PENDLETON — Debbie Kishpaugh almost threw away the biggest honor she has ever won.
The Pendleton dance coach received a letter from the National Federation of State High School Associations Coaches Association on Friday, Jan. 13, and thinking it was just a form letter of sorts, it almost ended up in the trash bin.
“I was going into the high school before we left for a competition to pick up a check for the hotel,” Kishpaugh said. “There was a letter. I almost threw it away, but I had time, so I opened it. It was a big surprise.”
Kishpaugh was named the 2021-22 national coach of the year for spirit, while Heppner’s Greg Grant earned the same award for football.
“That’s a big one,” Grant said. “It’s the national coach of the year. Only one in the entire nation per sport. This one is based on a preponderance of work, not one great year.”
Kishpaugh said the OSAA nominated the coaches from Oregon. From there, coaches received a form to fill out, which was then sent to the NFHS.
“It’s humbling,” Grant said. “I was obviously overwhelmed at first. Thinking about it, it’s a good recognition of all the people who have created a really cool program. I hope everyone knows they had a part in it. We were the best football town in America for a year. I look at it in that respect.”
Kishpaugh and Grant were among 23 coaches nationwide — and two of the three from Oregon — to earn the award. Jesuit High School’s Kirsten Ruchaber was named the tennis Coach of the Year.
The honorees were selected based on their coaching performance for 2021-22 school year, lifetime win/loss record, community involvement and philosophy of coaching.
Not an individual award
Grant is never one to hog all the credit when it comes to the Heppner football program.
“It’s a Heppner football award,” he said. “The Heppner part is the players, parents and the community. I don’t know if there is any better community support anywhere. It’s a Heppner football award that has my name on it.”
Under Grant’s leadership since 1990, the Mustangs have compiled a 293-64 record and won state titles in 1992, 2015 and 2019. Over the course of 32 years, the Mustangs have never had a losing season. The two years they did not make the playoffs (1994 and 1996), the Mustangs had a 7-2 record each year.
“Les Payne has been part of Heppner Football since 1977 and by my side since 1990,” Grant said. “This award is very much a shared award with him. I hope every player, parent, coach, fan, administrator, teacher, and community member shares in this award. They have all made our football program a source of pride — much like everything else this community does.”
Grant also coached at Alsea from 1985-89, with a 37-12 record, giving him an impressive 330-76 record.
Grant ranks fourth among the winningest football coaches in Oregon. He is right behind Roseburg’s Thurman Bell (331-154-1, retired in 2015), and trails Jesuit’s Ken Potter (345-82-1) and Dayton’s Dewey Sullivan (352-84-2), who retired in 2006.
“For me, it’s never been about the wins,” Grant said. “I care that the players enjoyed their experiences. That’s what matters. I wanted to make Heppner a place that players never wanted to play anywhere else.”
Grant fondly remembers the battles with Pilot Rock’s Troy Jerome, and added Pilot Rock is a team Heppner has never lost to.
And then there was the student who Grant encouraged to be his team manager when he was a freshman. The next year he wanted to play. By the time the student was a senior, he was a starting lineman.
“This is a culmination of a lot of people’s work,” Grant said. “I hope they are as proud of it as I am.”
In addition to the wins and losses, the Mustangs at one point won 81 consecutive conference games, ended by Enterprise (14-6) on Sept. 23, 2011.
The Mustangs have won the past six Blue Mountain Conference titles, and they have won 27 consecutive conference games. Their last conference loss was to Stanfield in 2016.
Since 1990, Heppner is 184-12 in conference games. Grant has been named conference coach of the year 27 times, and the 2A coach of the year three times (1992, 2015, 2019).
Heppner has not lost a game at Les Payne Field since Nov. 2, 2018, a first-round playoff loss to Kennedy. They have won 22 consecutive home games.
In addition to coaching, Grant has served as the Heppner Athletic Director since 2001, has served on several OSAA boards, has been a Willow Creek Country Club board member for 14 years, and was the Heppner Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement award winner in 2019.
At this time, Grant said he has no intention of retiring.
“I will stay as long as I’m having fun,” he said.
Heart over talent
Kishbaugh has been the girls spirit/dance coach at Pendleton for 36 years. In that time, her team won the state dance/drill title six years in a row from 2008-16.
She was named the Oregon Coach of the Year in 2008 and 2017, and was the Pendleton Citizen of the Year in 2010.
Her teams have always performed well at state, but the recent COVID-19 pandemic decimated her team, leaving her to start from the beginning with a few veterans and a young crop of dancers.
“COVID was a real hard knock,” Kishpaugh said. “I know what it takes to get there. After COVID, I asked myself, ‘Do you have what it takes to have that well-oiled machine again?’ My assistant Lora Franks has been so supportive. There is something to be said for longevity and stubbornness.”
Pendleton is working toward another state run, which will take place March 17-18 at the Salem Pavilion. The Bucks will compete in contemporary and jazz.
“My super duper young team has turned things around this year and is a little powerhouse,” Kishpaugh said.
In addition to her work with Pendleton High School, Kishpaugh is the founder of the Oregon Junior Dance Team Championships (OJDTC). The program has raised $120,000 for dance and academic scholarships for the Oregon Dance Drill Coaches Association.
“With COVID, I didn’t feel we could get into a school in the Portland area, so I gambled and we held it at the Convention Center,” Kishpaugh said. “It was well attended. We are going to do it again here in Pendleton in April. Once we have paid the judges, Convention Center and for trophies, I give the rest to the OJDTC. I think Oregon is one of the only states that gives out a scholarship at state.”
Kishpaugh also was inducted into the Buckaroo Hall of Fame in 2021.
Kishpaugh believes that youth spirit participation leads to a life of character and disciplined learning for participants.