Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Gentle Ben, Snowden retireing from Roosevelt High School
by Craig Smith
Seattle Times staff reporter
The teacher and coach they called "Gentle Ben" at Roosevelt High School is retiring after a 41-year career.
Ben Snowden, best known as coach of the Roughrider state-championship boys basketball teams of 1973 and '82, also had an impact on thousands of students as a physical education teacher and track and cross-country coach.
"You don't realize how much you touch kids' lives until they tell you," he said last week at Roosevelt. "Often, it's just the little things that touch someone's life. To them it's a big thing, but to you it's just something (a small kindness) that should be done."
Snowden has been hearing a lot of nice things as his final day at Roosevelt approaches. He was honored at a reception last week attended by more than 150 people.
"It was overwhelming," he said.
Many former players attended, including four starters from the 1973 title team, among them James Edwards, who had been cut in junior high school and had to be coaxed to try high-school basketball by Snowden and his assistant, Larry Whitney.
Edwards went on to star at the University of Washington and play 19 years in the NBA, winning three championship rings.
One thing Snowden doesn't miss about coaching is dealing with pushy parents who have an inflated opinion of their child's ability.
"I won't miss the parent issues," he said. "I don't miss the parents who would say, `Why isn't he playing? He's going to be an All-American.' But on the other hand, I also dealt with some wonderful, wonderful parents."
Asked to compare modern students with those of previous decades, Snowden said, "They aren't as respectful. I think they are much more casual than they were before. . . . In lots of ways, kids are still kids. That's why I like them. I think the thing I like most is seeing them come in as a ninth-grader and seeing the changes when they are seniors. I don't mean physically maturing. I mean upstairs. All of a sudden, they grow up and they are young adults. That's been one of the things I like the most about teaching school."
Snowden grew up in Mount Vernon and was cut from the basketball team as a sophomore. His best prep sport was boxing and he was state lightweight champion when boxing was an interscholastic sport.
"Boxing taught me a great deal," he said. "How to defend myself and how to think on my feet and make decisions when you had to and not get mad. You had to stay cool."
Another influence on Snowden's style was the man he succeeded at Roosevelt, John Fuller.
"He wasn't a yeller or a screamer," said Snowden, who figures it rubbed off on him.
"If you're excited when the kids come off the floor, then you don't get much accomplished."
The nickname "Gentle Ben" connotes calmness, and it came from a 1960s TV show about a friendly bear.
Ex-Roughriders liked playing for Snowden.
Jay Nemitz, who played for Snowden in 1992 and 1993, said, "You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who has anything negative to say about him as a person or a coach.
"He was so approachable and just a good guy," Nemitz said. "I enjoyed having the chance to be around him."
Snowden began coaching the Roosevelt varsity in 1967 and retired in 1995 with a 337-265 career record and the two state titles. The Roughriders appeared in a third state-championship game, in 1987, when they lost to city rival Garfield, 63-60.
One of his most memorable victories was over Mount Rainier in the 1982 playoffs when the Roughriders trailed by six points with 52 seconds to play and didn't have the ball. Making a withdrawal from the miracle bank, they won. Two steals and layups by Peter Nielsen were pivotal in the victory.
Memorable players? In addition to Nielsen and Edwards, they include Craig Nichols '71, Will Brantley '87 (Oregon State) and Peter Dukes '88 (Stanford), Gary Gardner '82, Randy Sheriff '71 and Craig Jackson '82.
In girls track, two of his best were sprinters Debbie Adams '77 (considered one of the best athletes in state history) and Asa Pennington '79.
Snowden quit coaching track and cross-country two years ago. Last year, he had a knee replaced and the post-operation months haven't been trouble-free. Next Wednesday, he officially retires from teaching and his position as head of the physical education department.
Snowden, 65, and his wife, Venette, have three adult children and seven grandchildren. His retirement plans include travel and bird hunting.
It will be strange for him to walk out of Roosevelt a final time, but he said, "I'm ready. It's time."