Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 | 12:30 p.m.
RENO — Ken Dalton, the father of not just the school’s football program but an entire McQueen High School community, died Thursday morning after a long battle with lung cancer.
Dalton was the first McQueen coach when the school opened in 1982, and he built its football program into a power not just in Northern Nevada, but statewide.
He was demanding as a coach and teacher but loved by the thousands with whom he came in contact with in his 28 years at McQueen. Dalton was 66.
“It’s the loss of the dearest friend you could have for so many of us,” said Ken Cass, Dalton’s longtime defensive coordinator. “This is a big blow for a lot of us. He was an incredible friend, incredible mentor. He was an incredible person.”
Dalton is survived by his wife, Patty; two daughters, Jen and Amy; and son, Matt. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 13 at the McQueen gym.
His death comes shortly after that of McQueen’s namesake, Robert McQueen, who died Dec. 23 at 87.
“It’s phenomenal to have a dad who loved us so passionately be loved so passionately by others,” Jen said. “He poured his heart and soul into McQueen football and the surrounding community. We’ve been so blessed to have people share with us what he meant to them. There wasn’t a week that went by that former players, even from North Tahoe, didn’t call to check on him.”
Dalton coined the term “Lancer Pride” and was one of the winningest coaches in state history, with 11 region titles and six state championships in 27 years. McQueen beat Las Vegas schools Desert Pines in 2002 and Palo Verde in 2008 in the state championship game.
“Ken was the patriarch of not only the football family but the McQueen family, the northwest Reno family,” Cass said. “‘Lancer Pride,’ no one emulated that or believed it more than Ken did.”
Dalton built the McQueen program so it was ready to carry the mantle when Wooster High School surrendered it in the early 1990s.
“We had some battles; it was exciting,” former Wooster coach Joe Sellers said. “Practically everybody in town was at those games. You had to be ready to play a Dalton team. He definitely set the standard high for Northern Nevada and for the state.”
Dalton retired from coaching following McQueen’s 4A state title in 2008 and stopped teaching physical education a year later.
He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, on his right temple in June 2009. Surgery four days after the diagnosis removed his temporal muscle, taste buds and saliva glands.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with lung cancer — 12 years after Patty was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.
“He always thought he could beat it,” Cass said.
Dalton was inducted into the McQueen Hall of Fame in a special September ceremony — the prevailing thought at the time was that he would not make it to the usual January ceremony.
“To all the players in front of me right now, you are why we’re here,” Dalton told a packed home sideline during his induction. “I’m fired up right now just thinking about it.”
“He was going to fight as long as he could. That’s just his character,” said Eric Borja, McQueen’s athletic director who played for Dalton in 1989 and 1990. “And that’s what he instilled in a lot of us.
“It’s a sad day for McQueen.”
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1946, Dalton grew up in both Southern and Northern California.
He played four sports in high school in Orland, Calif., and was a cornerback and ran track at Cal Poly.
As a coach, Dalton had a .794 career win percentage and 308 career victories — with the 56 he won at North Tahoe before the school became an NIAA member, and 18 at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, Calif.
The Lancers finished 14-0 in Dalton’s final season and capped the year with a 13-12 victory over Palo Verde in the state championship. It was the program’s fourth 4A title, which was the most in the classification until 2011.
Under Dalton, the Lancers had five undefeated seasons and three winning streaks of 20 games or more. McQueen, which named its field in Dalton’s honor in 2010, reached the playoffs 20 straight years from 1989 to 2008 and played in a state championship game 11 times in an 18-year span.
But there were some lean times for Dalton and the Lancers when McQueen first opened.
“You see the true character of a person when things aren’t going your way,” said Dan Avansino, who played for Dalton and just completed his 11th season as Reno High School’s football coach. “... When McQueen first started, they were losing. My dad’s comment, because I was going to go to McQueen, was, ‘He acts like they’re undefeated, and they don’t win a game.’ He never changed how he acted whether he was losing or winning.
“Second, when he was sick, he was the same guy. He always kept that optimism. That’s the true telltale of a man when things aren’t going your way. He built that program. He was the same positive, energetic, optimistic guy. Those are the things that stand out the most about Ken. ... He had an undying loyalty to his coaches, players and family. They were all considered family. His loyalty sticks out in my mind. What a lasting legacy.”
Dalton’s 228 victories at McQueen and in his final year at North Tahoe rank second all-time in state history behind the 250 that Sellers won at Wooster and Bishop Manogue.
The next closest coach is 60 wins behind.
His six Nevada state championships are third all-time, tied with former Boulder City coach Ken Andree, former Reno coach Dick Trachok and Truckee High School coach Bob Shaffer.
“He shaped my career path,” Borja said. “He showed me how to be a good father, husband and family man. And I know I’m not alone in that area.”