The first thing you notice when you meet Arroyo Grande High School athletic director Dwight MacDonald are his hands. When he goes in for a shake, his hand engulfs yours like a jellyfish swallowing its prey.
And his opinions are as strong as his grip.
“We call him ‘Black and White Dwight,’ ” San Luis Obispo athletic director Jeff Brandow said with a laugh during a phone interview. “There’s Dwight’s way, and there’s the wrong way.”
“Dwight’s Way” has been the only way for Arroyo Grande athletics for the past 20-plus years. That will change Friday, when MacDonald steps down from his position and into retirement after a career with the Lucia Mar Unified School District that has spanned 33 years.
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His way is steeped in the old school, marked by an intricate attention to detail — he still records his teams’ wins and losses with pencil and paper — and having a hand in everything that goes on at the Central Coast’s most successful and influential athletic department.
The trait is a reflection of one of his biggest influences, his father, Dewitt “Ken” MacDonald, an Ivy-League educated lawyer who died last year. To MacDonald, the right way means rarely swearing and not drinking in public — just the occasional glass of wine at home. He asks coaches, if they are going to have a drink in a public place, to refrain from wearing Arroyo Grande apparel.
“How we conduct ourselves, how our athletes conduct themselves is important,” MacDonald said.
One need only to follow MacDonald for a day to see how he influences every aspect of the program. On this day, Tuesday, May 9, there’s a lot on the line for each of the varsity teams playing on various fields around campus. It’s just another busy day for the 59-year-old omnipresent MacDonald.
Day In The Life
Preparations start in the quiet Arroyo Grande gym.
The cluster of keys hanging from his lanyards clank, his footsteps thud as he pushes a dust mop across the hardwood floor one pass at a time.
He extends the bleachers and distributes chairs. Stephen Field, who will soon replace him, is helping out and filling him in on what else is going on around campus. Above them hang seemingly endless rows of banners commemorating league and CIF championships, an Olympian, an NFL quarterback, Cross Country National Championships and a National Volleyball Player of the Year. MacDonald has been there for nearly all of them. Then it’s time to make the rounds.
The first stop is the pool where the school’s top swimmers are preparing for the CIF-Southern Section prelims. MacDonald chats with longtime swimming and girls golf coach Claudia Souder. Next, it’s over to the tennis court to check on his son, senior Brett MacDonald, and talk with tennis coach Lori Hollister. Then it’s track practice, junior varsity softball and the baseball field where the Eagles are preparing to take on first-place Paso Robles.
At each stop, MacDonald talks with coaches who have been leading successful programs for a long time.
“It makes my job easier. I don’t have to train coaches every other day,” MacDonald says. “They all want to win, and that’s what I love.”
The average tenure for an Arroyo Grande head coach — many of whom are teachers at the school — is 12 years, said MacDonald, a Cal Poly graduate who was hired as a teacher at Arroyo Grande in 1984. He was promoted to his current position in 1990.
“That year stands out,” MacDonald said of 1990. “We made CIF Finals in cross country, and we won it. CIF Finals in volleyball, and we won it. We made the CIF Finals in football against Lompoc, who had (future NFL running back) Napoleon Kaufman. The game (which Arroyo Grande lost) was played at Cal Poly, and I had to try to manage it. My head was in a fog.”
Over the next 27 years he built a stellar reputation in the community. When he talks, people listen — whether its students or competing athletic directors.
“He is a role model to me, as well as a mentor and friend,” longtime Atascadero High School athletic director Sam DeRose said during a phone interview.
MacDonald uses his in-depth knowledge of every sport and strong grasp of administrative intricacies to make him perhaps the single greatest influence on Central Coast athletics. He was instrumental in persuading others to go along with the upcoming move of 13 Central Coast schools from the CIF-Southern Section to the Central Section last year, and was outspoken about how the move would save money and allow athletes to spend more time in school and less time traveling to Southern California. The move will also give Arroyo Grande a chance to win more championships, and winning is always at the front of his mind.
Building A Dynasty
The school that regularly churns out Division 1 athletes does have inherent advantages.
