Aaron Fentress, now The Oregonian’s Trail Blazers beat writer, was a prominent football player at Grant with no interest or background in track. Until one day.
“I was sitting in the office with a college football recruiter when Cotton poked his head in the door and simply said, ‘You’re coming out for track.’” Fentress says.
Then a senior, Fentress had always reasoned that “there was absolutely no reason to run unless you were going after a ball.”
But after that one brief word from Mark Cotton, “I said, well, I guess I’m on the track team.’”
Fentress wound up running on the mile relay squad that finished first in the state that year (1986), and he placed third in the state in the 300-meter hurdles.
He calls it a great experience.
Cotton says, “If I’d had him for four years, I could have made him into a real track man.”
Not that Cotton ever had the plethora of assistant coaches that are common today, the array of specialists to help with the Fentresses and others in all the different events in track and field.
For example, when Cotton got to Grant, Buckiewicz was the asssistant in charge of frosh and JV track teams, and Cotton coached everything else.
Cotton, who taught P.E. and math at different times during his Grant career, was well-known for being organized and thorough. He wrote workouts for every athlete and every event and posted them daily, “so the kids knew what they were supposed to be doing,” he says.
He’d check off their completed workouts on a hand-written sheet, something he learned from Bowerman.
“A boy would say, ‘I’m ready to go home,’ and I’d say, ‘Did you run your 12 200’s? Only 10? You still owe me two.’”
And, after a meet, overnight Cotton would work up a sheet that mentioned every athlete and how they did, with some sort of positive comment about them.
Those reports somehow got printed by the next day, with the clockwork fashion of a morning newspaper, and they were handed out to all the team members.
Jefferson and other PIL schools provided tough competition in track. but Cotton proudly notes that Grant went nine consecutive years without losing a dual meet.
“But there’s two we should have lost to Jeff,” he says, again acknowledging others. “They had a couple of mishaps in the 880 relay (the last event).”
And, Cotton notes, “Denny Sullivan’s last five teams were undefeated, too.”
Girls track came along in the early 1970s, and Grant won the first state meet sponsored by the Oregon School Activities Association, in 1974.
“The girls were thrilled to be lining up with the boys,” Cotton says. “You just had to establish the fact that they had to quit fraternizing with each other at practice.”
Cotton coached girls and boys from 1974 till his final year of 1990.
Grant had a cinder track that wasn’t even the right size – the Grant Park “facility” didn’t stretch 440 yards, and it didn’t have eight lanes until 1976.
“So my first 13 years we never had a home meet,” Cotton says, adding that this “was not necessarily a hardship, because it meant I didn’t have to work on getting the track for a home meet and I could instead spend my time getting the kids ready.”
Fundraising eventually generated some $30,000 for Grant track improvements. And, after City Council approval and with a lot of volunteer labor, the track was upgraded and raised to the standard necessary to play host to meets.
The official name now is Mark Cotton Field at Grant Park.
Cotton “loved” cross country as well as track and field.
“I wouldn’t say one was more important than the other,” he says. The thing about cross country was that “we were all pointed in the same direction, doing the same thing, and it was easier to coach.”
And Mr. Cotton, as he was known, was loved for the way he treated all of his athletes the same – from the state champions to the ones way back in the pack and just striving to get better or post a PR.
“I tried to be consistent and the same with all of them,” he says.
Cotton surely made an impression on all of them.
“He’d start every practice or team meeting with a story that was almost like a parable,” says Doug Binder, who ran cross country and distances in track at Grant.
As a teacher’s aide in one of the coach’s math classes, Binder worked on the school record book and updated all the stats for Cotton.
Binder went on to write sports for The Oregonian for many years and now is one of the nation’s foremost track and field journalists as editor in chief of RunnerSpace.com.
“Mark was like our John Wooden or Vince Lombardi,” he says. “Because of him, you always felt like we were at the best school, that we had the best coach.
“He wasn’t brash, but he always did things exactly how they should be done. He exemplified what a gentleman is. As much as he was coaching us, he was teaching us how to be grownups. I don’t think winning was his No. 1 goal. He wanted to reach as many kids at Grant as he could. He made them feel special and well-cared for.
“I can’t believe there has ever been a more respected coach at Grant.”
Mark and Jane remained basically inseparable all those years, too. She was a constant presence at the competitions.
In whatever he did as a coach, “Jane was always there and always encouraged me,” Mark says.
From 1962-2008, Mark and Jane lived in a house near Beaumont School and only eight blocks from Grant. Mark sometimes would walk to school. Jane worked in the main office for five years.
Cotton, again somewhat deflecting the credit, points out that between son Greg, Jane and himself, “we were employed at Grant for more than 50 years.”
Since 2008, they have been living into another home also not far from the school, and they still are big Grant supporters.
“Mark Cotton has probably been to more Grant sporting events than any other human being,” Binder says.
One of his many outstanding Grant athletes was Hal Jackson, who went on to earn All-America steeplechase honors at Oregon and coach many years of high school track. They share the same birthday and anniversary, and they still play golf together regularly.
In retirement, Mark and Jane also have traveled a lot. They’ve been to every continent except Antarctica. He’s been to the Great Wall of China and many other famous places, but the two of them also just like to get out and drive around their home state.
“We’ve been on almost every highway there is in Oregon,” Mark says. “Wherever we go, we always take a different route.”
And they’ve never had a hankering to leave the big city.
“Not really. We like Portland,” Cotton says.
Greg Cotton spent 18 years as Grant cross country and track and field coach after his father passed the torch. Mark and Jane were always at those meets, quietly observing and enjoying the action.
“I went to everything,” Jane says. “We were at the state track meet 56 years in a row.”
“I was proud of Greg,” Mark says. “He always did a good job. And he was able to walk away easier than I was.”
Even with Greg in retirement, “it’s still hard to watch track and not be involved,” Cotton said. “But I have no regrets. I enjoyed every minute of it. I had very few down times. I’ve always been very fortunate.”
Lord willing, the Cottons will continue to be around and rooting on the Generals.
“The last two years, with COVID, it’s been difficult,” Mark says, “but I may get out and see some meets this year.”
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~ Profile written by Steve Brandon (Cleveland, 1972)