- By Sara Hayden
Many people simply know him as “Coach D,” and more than a few know him as the closest thing they have to a father.
This is Don Dias, a self-proclaimed “old war horse.” After 42 years of coaching football – at least 30 of which have been in Half Moon Bay – he’s retiring.
“I just hurt too much. It’s not a matter of passion not being there, but the body saying, ‘Keep it up, and you’ll pay for it,'” Dias said. A man of poetry, he quoted “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll: “As the walrus said, ‘The time has come.'”
The announcement follows a historic season that ended with Half Moon Bay High School Cougars competing in a state championship game in San Diego, a third consecutive Central Coast Section crown and 14-1 record.
In retirement, the offensive line and outside linebacker coach will carry the words of comedian and actor Milton Berle close to his heart: “I’d rather be a could-be if I cannot be an are; because a could-be is a maybe who is reaching for a star. I’d rather be a has-been than a might-have-been, by far; for a might-have-been has never been, but a has was once an are.”
The last six words will be inscribed on the inside of Dias’s 2017 championship ring, punctuating a career that carried teams through multiple championships and Central Coast Section competitions.
His players appreciate him for success that extends far beyond the field.
“He’s one of the best coaches to come through our program. He always taught us right from wrong. He always showed us the right path to go, and led by example,” Half Moon Bay High School junior Kellan Royce said.
“Every time you ask him how he is, it’s never just, ‘Good.’ It’s, ‘Wonderful.’ He always gives you a big hug. It gives you a real positive vibe at practice,” said Half Moon Bay High School senior Arron Baird. “When he’s not around, everyone’s looking around like, ‘Where’s Coach D?'”
The team need fear not. Dias still plans to make regular appearances during practice. Even if he didn’t, he’ll have equipped them with what they need to get through the day.
“Coach D brought me in and developed me into a man so that when life hits, (I’d) be ready and able to roll with the punches,” said Marcos Sarabia, a 2015 graduate.
Alum Zeke Smith recalled playing in 1990 when Dias broke his arm and was unable to coach on the field.
“We were all freaked out. We didn’t know what to do,” said Smith, who met with Dias to learn the coaching plan. “In this magical way that he does, even when he wasn’t there, he taught us that we knew how to move forward, and move together as a team. His confidence in us helped us to have confidence in ourselves.”
During the weeks Dias was out, the team still won the games they played.
Dias started his coaching career in 1970 after serving in the Vietnam War. A buddy asked him to coach a Pop Warner team in Fort Hood, Texas. How would Dias like to work with 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds? Dias gave it a shot.
“That’s the team that started it all,” he said. “I had a ball.”
By 1977 Dias moved to California, the state of his birth. A freshly minted Coastside resident, he started coaching the 8- to 10-year-old Coastside Pirates of the Coastside Youth Association football team.
That was also the year of the so-called “Caridac Kids” – Half Moon Bay High School’s varsity football team that pulled through in the last two minutes of six or seven games.
“The ‘Cardiac Kids’ piqued my interest,” Dias said. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow, what is this little community I’ve come to?”
In 1982 Half Moon Bay High School Coach Jack Coolidge invited Dias to coach varsity – an opportunity that let him continue on with the group of Coastside kids he’d first started coaching.
“I couldn’t get the, ‘Oh, yeah!’ out fast enough,” Dias said. “A lot of great kids in that group … I was very lucky to start my career with them.”
He worked with the Cougars through 1997. Then, “There was a coach I just butted heads with. There was nothing we had in common,” Dias recalled. “I walked away thinking, ‘I’ll be back in a year or two.'”
He coached at Archbishop Riordan High School in San Francisco for six years, winning a Western Catholic Athletic League title that upset a 28-year-long winning streak that had been dominated by two other schools.
By 2003, Half Moon Bay High School alumni Matt Ballard and Keith Holden had become coaches. Dias remembered Holden calling him and inviting him to come back to coach in Half Moon Bay. Dias wanted to return, but had already agreed to coach one more year at Archbishop Riordan.
“I couldn’t back out on my word,” Dias said. “The day after that season ended, I got another call from Keith. He said, ‘Coach D, we want you to come home.'”
And Dias did. “They haven’t been able to get rid of me since.”
Nor does it seem like he’ll be scarce in retirement. Dias has agreed to carry on his tradition of sharing “Life Lessons,” a time when he talks with the players about anything but football. Topics include honesty, respect, gratitude, love and more – lessons he learned from his mother, who raised him.
One life lesson might be summed up like this: “Love who you want to love, live where you want to live, worship as you choose to worship. But above all, stand on your own two feet.
“Kind of makes your heart skip a beat, don’t it? … That’s to get them thinking up here,” Dias said, tapping his forehead. “The gears up here are turning the gears down here,” he added, hand over his heart.
These are the sorts of lessons that generations of Coastside kids have taken off the field and into their lives.
Holden, now the Cougars’ head coach, remembers Dias coaching him.
“I’m from a single mother, and thank goodness I had sports,” Holden said. “He’s a guy I gravitated toward. He definitely changed my life and gave me a positive male role model. The immediate day-to-day contact spending hours with someone really changed my life.”
Dias has dedicated his career not necessarily to creating fine football players, although that might be a side effect, but creating “fine, young men,” Dias said.
“The correlation between the game and life is so strong, as it is with any sport. Football to me was conducive to teaching. That is my main focus,” Dias said.
“Don’t get me wrong – I have a hell of a good time with football, but looking at alumni coming back 15, 20 years later … is the greatest satisfaction I’ve gotten, or will get,” Dias said. “I’ve had the good fortune watching these kids grow up – and watching their kids grow up. These kids are my legacy.”