With 2,061 students, Arroyo Grande High has the largest student population in San Luis Obispo County (followed by Paso Robles with 2,053) as well as a generous booster base that regularly raises more money than any other school around. In April, the school raised just under $130,000 at a booster event, MacDonald said. That allows Arroyo Grande to regularly travel to Southern California to play against the best competition in the state, among other things.
But even with all that money flowing in, MacDonald preaches bringing a blue-collar work ethic to the field. The formula works.
Arroyo Grande won 11 PAC 8 championships and finished in second place eight times out of the 22 varsity sports during the 2016-17 school year. It has won 88 league titles in a wide variety of sports since 2009. The next closest school during that span was SLO High — it won 37. Powerhouses like the girls water polo team — winner of 137-straight league matches and 14 straight league titles — and the boys volleyball team — winners of six-straight league titles — lead the way.
“Not to sound arrogant, but they chase us,” said MacDonald as he watches the softball team take on San Luis Obispo with his trademark John Wayne scowl.
Even with all the athletic success at the school, there have been struggles.
None more devastating than in 2004 when Arroyo Grande track and field coach Robert Budke was convicted of having sex with an athlete. When the crimes occurred, MacDonald was the athletic director at the new Nipomo High School and later served as district athletic director for Lucia Mar Unified School District, a break from Arroyo Grande that spanned a handful of years, but the effects of scandal were felt around the county.
MacDonald said he continues to do his best to stay informed about what is happening around him and to educate students, parents and coaches about improper relationships to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Less Late Nights, More Family
Asked if he has any regrets, MacDonald replied yes — “not being able to spend more time with my family.”
An athletic director, especially one at a successful program, is rarely off the clock. From 6 in the morning until 10 at night, he’s putting out fires and tackling logistical issues for 19 teams — and that’s just during the busy spring season.
MacDonald still considers himself fortunate. Brett started practicing with the boys volleyball team in third grade and daughter Haley was playing basketball with the boys team since sixth grade.
“They had the best babysitters ever,” MacDonald said.
The last stop on this Tuesday is back in the gym for the volleyball team’s playoff game against Carpinteria. Brett, the top libero in the league and one of many dual-sport athletes at the school, is having another standout game despite the fact that a couple hours earlier he was practicing with the tennis team, a team that also happens to be undefeated league champs.
As he is watching the game, MacDonald gets a gloating text from Brandow. The softball game just finished — SLO High 2, Arroyo Grande 0.
“Wow,” I say. “First softball league title in 13 years for them.”
“Yeah,” MacDonald responds. “You think that — I think about how we beat them in everything else.”
I laugh, he doesn’t. But his analytical stare is replaced with a broad smile, the same one he wore when 13 student athletes signed National Letters of Intent — many with Division 1 schools — a month earlier.
He will miss those days and the relationships formed with coaches and athletes over the years. But when his father passed away last year, two and a half years after his mother, Dolly, died, he began to talk with his wife, Kim, about ending his long career.
MacDonald said his father wasn’t able to live a good life like he should have been able to after his mom passed away due to the effects of Parkinson's disease.
“It made me consider life and circumstances,” MacDonald said to me later at his Shell Beach home.
With less time to spend cleaning up after a football game on a Friday night, MacDonald will have freedom to visit his daughter who lives in San Diego, something he’s only done three times in the last three years. And his son, who will be attending St. Mary’s with the hopes of eventually going to law school like his grandfather, will soon be out of the house.
After a long recovery from a recent hip surgery, MacDonald also plans on using his free time to start surfing again.
Although he’ll continue to follow sports at the school, “I won’t be around too much because I don’t want people to think I am looking over Steve’s shoulder. That is not fair to him,” MacDonald said, referring to Field. “He is going to take us out of the caveman age — pencil and paper.”
After the volleyball game, another Arroyo Grande win, MacDonald meets his wife Kim and son Brett briefly in the middle of the court. There are smiles and hugs. Arroyo Grande teams lost two of the three games played on this day. But MacDonald remained optimistic, mentioning that there is still time before the playoffs. But the sting of losing shows.
Soon the gym will be quiet again and MacDonald will head home, not completely satisfied with the day, but proud of what he leaves behind.
“I have seen so many people in the field of education go out bitter, and I vowed to never go out bitter,” MacDonald said. “I love my job and I love the people I work with. I will miss working with the people.”