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Coach Phil Prijatel: School mentor’s impact lives on

Phil Prijatel, one of the most beloved figures in San Luis Obispo High School’s history, died at home Nov. 5 surrounded by family. Known to thousands of students simply as “Coach,” he was 90.

It’s difficult to know how many lives Coach may have touched during his time as a physical education teacher, coach of multiple teams and athletic director. But if you figure he mentored some 250 youngsters a year over his 34-year career, that number is close to 9,000.

Then, if you multiply the number of people those 9,000 influenced with Coach’s life’s lessons, the number may well be in the millions. Hyperbole? Perhaps. Then again, maybe not.

Born in Pueblo, Colo., in 1920 to Slovenian immigrants John and Frances Prijatel, Coach was delivered by his midwife grandmother. Ironically, she also delivered Coach’s wife, Marge.

The two began hanging out at age 10, became high school sweethearts and married when they were 21. One of the great love stories, the couple were married for the next 69 years, with Coach never failing to refer to Marge as “my bride.”

Blessed with a height of 6’4” that formidably matched his athletic ability, he was a three-sport man in high school. With Coach playing end, his football team took the Colorado state championship in 1938. He played center on the school’s basketball team, while running distance and throwing the discus on the track squad.

His ability earned him an athletic scholarship to Colorado Western in Gunnison before he enlisted for a tour of duty overseas in the Army in World War II.

On return to Gunnison, he played end and made all-league two years in a row — this in addition to being named outstanding senior in his class and a listing in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

He went on to coach boxing, wrestling, football and basketball during the next seven years at Olathe, Colo., then worked on a doctorate at USC before he took a physical education position at San Luis High in 1953.

In the early years, in addition to teaching P.E., he was an assistant Tiger football coach under Jack Tuttle, who had the rather distinctive quality of chewing on a wad of adhesive tape while stalking the sidelines. By 1956, he’d started a wrestling program at the high school, coached golf and assisted football coach Glen Dollahon. He became the school’s athletic director in 1960, a position he held until 1969 — the year the Tigers won their CIF division. He retired in 1987.

Those are not only the Coach’s bona fides, they’re the building blocks of what made him such an influence on the thousands of students who came under his benevolent purview.

Jim Horn’s mother, Charlotte, met Marge when the Prijatels moved to town and they took ceramic classes together, and Horn soon met Coach.

“I first met Coach while he was under a ’53 Chevy in front of their home on Broad Street,” he recalls. “So I got under the car to talk with him, and the first thing he asked me was if I knew what a thesaurus was. I told him I thought it was a tyrannosaurus. That’s indicative of the kind of mind he had. He was an intellectual.

“If we got in fights at school, he’d have us put on 16-ounce gloves and have us go at it,” he adds. “But first he’d lecture you about bringing disrespect to our families for such behavior. He’d want to know if you were a thoroughbred, who was willing to run all out with your heart, or a jackass who was just going to sit there and bray.” Horn went on to a coaching career — like many of the students who came within Coach’s guidance.

“I don’t know how many gym rats he straightened out,” says Horn. “I don’t know how many kids he saved.”

Fittingly, Prijatel means “friend” in Slovenian, and that’s the way John Atkins remembers him.

“He had that wry sense of humor and that cool smile,” says Atkins, who is the founder of Howard Head Sports Medicine in Vail, Colo., and was the conditioning coach for the U.S. Olympic ski teams in the 1980’s games in Lake Placid and again in the 1984 games in Sarajevo.

“If you’re lucky, you have a couple of meteors in your life,” Atkins says of Coach. “They shape and guide you and let you fly. He was really a life coach.”

To get a measure of his impact on others, go to sanluisobispo.com/obituaries and read his guest book.

Coach is survived by wife Marge; son Philip Jr.; daughter Debra Perkinson (Chris); grandsons Michael and Nicholas (Laura); granddaughter Nicole; and great-grandchildren Ethan and Lucas.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.