Gordon Anderson’s path to teaching math and coaching sports added up at the age of 15, but it took being on a tractor doing grunt work on a farm after college to sow the seeds of that career.
Anderson will be one of five inductees in the St. Helena High School Athletic Hall of Fame class of 2021 on Oct. 23 at the Native Sons Hall in St. Helena. The 2020 edition was canceled due to Covid-19.
While Anderson will be inducted as the coach honoree, Artie Carr will be enshrined in the distinguished service category. Bret Del Bondio (Class of 1976), Bridget Maloney Malone (Class of 1999) and Robert Covey (Class of 2005) will be inducted for their athletic achievements.
Anderson taught math at St. Helena High from 1973-2007. He was the Saints' baseball head coach (1973-1980), cross country head coach (1974-1976), freshman boys basketball head coach (1974-1976), and track and field assistant coach (1988-1999).
He also had two separate stints coaching St. Helena’s academic decathlon team (1987-1999; 2002-2008), all of which culminated with a Napa County championship and 10 students becoming state champions.
Anderson joins a lengthy list of highly successful coaches in school history, such as George Davis, Donna McCornack, Charley Toogood, Fred Miller, Ralph Ingols, Roger Snipe and Tobe Wolf.
“I’m very humbled,” Anderson said. “They were all unbelievable coaches. I can’t remember them all, but it’s like, ‘Do I really belong with these guys?’”
Despite Anderson’s reluctance to say so, his resume speaks volumes. In eight years as the baseball coach, he helped the Saints fashion a record of 70-41 — including back-to-back North Central League I championships in 1977-1978. St. Helena reached the CIF North Coast Section Class A playoff semifinals in 1978, only to lose 5-2 to St. Vincent of Petaluma in 11 innings. The Saints came close to pulling off the Big Three trifecta because the football and boys basketball teams won NCS Class A titles earlier that school year.
Anderson recalled the first time he wanted to be a teacher and coach, at age 15.
“I was sitting in an algebra classroom,” he recalled. “I was watching the teacher and told myself, ‘That's what I want to do.’ I wanted to teach math, coach and teach mechanical drawing, which I never got to do. I always had it in the back of my mind. My dad was in construction and he wanted me to be an engineer. I said, ‘Dad, that's not what I want to do.’ Finally, I realized that I wanted to teach and coach."
Anderson was born in Gridley, an agriculture-driven community about 30 miles south of Chico with a population of roughly 7,200 people. He grew up doing farm work such as picking prunes, driving tractors and irrigating.
He graduated from Gridley High in 1964 before playing baseball at both Shasta College in Redding and UC Davis, where he majored in economics and mathematics. He played basketball and baseball in high school, but the latter was his first love.
"When I got out of college. I coached a Little League team in Gridley. The following year, I coached the Babe Ruth team," he said. "I don’t know why I wanted to coach because I was a pretty good baseball player, but I was more of a Sparky Anderson. When you’re young and stupid, which obviously I must have been, I didn’t know there was any difference.”
Though his love for teaching and coaching was ascertainable to him at an early age, the path was slightly circuitous. When his eligibility to play baseball ran out, he took on a student-coach role with Jim Sochor, who later became a legendary football coach for the Aggies. Soon after graduation, Anderson was drafted for the U.S. National Guard.
“As soon as I got drafted, within a week, the National Guard called and told me they had a spot for me,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘C’mon you guys. You’re just playing a game with me.’ So I went to basic training. I came back and started driving tractors for a friend of mine. I realized, ‘You know, this isn’t what I want to do. I know what I want to do. I’ve known it since I was 15 years old.’ I got off the tractor and got in my truck and said, ‘I'm going to get a teaching credential.’”
The rest is, as they say, history.
Anderson received his teaching credential from Chico State. When he got married, he and his now-former wife honeymooned in Calistoga. Anderson taught and coached at Calistoga for two years before going to St. Helena.
“My wife and I went to the first football game,” Anderson said. “The other team kicks off, the kid gets the ball and runs it back for a touchdown. The other team gets the ball. It’s three-and-out. Pretty soon this left-handed quarterback goes back to throw. He threw the ball 60 yards for another touchdown. Those two players were Bob Knepper and Louie Giammona.”
Knepper pitched 15 years in Major League Baseball for both the San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros. Giammona played seven years in the NFL, one with the New York Jets and six with the Philadelphia Eagles.
From a teaching standpoint, Anderson piloted every level of math but always taught Math I and advanced math, which is now known as precalculus.
It is often said that teaching and coaching go hand-in-hand. Anderson wholeheartedly subscribes to that theory.
“I use sports analogies all the time,” he said. “I tell people, ‘Look, I know you’re not liking this and you’re doing fundamentals. But if you go out for football, what do you do first? Fundamentals and conditioning.' Teaching is coaching. Coaching is teaching.”
Anderson made no secret of his desire to win, but having fun and preparing to win were of equal import. He added that he took the same approach to both the classroom and athletic arena.
“If you want to have fun, winning is the ultimate fun,” he said. “I love to win and hate to lose. I wanted my team to know that. It’s the same with teaching. It’s great to get good grades, but those are not the most important of those two things. What’s important is that they give 100%, improve and respect the game. In teaching, I love it when kids help other kids. If you get that to happen, it’s incredible. When I was coaching, it was all about, ‘You guys show up, play your tail off and you play. If you come in to screw around, you don’t play.’”
Anderson had the opportunity to coach both individual sports, cross country and track and field, and team sports, basketball and baseball. The concepts overlap more than people think, he noted. Baseball is centered around the individual matchup of pitcher versus batter, while track and cross country have team scoring.
“Track is an individual sport, but there are a lot of team elements,” he said. “Tobe would say, ‘They only have two people doing the shot put. Does anyone want to do it?’ Then, a kid would do it. They were thinking of the team because you get points. We always wanted them to be part of the team. That included cheering them on at the end of the mile or the hurdles. Baseball can be an individual game, but I tried to get everyone involved. We’d steal bases and bunt; that’s part of the game.”
As a teacher and coach, he believed in taking pride in his crafts, but also espoused giving students and athletes wings to fly.
“I tried not to overcoach, and that applied as a math teacher,” he said. “If a kid is hitting .350, why would you change his batting stance? When I coached, I wanted them to have fun, and if something comes up in your family, that becomes No. 1. Numbers 2 and 3 are academics and athletics. You can’t just play sports. You have to do well in school. I wanted the kids to go on and be successful in whatever they did.
Anderson has two daughters, Brandice and Nicole, along with three grandchildren, Abigail, Nathan and Jasper.
"Success is not necessarily going to college, making a lot of money," he said. "It’s about being happy with what you do. I remember one day I told my daughters I was going to work. They just froze and said, ‘Dad, we have never heard you call school work.’”
Whether it was teaching or coaching, Anderson enjoyed the peripheral moments.
“I enjoyed almost every minute,” he said. “Granted, there were times that you were frustrated. Most of the time it was an absolute joy. I never carried gear out. It was just always there. I don’t know how it got back in the locker room, it just got there. There were always kids wanting to stay later and do more.”
Once Anderson sowed the seeds for his career, he made sure players and students were in full bloom for their potential.
Artie Carr, who wore many different hats in the St. Helena community, in and out of sports, will be one of five inductees into the St. Helena High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s 2021 class, after the 2020 version was cancelled due to COVID-19.