LA GRANDE — He is affectionately called the “Meanest Coach Ever” by some of his athletes, even though there isn’t a mean bone in his body.
That mean coach, La Grande swim coach Darren Dutto, continued a tradition of winning that was started in the high school boys program prior to his arrival and built the girls program into a perennial state contender.
After 15 years poolside, one that saw La Grande bring in 14 state trophies under his tutelage — including the 4A/3A/2A/1A boys championship trophy in 2016 — Dutto has resigned as head coach.
“It felt like a good time because my kids had graduated from the swim team the previous year,” he said. “We had a lot of success this past season. Things went well for the most part. It seems like a good time to ride out on a high note and call it good.”
Dutto, 51, a professor of exercise science in Eastern Oregon University’s Physical Activity and Health Program, isn’t ruling out returning to coaching, but he said he is ready for “life to be a little less crazy.”
He steps away, though, with a track record few can match. La Grande not only won its fifth boys swim title under Dutto but claimed two second-place trophies and took both third and fourth twice.
The girls program had success unmatched prior to his arrival, claiming second in 2012, taking third four times and fourth twice. The girls program earned a trophy at state in six of the past seven years, and the boys took home hardware five of the last six. Both teams also claimed numerous individual state titles.
Dutto, originally from central California, was a collegiate swimmer at UC Davis, which also was where he first dove into coaching, leading a summer recreational team.
“I coached for a few years then, and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “That led me into a graduate program.”
Coaching fell by the wayside for several years while he pursued a master’s degree and later earned a Ph.D. But shortly after moving to La Grande, a friend suggested he apply for the open swim coach position at LHS. He became the head coach in 2005.
He didn’t know at the time La Grande just had come off a run of winning four straight state titles from 2001-04, but he was confident that with his coaching philosophy the run of success could continue.
“I learned over the first year or two about what the team had done and what had gone on,” he said. “I jumped into it sight unseen. I knew they had had some success and knew there had been some issues. I was certain I could carry on the success, and knew there wouldn’t be any issues. I was going to do my own thing.”
His approach centered on developing well-rounded individuals in and out of the pool.
“My philosophy has been to have each kid swim to their potential, and as part of that, it’s about overall growth and maturation,” he said. “I always want to guide kids to swim as well as they’re able in the context of making them good citizens.”
There was a lot of learning for the coach, he said, but early on there were indicators his time at La Grande would go well.
“Really it was about me knowing the kids and the kids getting to know me,” he said. “First season, we had a super good team, a lot of kids that had just come out of the previous scenario. They had certain expectations, I had certain expectations, and we were able to see eye to eye pretty quick.”
By 2007, the boys teams cracked into the top six at state, and in 2009 surged to fourth. Dutto said there have been highlights in each of his 15 years that jump out, but the night the team won fourth is high on his list.
“We had five kids that went to state,” he said. “High school swimming they did for fun. They got fourth, (and) they were so excited by it.”
What followed was a jovial celebration at a Texas Roadhouse in the Portland area that lasted into the night.
“We slapped that trophy down on the middle of the table and had a great time,” he said. “It was a great moment.”
The firsts kept coming for Dutto. A couple years later, in 2012, he coached his first state title winners: Matthew Cook in two events for the boys, and Logan Gomez in two events for the girls — one of which was a relay with Allie Godfrey, Becca Haynes and Shelby Baker.
The ultimate came in 2016 with the boys title on a victory in the final race — the 400-yard freestyle relay — that pushed the team past district rival Catlin Gabel.
“Those boys, they knocked it out of the park,” he said. “We just had this incredible girls and boys team. Boys won state. Girls did great (they placed third). It was exciting. It was a lot of fun. That win was where all the cards fell into place in our favor.”
That 2016 title will be remembered partly for what happened at the district swim meet in that same race, when La Grande and Catlin Gabel tied for first. A disqualification of Catlin Gabel after an athlete jumped back in the pool kept it from having a team in the race at state and may have been what opened the door for the Tigers.
Dutto said he believes La Grande could have won state even if the disqualification didn’t happen, but also that the turn of events showed a lot about his team — from their own heartbreak for the opposition when the team was disqualified to how it handled the tie, kept composure and ultimately took advantage of the opportunity at state.
“We did what we needed to do to put ourselves in position to win,” he said. “Even though we tied, my boys kept their calm and didn’t do the things that might jeopardize their chances to swim (the) next week.”
Dutto also got to coach his two sons — each of whom took home individual hardware. Both Keegan and Garren Dutto were part of that state-title winning relay team in 2016. Garren, a freshman at a time, went on to win five individual state titles and added another title as part of a relay team.
“I wanted the same thing for them that I expected of all the other swimmers,” the coach said. “My job is not to put undue pressure on either Keegan or Garren because they were my kids.”
He almost stepped away after the 2019 season, but Dutto had one large group of senior girls who he wanted to see through to the end of their high school careers.
“I agreed to come back for one more,” he said. “I had all those girls who were seniors. I thought, ‘We can give it one more go.’”
That group took third at state in February, scoring the most points at a state meet (49) by a La Grande girls team — even more than the 2012 team that took second (44).
Dutto in his career had to learn and hone the skill of motivating each individual athlete to his or her potential. It’s a trait he said he did better later in his career, and stemmed from one ability — listening.
“I had to learn to become a really good listener. As I matured I became a good listener,” he said.
With most, it didn’t take long to know what made them tick.
“First week or two (of the season with) most kids,” he said. “And I would say that’s (true) now. Back when I was younger and less wise — although I don’t know I’m wise now — it would take me longer.”
Listening, or a lack thereof, he believes is where many coaches miss the mark.
“(It takes) lots of talking with kids, lots of getting to know them. It’s very individual,” he said. “That is where a lot of coaches fall apart. My feeling is a lot of coaches give lip service listening to kids but they don’t listen. They don’t know how to adjust to the kid.”
With many of his swimmers, he knew right away what they needed due to years of coaching them. Others took time.
And some, he admitted, he never entirely grasped.
“In the first week I would sit and talk with the new kids, (and) if I needed to it would be outside of practice,” he said. “If a kid was particularly vexing, I would definitely have to find another time to talk to them. Honestly, some kids I never did figure out. They always stuck with it, but it wasn’t good for them or me.”
In spite of the numerous accolades La Grande earned under his watch, it was the athletes themselves, he said, that made coaching the joy it was.
Even if they gave him weird nicknames.
When he was coaching the La Grande Swim Club in 2017, Zane Ricker, a member of the club team, wanted to put something on the back of a shirt he purchased at a swim meet.
“They thought it would be funny to put ‘Meanest Coach Ever,’” he said.
Later in that meet — while donning the shirt with the new moniker — he went to the front to accept an award as the Inland Empire Swimming coach of the year, and the name — although it didn’t fit him — stuck.
“That became the running joke,” he said. “Those Ricker kids, I love them to death, all six of them. But that ‘Meanest Coach Ever,’ they know how to ride it. I never once took it in a bad way.”
And though he is stepping away, if that ‘mean’ coach does return, it’ll be for the same purpose that kept him in it.
“I love working with the kids, getting to know them, (and) helping them be successful in whatever that means,” he said.
“To me, hands down that is the most rewarding part of it.”