Mt. Hood Community College Health and Physical Education instructor Fred Schnell keeps a list of people he thinks deserve to be inducted into the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC) Hall of Fame. And each spring, when the Conference begins accepting regional nominations, he tracks down that list and submits a couple of names to MHCC Athletic Director Kim Hyatt.
“I’m always thinking, ‘Ok, who do we have here that we need to get into the Hall of Fame,’” says Schnell, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Upper Iowa University in 1971. “Some of our ex-coaches, ex-athletes: those people that didn’t really get the accolades they deserve. I want to try and pick those people out and recognize them.”
Little did he realize that one day it would be Schnell himself who would be honored. In June, Schnell was recognized for his 27 years of service to MHCC and the NWAC when he was inducted into the NWAC Hall of Fame, Class of 2017. MHCC’s last Hall of Fame inductee was in 2014.
“It was a very pleasant surprise,” says Schnell as he sits in his office, photos from his coaching days on the wall next to a poster of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a framed photograph of a basketball.
Schnell grew up in the Midwest and began his teaching and basketball coaching career at the University of Wyoming (UW). He discovered the Portland area after a recruiting trip. Liking the region, he kept his eye out for head basketball coaching positions in and around Portland while his career progressed at colleges and universities in the Midwest.
In 1990, MHCC hired Schnell as a fulltime physical education instructor and men’s basketball head coach. He served in this role for eight seasons, and during that time led the basketball team to a second-place finish in the NWAC Championship (1994) and three third-place finishes in the NWAC Southern Region. Schnell went on to work as the associate athletic director and athletic director at MHCC, as the Mt. Hood men’s commissioner, as a member and chair of the NWAC Men’s Basketball Committee, and as an NWAC Executive Board member.
But truth be told, he didn’t think he’d stay all that long at MHCC.
“I thought when I came here, I’d be here 3-5 years and then move on,” Schnell recalls. “With a lot of coaches, that’s often the length of time you can really be productive. In 3-5 years, if you can be successful, you sometimes become complacent and it’s hard to keep up the winning. And if you’re not successful, they’re usually tired of you by that time anyways.”
What kept him well beyond those 3-5 years? His family, for one. After coaching basketball at the University of Wyoming; at Great Falls College in Montana; and his graduate school alma mater, Wayne State College in Nebraska, it was time to settle down. As their children grew older and began school and youth activities, Schnell and his wife, Melodee, decided to settle in the Gresham area. Five years turned into 15, and then 20. But what also kept Schnell was the camaraderie and collaborative atmosphere of the MHCC Athletics program.
“The Athletic department here has always been pretty close and supportive of each other, and a lot like family,” says Schnell. “And that’s what I enjoyed most about being associate athletic director and athletic director: being able to do supportive things for the teams and programs.”
It was the small gestures that he remembers most – and that the coaches he directed also remember. For instance, the tradition he began of celebrating Southern region and NWAC championship softball victories with apple cider.
“Fred was our biggest fan during the softball season,” recalls Meadow McWhorter, an MHCC alum and head softball coach from 2002-2016. “After championship games, he’d always be waiting with a cooler of sparkling apple cider for the student-athletes to celebrate with.”
“He is one of my greatest mentors,” she adds. “He plays many roles – teacher, mentor, coach and father – and was deservingly nicknamed ‘Papa Fred’ by former volleyball head coach Chelsie Speer.”
Chelsie Speer, another MHCC alum, began her volleyball coaching career at MHCC. In 2009, she was hired by Schnell to serve as head coach of the volleyball program, which she led for five seasons.
“Fred is a big reason I am where I am today in my career,” says Speer. “He believed in me, encouraged me, and supported me at the start of my collegiate coaching career.”
“To this day, he still supports me,” she says. “A few things I learned from Fred while coaching at MHCC: do what’s right, even when it’s hard; be honest and straightforward; trust my athletes when I give them a responsibility – but always verify; and believe in myself.”
Nowadays, Schnell largely focuses on teaching, including classes on weight lifting, life fitness and basketball skills. But as a former coach, he still has plenty of advice and wisdom gleaned from decades of coaching.
“In any sport, with any coach, you’ve got to pay your dues first, you need to put in lots of time,” he says. “And you just have to love the game and be dedicated to it…It can take time to put together a good team and to prepare them.”
And perhaps, just as important, you need to enjoy the people you work with and take pride in the place you work. For Schnell, after almost three decades at MHCC, he’s still impressed by his college.
“I’m still totally awestruck if I walk in at night into the gym, when just the nightlights are on around the perimeter. It’s still pretty impressive,” he says.
(UIU wishes to express its appreciation to Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon, and Northwest Athletic Conference Sports Information Director Tracy Swisher for providing permission to republish this article and photos.)