Coaching icon J.D. Covington left his mark on Richland football

March 18, 2014 

The Tri-Cities lost a legend Tuesday when former Richland High School teacher and football coach J.D. Covington passed away at the age of 85.

Covington coached the Bombers from 1971-85, leading them to a state AAA championship in 1981 with a 7-6 victory over Kentridge.

His 1975 team finished second at state, losing to Foss 17-7 in the title game. And his 1980 team made it to the state semifinals.

His overall record in 15 seasons was 110-43.

But Covington’s legacy was definitely much more than about wins and losses.

“J.D. came to Richland with a purpose,” said Ben Jacobs, a Richland High graduate and longtime baseball coach for the Bombers who is a de facto Richland High historian. “The kids respected him. He was our scout our senior year, and he knew what he was talking about. J.D. was one of those guys who was just a class act. He was a no-nonsense guy — there was no swearing, no yelling. He just got it done.”

Covington had coached football in Texas and New Mexico for many years. But he also owned a cherry orchard in northwestern Montana, and it had become a burden to drive his family every summer to work on the orchard.

So he found a job teaching at Richland High School in 1968, his wife Frances got one in Pasco, and the drive to the orchard was much easier.

The couple raised five kids in Pasco, and sons Joe and Jay both played for Pasco High School against their father. It made for an interesting family situation at a time when high school athletics were a big talk of the town.

“We had grown up in Pasco and all my friends were in Pasco,” Joe told the Herald in a story in 2005. “Both Jay and I, we decided to play against him. It was probably as tough on him as it was for us.”

Jay Covington, who coaches wrestling at Pasco High, said it was great being the son of a football coaching legend.

“You learned how to work,” said Jay. “He loved us all, but he’d make sure we knew how to work. I know with Joe, I can’t speak for him. But for myself, you always wanted to have your parents come watch you play. With him being a coach at Richland, the only chance for him to see me play was against him. I wanted to make him proud.”

When Covington’s name was ever mentioned, old-timers usually would visualize the coach standing on the football sidelines in a short-sleeved, light green shirt and a tie — no matter how cold it was outside.

“I was always hot,” he told the Herald in 2005. “The weather wasn't a factor when you’re playing out there. I never got cold during a game. The players kept me excited.”

Covington had been at Richland High a few years when athletic director Fran Rish hired him to take over for George Rallis, who had coached the Bombers to a 10-25-1 record over the previous four seasons.

“He put us back on the map,” said Jacobs. “In the 1960s we had some down years in football at Richland. There was not much hope after four years. But this is Richland High, and we expect to win. The turnaround was immediate. It’s called command of respect. Every kid in town wanted to play for him.”

Covington did it with simplicity at times.

“I remember the big play was the 44 dive,” said Jacobs. “He would give the ball to his running back and have him run right over his two best linemen.”

Richland went 7-2 in Covington’s first season in 1971, then 8-1 in 1972.

Those were great seasons. But at a time when there was no state playoff system for football, Big Nine Conference rival Wenatchee was still the state's biggest powerhouse. Within a few years, though, Richland beat the Panthers, then did it again the following year.

“Back then, the No. 1 team in the state was selected by sportswriters,” J.D. told the Herald in 2005. “Then after three or four years we had a state playoff format (to determine the state champion). I’d like to think the fact of us knocking off Wenatchee helped in that decision.”

Current Richland head coach Mike Neidhold played quarterback for Covington back in the mid-1970s.

“Looking back, it was a great honor and privalege to be part of his legacy,” said Neidhold. “Coach had full faith in me. He let me call my own plays. I was one of those guys who wanted to play for him. I couldn’t wait for my turn. I would play as hard as I could because I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

Those who coached for him also didn’t want to disappoint Covington.

John Morgan, current Assistant Superintendent of Operations for the Pasco School District, is the son of the late Emerson Morgan — a longtime successful football coach and administrator at Pasco High. He is also Covington’s son-in-law, being married to his daughter Sandra.

“Who could have ever had it better than me being mentored by Coach Covington and Em Morgan?” John Morgan asked. “One thing that stood out more than anything else, was how you treat people. I learned that you might correct somebody at practice and coach them up, but before that kid went home you put your arm around him and tell him how much you care.”

Covington always credited the people who surrounded him with much of his success.

“I had good coaches, and I kept them as long as I could,” he would say.

He always wanted to be remembered as a coach who could relate to kids.

Joe said that was the case.

“Looking back on it, the way he was able to get kids to do about anything asked of them is amazing,” Joe said. “They didn’t look at him as a friend. They looked at him as a father figure and they didn't want to disappoint him. They just never wanted to disappoint him.”

Jacobs agreed.

“The thing I think about when I hear his name is respect,” said Jacobs. “All of the kids had it for him.”

That showed a few years ago when Neidhold had a J.D. Covington Night during a Bombers home football game.

“We invited his old teams back,” said Neidhold. “Players from his 1971 team were in a group, followed by the 1972 team, and so on, and they were on the track. There were just so many ex-players who came back. They were just so excited to see Coach Covington again.”

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