By Nick Giannandrea
Irv Pankey has traded in sequoias for pines.
The former professional football player who spent more than two decades as an educator and coach at College of the Sequoias has retired and relocated to Chiloquin, Ore., a town of less than 800 residents nestled around ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees roughly four hours southeast of Portland.
"It was a great time," the 62-year-old Pankey said of working at COS. "I enjoyed my tenure there. I met some great people and made some great friends."
Pankey closed his 22-year coaching and teaching career at COS after the 2019 football season, serving as assistant head coach and offensive line coach for a Giants team that went 6-5 and qualified for a postseason bowl for the first time in 10 seasons.
"He's going to be missed," COS Athletics Director Brent Davis said. "Irv did a great job. He was always looking out for the best interests of the kids."
After playing 12 seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams (1980-90) and Indianapolis Colts (1991-92), Pankey transitioned into coaching, first serving as an assistant at his alma mater Penn State under legendary coach Joe Paterno, and then at Cornell.
A coaching staff change at Cornell following the 1997 season left Pankey in search of a new job, and his late wife, Kelly, suggested an additional profession.
"She said you know football, but I think you would be a great teacher," Pankey said. "So I started looking at junior colleges because I wanted to start there."
Pankey, a native of Aberdeen, Md., applied to several junior colleges on the west coast, but an opening at COS caught his attention in particular.
That's because during his playing days with the Rams, Pankey had spent time hunting in the Visalia area through his friendships with teammates such as Visalia's Michael Young, Hanford's Jewerl Thomas and Exeter's Darren Long. He also played in a charity basketball game in Visalia while with the Rams.
Pankey liked the area's ample spots to hunt and fish, and felt it would be a good location for he and Kelly to raise their young family -- sons Keith and Kevin, and daughter Kiley, who would all go on to graduate from Mt. Whitney High.
"I felt it was a good fit," Pankey said. "I got the chance to see all (his childrens') extracurricular activities, choir and sports. And, I got the opportunity to teach and do football. It was the perfect mix for me."
To help his chances of landing the job, Pankey received the recommendation of Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history.
Only it didn't go exactly as planned initially when Paterno tried to reach then COS coach Roger Kelly on the telephone to talk up Pankey.
"Joe had his secretary call Roger," Pankey said. "But Roger hung up on her. He said 'Joe Paterno ain't calling me. Why would he call me?"
Paterno and Roger Kelly would eventually speak, helping Pankey land the job. (Paterno even sent Roger Kelly a signed letter that hung in his office.)
Pankey went on to coach offensive linemen under head coaches Roger Kelly, Curtis Allen and Robert Dougherty.
"I really enjoyed coaching kids who might not have been four-year school kids, but who became four-year school kids," Pankey said. "Kids would bust their butts, and when they did, it was our job to bust ours to get them somewhere. It was fun coaching them up and seeing them mature and helping them move on. I feel we did a great job of getting kids to four-year schools, be it Division I, II or III."
In late May 2013, Pankey became a head coach for the first time when he took over the Giants program after Dougherty stepped down and relocated to Hawaii.
COS went 16-34 overall in five seasons under Pankey, his best year coming in 2013 when the Giants went 6-4.
"One of the biggest things Irv did was when he took over football in 2013," Davis said. "It was late in the (school year,) and he really bailed out the school. He did a really good job with the kids."
The impact Pankey made on his athletes as well as the students in his health and wellness and physical education classes will be his lasting legacy at COS, according to Davis.
"Irv cared greatly about kids. But he also held a firm hand with them," Davis said. "He pushed them not only on the football field and in the classroom, but in their lives. He had them focused on their jobs. Being on time on the field and in the classroom. Football was just a minor part of it. He was trying to guide those young people and teach them everyday values that would serve them in their everyday lives."
Pankey said that he relished his time in the classroom, and taught at COS long enough that he eventually had the children of former students in class.
"Watching kids grow up and become mature adults and do well for themselves, that was the most enjoyable part of it," Pankey said. "I really enjoyed teaching. I think I was a good teacher. My students respected me like I respected them."
As Pankey and wife Kelly neared retirement, they began to consider relocating closer to children Keith and Kiley, who both reside in Oregon. Kelly, who worked at COS in student services before her passing, fell in love with the Chiloquin area, and the couple purchased a home there 2.5 years ago.
Pankey has been laying low so far in retirement because of covid-19 precautions. But that doesn't mean it's been an uneventful time.
The wildfires that ravaged Oregon over the summer came within 15 feet of Pankey's home, which often had a hurd of deer and eagles on the six-acre property. Pankey said he knows why his home emerged unscathed from the blazes.
"My wife was looking out for me," Pankey said..
If the pandemic ends by next summer, Pankey would like to rent a motorhome and take his four grandchildren sightseeing around the country for a couple weeks. Destinations would include the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial monuments in South Dakota, and any establishment featured on celebrity chef Guy Fieri's television program "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" along the way.
He also would like to volunteer as a coach for the eight-man football team at Chiloquin High.
"I just want to be moving," Pankey said.