Coaches Doug Hislop (right) and Ron Osterloh (left) bring plenty of experience to the mat for Imbler. (Photo by Kristi Cason)
Coaches Doug Hislop (right) and Ron Osterloh (left) bring plenty of experience to the mat for Imbler. (Photo by Kristi Cason)

At some point in Doug Hislop's evolution as a wrestling coach -- a career that began 50 years ago -- he found that the right touch often is a softer one.

“I was probably a yeller and a screamer too much. I think I'm more of a nurturer now,” he said. “You have to teach the individual. I guarantee you, the kid that needs a hug instead of a kick in the butt, you've got to be smart enough as a coach to know that.”

It's all part of an approach that has proven effective for Hislop, the longtime assistant at La Grande who has been Imbler's head coach since 2007. And it is among the reasons why he has been selected as the national wrestling coach of the year for 2019-20 by the NFHS Coaches Association.

Hislop, 73. was stunned by the national honor this month. He received word about it while attending a livestock auction, and reacted to it with typical humility.

“It has to be longevity, because I haven't had as many kids wrestle on my team as J.D. Alley has had state champions,” Hislop said, referring to the Culver coach. “Somebody must not know anything about Doug Hislop with all the good coaches out there.”

Hislop assisted in the La Grande program from 1970 to 1996, helping with two state championship teams. During his time in the La Grande district, he taught sixth grade for 28 years and served as a middle school vice principal (1998-2000) and principal (2000-03).

He retired in 2003, but a year later, he began a 10-year stint as superintendent at Imbler, a 1A school 12 miles from La Grande. He has been the Panthers' head wrestling coach for the past 13 seasons.

Before Hislop took over at Imbler, the team had produced one state champion in its history. Under Hislop, four Panthers have won state titles.

“He brings out the best in kids,” Imbler principal and athletic director Mike Mills said. “Even kids that have no chance at winning a match, he'll try his hardest to get them lined up to win. When they do win, he makes a big deal out of it. Those kids get excited. That's how he draws them in.”

Hislop, who also has been the officials commissioner for Northeast Oregon since 1978, is highly regarded in the state's wrestling community.

"Coach Hislop is a great ambassador for the sport of wrestling and the high school coaching profession,” said Rob Younger, executive director of the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association. “He exemplifies the highest standards of sportsmanship, ethical conduct and moral character. During his fifty years of coaching, his tremendous influence has touched not only the wrestlers he has coached, but also the students, staff and individuals in his community."

Mills said that Hislop's motivation is simple: "He cares about kids.”

“When he was superintendent here, that was his main thing,” Mills said. “All of his decisions are based on the benefit of our students and athletes. If he's at a wrestling meet, you see him out there talking to kids from other schools, and other coaches. He's just unique in that way. He not only cares for his kids, he cares for all kids.”

Hislop wrestled at Fruitland High School in Idaho before attending Treasure Valley Community Collge and Eastern Oregon University. Upon earning his degree, he joined a rebuilt coaching staff in La Grande for the 1970-71 season, running the youth program.

Hislop and Fred Arnst assisted Verl Miller for La Grande state championship teams in 1978 (AAA) and 1996 (4A). He said Miller and Arnst had a “tremendous influence” on him as a coach.

“Verl Miller for teaching kids how to be wrestlers, and Fred Arnst as a drill instructor,” Hislop said.

Hislop landed at Imbler in 2004 at the urging of the previous superintendent, Ken Kramer, who coached the school's boys basketball team to a state title in 2005.

“I told him I'd do it as an interim for one year, and I ended up staying there for 10 years,” Hislop said. “I still feel like Imbler is my school. It was one of the best educational choices I ever made.”

Hislop stepped down as Imbler's superintendent in 2014 but stayed on as wrestling coach. He raises livestock – “I'm a farmer at heart,” he said – and teaches as a substitute at Elgin and Imbler.

During wrestling season, he drives the team bus to meets with his wife of 39 years, Patty, along for the ride, packing a cooler full of snacks for the team.

“She gets up in the morning and goes with us,” Hislop said. “Those kids treat her like she's their mother. She goes to everything we go to. She is phenomenal.”

Hislop relishes teaching life lessons from wrestling, in particular, overcoming adversity.

“I tell my kids, 'How you handle a loss is going to tell me whether you're ever going to be a state champion,'” Hislop said. “'Because if you don't know how to lose, you're going to have a heck of a time with it.'”

“'You're going to lose matches because you're going to make a mistake, or a referee is going to make an incorrect call or decision. That's the way it goes, and you've got to be able to deal with it.'”

Hislop coaxed Ron Osterloh, who coached Enterprise to a 2A/1A title in 1998, out of retirement to join the Imbler staff two years ago. He said Osterloh “has had a tremendous impact on our kids and on me.”

Looking forward, Hislop will be taking it one season at a time. If wrestling is cleared for competition this year, he plans on being there matside.

“I would hope, if I decided I didn't want to, that I could talk Ron into taking it over, then I would come and help,” Hislop said. “But I don't know that I'm ready to give it up. I still enjoy it.”