Lions’ coach ends career focused on building young athletes into adults.
Doug Samarron is a fighter.
He was a fighter back in his days as a wrestler at Ashland High School and Southern Oregon University, and he brought that mindset with him throughout his 30 years as a wrestling coach at West Linn High School — the last 20 as head coach.
The results of that attitude have been nothing short of amazing. Over the course of his long head coaching career, Samarron’s teams won seven district championships, produced 14 other top-10 finishes and crowned 86 district/regional champs.
His teams have battled at the highest levels of state competition, too, winning five state trophies, including three runner-up finishes and two thirds. His West Linn teams qualified individual wrestlers to state 220 times and saw 93 of those become state place-winners, including 13 state champions and 17 runners up.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be a fighter. I had boxing gloves on, I did judo, all of that,” said Samarron, 61, who retired at the end of the 2021-22 season. “I’m a fighter. I want to fight.”
And fight he did, becoming a two-time district champion at Ashland, as well as finishing sixth at state and fourth in Greco during his years as a Grizzly. Samarron was tough in college, too, becoming a two-time NAIA district champion at SOU and an NAIA All-American during the Raiders’ undefeated championship run in 1983.
“I see it as as one of the best martial arts sports out there,” Samarron said. “It’s a fight with rules — obviously there’s rules — but it’s a fight within a framework of rules. And not only do you have to be strong, be conditioned and be mentally tough, you have to have technique, right?”
But Samarron’s legacy is not about his own accomplishments — he also took third in the ‘83 NAIA national tournament and is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame — it’s about his teams’ accomplishments, his wrestlers’ accomplishments, and even more than that, about the life lessons and character building that became a hallmark of his coaching career.
Indeed, the stories that his wrestlers told him over the years — about changing their lives for the better through wrestling — are the fuel that powered his long coaching career.
“The one thing I hope I did was give kids a sense of self worth, confidence, belief in themselves. That they can work hard and deal with whatever happens — winning or losing — because that all becomes irrelevant when you get done,” said Samarron, who described wrestling as a lifestyle that permeates many aspects of athletes’ lives. “Do they take the work ethic and the sacrifice and the lifestyle that they had to attend to if they were serious about wrestling? Do they take (those factors) into their own life? I think one of the most satisfying things for me is that I run into these kids every now and then and they say those things, that wrestling was really important.”
While Samarron’s main focus was never on winning, his efforts on building character and helping wrestlers transform themselves nonetheless led to a lot of — you guessed it — winning. In addition to his teams’ many district championships and top-three finishes at state, Samarron helped produce some of the best individual wrestlers in Oregon history.
One of his first success stories was Matt Kim, a state champ at 119 pounds in 2004. Then there was Mitch Gaulke, who went winless as a freshman, but became a state champion at 285 by his senior season in 2009.
There was Prescott Garner and Donald Paulson, both four-time district champions and four-time state place-winners, with Garner winning a state championship at 119 in 2007.
Tim Harman broke through for a state crown at 145 in 2014, and his younger brother Sean Harman made an even bigger mark, taking state championships at 152, 160 and 170 in 2017-19. Then there was two-time state champ Cael Brunson, who took Oregon titles at 145 and 152 in 2019-20, and three-time district champ Justin Rademacher, who’s aiming for his first state crown in 2022-23. And finally, with the rise of high school girls wrestling in Oregon, Samarron oversaw the rise of one of the state’s best, with Destiny Rodriguez winning state titles in her first three seasons, at 145 and 155 in 2020-22.
The through line in all of Samarron’s success and coaching exploits is the same — he loves the sport, he loves competition and he wants his wrestlers to do the same.
“The thing I love about high school wrestling is training kids in a martial art, building a team relationship and … with that team trust, going upstairs and turning the lights out, putting a light on the mat, inviting another school in and testing them out,” he said. “They get to test themselves and you get to test your coaching. … You can’t hide. You really get to know where your strengths or your weaknesses are, what’s working, what’s not working.
“The competition, the work — all that stuff builds character and all that is really important. But then there’s that moment where I put my best guy out, you put your best out and let’s see (what happens).”
For all those many things that Samarron loves about wrestling, he feels comfortable about his decision to step away now. He retired from teaching six years ago after spending most of his career at Bolton and Rosemont middle schools in West Linn. Now, he plans to spend his free time with his wife of 34 years Renee, his new dog, reading and — if asked — offering his expertise to the West Linn wrestling program on a limited basis.
“I could stay another year, but because I’m kind of worn out and tired, I don’t know if I could be 100% present,” he said. “And I don’t believe that that’s what these kids deserve.”
Even on his way out the door, as he hands off the program he built to longtime assistant and All-Phase Wrestling Club founder Kevin Keeney, Samarron remains focused on what’s best for the West Linn wrestling program and its athletes.
“If I was gonna say, ‘What team has the potential to win it next year? Would it be this team? This next year’s team?’” he said. “If they’re not one or two, I’d be surprised. They’re loaded.”