SPRINGFIELD – Justin Starck. Thurston athletic director and head football coach. Husband and father. 1995 World Bowl Champion?
After playing football at Walla Walla Community College and the University of Oregon, Starck took his talents to Europe.
“I was fortunate to have an opportunity as a free agent with the Los Angeles Rams,” Starck said. “Didn’t end up making the team, but was then drafted by what was at the time called NFL Europe, which doesn’t exist anymore. I played for the Frankfurt Galaxy, and we were fortunate enough to win the World Bowl in 1995, so I was a world champion which was pretty fun.”
Starck, an offensive lineman, became a world champion in 1995 in Olympic Stadium Amsterdam in front of almost 24,000 fans after the Galaxy beat the Amsterdam Admirals 26-22.
After returning from Europe, Starck came back to Oregon to be a grad assistant at the University of Oregon and was also hired as the offensive line coach at Thurston High School in the fall of 1996.
To understand how Starck progressed from offensive line coach to athletic director at Thurston, you first have to go back to his roots. Growing up in a rural area near Salem, it was Starck’s grandfather who first got him into sports.
“My grandfather on my mom’s side was a sports nut. We lived out in the country a little bit, so the elementary school I went to, my grandparents had a home near it,” Starck said. “I would be at their house every day after school until our parents got off work, so I had that three-hour window after school every day to be influenced by him.”
While his grandfather did influence him greatly, Starck was also active on his own, and loved to watch NFL football on Sundays. Starck enjoyed the NFL so much, he started trying to find ways to get out of going to church.
“People talk about going to church on Sundays, and I had to go every Sunday until I was about 10 years old. But the thing is, it bothered me that I would always miss the 10 a.m. football games,” he said. “So I started acting up at church so that my mom would be willing to leave me home. That way I didn’t have to go to Sunday school, so I could stay home and watch NFL football.”
Starck’s love of football blossomed throughout his youth, but it wasn’t until later in high school that he realized he might have a chance to continue playing after graduation.
A self-described “late bloomer,” Starck grew into a 6-foot-5, 260-pound offensive lineman by the time he was a senior. The problem with being a late bloomer, though, was that college football offers weren’t quite there.
“The coaches at Oregon State actually encouraged me to go to Walla Walla because I didn’t have an offer from Oregon or Oregon State,” Starck said. “They said I should go to Walla Walla and develop, and then become a full-ride guy.”
After two years at Walla Walla, Starck attended the UO, playing offensive tackle for the Ducks in 1992 and ‘93.
Back in the U.S. after playing in Europe, Starck made one final push for his athletic career, playing for the Portland Forest Dragons, an Arena Football League team. But Starck suffered a back injury that required surgery, and felt his NFL dream slipping away.
“I knew the NFL was getting further and further away. Every time you play in one of these leagues you’re hoping that you’ll do really well and you get an opportunity to get into an NFL training camp,” Starck said. “I knew there wasn’t an invite coming to an NFL training camp after the arena year, so it was at that point that I decided to go all-in to education. I moved back home and joined a masters program to get my teaching license (from UO).”
After teaching at Agnes Stewart Middle School in 1998 and ‘99, Starck was hired as a teacher at Thurston while continuing to assist the football program.
“I enjoyed coaching and teaching and education. It’s just a natural complement for me; I started coaching and it made me realize I enjoyed it,” Starck said. “I was an English literature major in college. So what are you going to do with a lit degree? Well, you can write a good essay, fill out a really good resume, otherwise you’re gonna teach.”
Starck started as an English teacher and PE teacher, but transitioned to PE only once he took over the football program in 2003. For a decade, that was all Starck needed to do at Thurston.
But in 2013, the athletic director job opened, and Starck jumped at the opportunity.
And thus, Starck entered the third phase of his professional career. Figuring out what kind of AD he wanted to be was a whole new journey and challenge.
Thurston has 22 athletic programs, and 17 coaches other than Starck. Those coaches need their athletic director’s support – and so do the hundreds of athletes.
Starck has developed his system.
“It’s my young coaches that really need the support. Whether that’s financial support, emotional support, things like that. Those are the ones that I have to really pour my energy into,” Starck said. “When I have those young, new coaches, those are the ones that really get my support.”
Focusing on the young coaches takes immense trust in the veteran coaches, though. While Starck said he’s always there for those coaches and communicates with them regularly, he trusts them to run their programs.
Those veteran coaches notice.
“He’s not afraid to give me the reins with the wrestling program, the men’s and the women’s program. I’ve been at it a long time … and he always lets me do my scheduling or that kind of stuff. He’s definitely involved with all of that. But he trusts me as a veteran coach,” said Mike Simons, who coaches one of the top 5A programs in the state. “I don’t feel like he tries to micromanage anything that I’m trying to do to build our program, and he’s done a really good job of giving the reins to those coaches that have been around and have proved themselves. And because of that, he’s able to focus more on the newer coaches.”
Starck and Simons became head coaches at Thurston the same year, in 2003. For the past two decades both coaches have won state titles, and pushed Thurston athletics to heights it’s never been before.
Building a successful program takes balance. Balancing the needs of athletes, coaches, parents, fans, and the community. Being a perfectionist helps.
“Justin’s definitely a perfectionist,” Simons said. “He is still the same to this day. He’s very organized. I knew he was somebody who had a good presence. I mean, you can walk into a room and he’s somebody that right away you know is a professional. He’s just somebody that you’re drawn to. He’s very intelligent, he’s a good motivator, and he’s just one of those guys that you’d want to be around.”
Those who work in the office with him see the level of commitment as well. Lisa Minium has been the athletic secretary at Thurston for nine years, working alongside Starck the whole time.
