by Keith Peters
When plans were made for a retirement party to honor long-time Menlo-Atherton High track coach Plato Yanicks, a cozy restaurant in Palo Alto was selected for the farewell gathering. Little did anyone realize how many lives Yanicks had touched during his 37-year coaching career--the last 30 at M-A--or the outpouring of affection that his former students had for him.
"There wasn't enough room for everybody," Yanicks said. "We couldn't have fit another person in that room if we wanted to."
Yanicks was unknowingly at fault for the overflow of guests.
"I wasn't going to have a farewell party without some of my all-time greats," he said. "So the word spread."
Yanicks told some friends, and they told their friends, and so on.
"People that I didn't even know were coming showed up," Yanicks said. "I didn't expect anything like that. The turnout was just incredible."
As were the many testimonials, which had the tears flowing long into the evening.
"One kid talked about me taking him to Tommy Hart's for a pair of shoes," Yanicks recalled. "He said he didn't thank me at the time, but he's thanking me now."
Yanicks received many more thanks and congratulations that night from former athletes, who traveled from as far away as Seattle to be with the coach who built the M-A track and field program into a virtual dynasty--from his first meet in 1965 to his last in 1986.
His final 10 seasons were the best. His boys teams won eight Peninsula Athletic League dual-meet titles and compiled a record of 125-11. The girls captured five crowns and went 51-2 in dual meets from 1982-86, including 36 straight victories.
Yanicks coached 14 individual Central Coast Section champions, including 1986 state meet pole vault champ Steve Toney. The 1977 M-A boys team (11-0) was the No. 1 dual-meet squad in Northern California and featured Paul Bates, who would go on to be inducted into the University of California track Hall of Fame.
Bates was in attendance at Yanicks' retirement party, as were others like Reggie Dupee, a high jumper who cleared 6-9 at the state meet; two-time CCS pole vault champ Greg Ellis; and Bill Hatcher, a sprinter from the late 1960s who this year was named San Joaquin County track and field Coach of the Year.
All of them, along with many others like Cal Hall of Famers Roland Anderson and Rob Shenk, helped put Menlo-Atherton on the prep track and field map during their days at M-A.
"But they weren't talking about the wins necessarily (at the dinner)," Yanicks said. "They talked about the winning spirit, the atmosphere on the team, the friends they made and the lessons they learned.
"The team atmosphere, I think is what led to our success. When our team stepped on the track, I knew we were going to win . . . Once you start a dynasty, it's hard to step down."
But step down Yanicks eventually did. When he was moved into a classroom situation, he discovered he didn't have the time he needed to keep the track program at its highest level. So he stepped aside as track coach in '86, but continued coaching cross-country--which he founded at M-A in '65. This past season, however, was first time in his career at the Atherton campus that he failed to coach a single sport.
While he wanted to accomplish more, the circumstances at school just didn't allow it.
"My only regret in coaching is that I couldn't have continued that (track) dynasty longer," he said wistfully. "I think we could have won title after title."
Yanicks, 63, and a 1949 graduate of Palo Alto High, now will turn his attention to organizing his enormous sports library of memorabilia, gardening, traveling and reading some of the hundreds of books he has collected. He doesn't expect to get back into coaching, at least not in the near future.
"It took a lot of of me to get where I felt I needed to get," Yanicks explained. "I don't want to go through that again. There are new challenges to conquer."
After all, 37 years of coaching has left him quite satisfied. All he has to do is remember the emotions from his farewell dinner party.
"I had an athlete who came up to me and hugged me, and said, 'Coach, I love you.' I'm really happy with what I accomplished. It fulfilled me. I think I gave a lot, but I think they gave me more than I gave them."
The feeling's probably mutual.
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