“He is able to juggle those really well. He doesn’t put one sport before the other, he is really good at making sure that all sports are getting what they need,” Minium said. “Even when he’s coaching, he is able to make sure that everybody’s being taken care of, and that each sport is still doing what they need to do, the kids are still doing what they need to do, and they’re succeeding as best they can.”
Starck said one of his proudest accomplishments during his time as AD is the way girls sports has grown at Thurston. As the football coach, Starck knows how important weight training can be to maximize an athlete’s potential. In order to support the success of the girls program, Thurston created a class for girls to get that same kind of training.
“We have a contract with a local gym, so we formed a varsity female athletics class. We have about 55 of our top athletes in the school in a class now. We bring in private trainers to come in and train the class; I’m in there with the trainers, supporting them and working alongside them,” Starck said. “That’s just an opportunity that the female athletes in our school hadn’t had before. So that was a huge thing.”
While each individual sport is generally left to do its own fundraising, Starck wanted to make sure this initiative was possible, so the athletic department is paying at least half of those costs.
“When you look at top college programs, they train year-round, and they have speed and agility coaches and strength coaches. So we wanted to provide that for those kids,” he said. “We made it possible to provide that for those girls.”
That initiative has paid off so far. Just this past year, the wrestling team came in second at state, the track team came in third, while the volleyball, soccer, and softball teams all made the postseason.
“The biggest growth has been with women’s sports. Just the growth of Title IX, women’s sports, equity, and all that. He’s done a really good job of trying to balance all that,” Simons said. “He wants everybody on the same playing field, and he does his best to treat each program with importance. That’s something he’s done really well.”
Minium saw the support Starck gives girls sports firsthand, too.
“I had a daughter who went here; he was the AD while she was here. She played basketball and soccer,” Minium said. “When girls soccer was playing, he’d bring his football team and they’d go watch like 15 minutes or so of a game. I’ve seen them do that with multiple sports when they’re out there practicing, just trying to get all the kids to support each other and making sure that the girls feel really supported.”
Making the athletes feel supported is what high school athletics is all about. It’s also Starck’s biggest motivator.
“When everything else gets so busy, what gets lost sometimes is the ability to celebrate kids,” Starck said. “For me, I often have to leave that to the coaches. The more organized I am, the more time I have to celebrate our kids … and be there for those kids.”
Starck has earned praise for striking that balance.
“He just does a great job of balancing coaching, teaching, and the athletic director job,” Simons said. “To see him operate the way he does and balance being the athletic director, a coach and a teacher … He’s all bought-in to the Thurston community. He’s been here forever, and it’s a big priority for him.”
Being organized and efficient gives Starck the time to do what he says is his favorite part of the job: be present for the Thurston athletes.
“Being able to celebrate those things with kids, giving the kids high-fives, being able to stand near the dugout, or near the bench. Whatever that is, just having them know that I’m there supporting them,” Starck said. “Then the big thing, obviously, when a team wins a big game. The baseball team this year, those types of moments are super satisfying and fun, our basketball team won a state championship in 2018. As the athletic director, that just fills my bucket to see the kids that happy, and see the community that happy and that excited for our programs.”
Being present gives athletes the support they need, while also showing the parents that Starck’s invested in their child’s success and growth.
“When parents see you out there, they know that you care, and you have a vested interest in their programs,” Minium said. “That’s why we want to be out there, not only to make sure that people know we’re here if they have questions or need help, but he just genuinely wants to go out there and support those kids and what they love to do.”
Another aspect of the career that Starck finds rewarding is graduation day. While ideally all students are invested in academics, the reality is that some might not have made it to graduation day without sports.
“To see the number of kids that walk across that stage, who without athletics may not have ever been able to make it … Athletics is the reason that they come back,” Starck said. “It’s their purpose, to be at school, is to stay eligible and be able to play sports. So to see those kids graduate, it’s really rewarding.”
Thurston through and through
For now, Starck’s focused on enjoying the fall season. He does less AD work in the fall to focus on coaching football, and will have a special job on Saturdays this year. If you’ve seen him recently, it’s possible you’ve seen Starck wearing a hat that most Duck fans wouldn’t be caught dead with.
“People find it humorous that my son plays for Oregon State now, me being a Duck alumni and he’s with the Beavers now. So everyone’s like, ‘How’s that going for you?’” Starck said. “They all think it’s really funny to see me wearing a Beaver hat, but I’m all in with the Beavers right now.”
Starck’s oldest son, Grant, transferred to Oregon State, and is fighting for a starting spot on their offensive line. So while Starck will be on the sidelines on Fridays, he’ll be in the stands come Saturdays.
Then come Mondays, he’s back at school. It’s a busy life that Starck says has no two weeks alike. One constant? The presence and dedication that Starck brings.
“He is the face of the program. There’s a lot of great sports at our high school, but just about every big school that’s successful, the football program is the face of the athletic department, just like at universities,” Simons said. “There’s been a correlation with us, when the football team has a good year, for whatever reason, Thurston sports tend to have a good year. … It drives the atmosphere of the school, and he’s the face of all that.”
“He brings positivity, excitement, dedication, and all the kids know they can depend on him,” Minium said. “It’s his dedication to the athletes. He wants every athlete to succeed and feel important.”
His deep roots in Thurston give him a strong foundation for that dedication.
“I’m a Thurston guy through and through. After the UO, I was working as a grad assistant, and landed on as an assistant coach at Thurston and I just never left,” Starck said, noting that his wife, Brandi, is a Thurston grad and middle school principal in the area. “We planted some pretty big roots in this community, and we’re here to stay.”
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a series of profiles on our area’s high school athletic directors. See part 1 here: https://www.chronicle1909.com/2023/07/27/standridge-culture-first-the-wins-will-come/