Earl Crabbe Gym nurtures greatness

By: Eric Gourley, Journal Sports Writer
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Jug Covich can still point to the area near the top of the key in Earl Crabbe Gymnasium where several decades ago a member of the California Cadet Corp misfired his rifle through the basketball court from the range below. “This is a good floor,” said Covich, a retired Placer High principal and athletic director. “I think it’s been redone once. It’s really a nice floor.” The gym housing it is one-of-a-kind, too. Built in 1936 at a cost of $85,000, The Crabbe was patterned after the old Harmon Gym at Cal-Berkeley. It was known as Placer College Gym and Agard Street Gym during the 1940s before it was ultimately named in 1951 to honor the legendary basketball coach who led some of the best squads in Hillmen history during the late teens and 1920s. Dozens of league, section and state pennants hang above the original wooden bench-style bleachers that rise high above the court on both sides. Even more line the walls at each end of the gym, which has hosted hundreds of basketball games, volleyball matches, wrestling tournaments and school dances. “It serves a purpose,” said Covich, 85, Placer’s principal from 1970 to 1988. “I get a kick out of kids who’ve never been up here before. They always look around and say, ‘I’m in a barn. Where am I?’” Bill Flake, another former Placer athletic director and coach, convinced Covich to let him launch the wrestling program in 1964. The Hillmen won 14 Sierra Foothill League titles during one 17-year period. “I showed up at the gym and said, ‘Oh, this is gonna be good,’” said Flake, who currently serves as the Pioneer Valley League commissioner. “That is a classic gym. I’ve never seen another gym like it. It’s the greatest spectator gym in the area.” Bent bars on the windows above the bleachers remind Flake of the students who used to break into the gym to play basketball on weekends. “They were some troublemakers,” said Flake, Placer’s wrestling coach from 1964 to 1989 and athletic director from 1970 to 2000. Covich remembers when kids would routinely climb the rafters and chalk or paint their names under the dark wooden ceiling. “I always wanted to get that ceiling painted white, because I thought the reflection would help with the lighting,” said Covich, the current SFL commissioner. The building originally housed the district bus fleet below the gym floor. Later, part of the downstairs was converted to the Cadet Corp rifle range. With the demise of the corp at Placer, the rifle team was discontinued and the area was converted to showers and the football locker room. Most Placer High dances are still held in The Crabbe. “In most cases you’d have to take your shoes off in those days,” Covich said. “For dances we’d stretch wires across. After the war, we got all this surplus camouflage netting, so we’d stretch wires across and put the netting over the top so it would lower the ceiling for the dance. Oh man, if you’re on the cleaning committee in those days, you’re really in trouble.” Before the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs existed, the famed Kendall Arnett Tournament marked the end of basketball season. “You’d invite the best teams you could,” Covich said. “We’d start the tournament at 8 in the morning and go till 11 o’clock at night. Everybody played four games. The first games were five-minute quarters, then they went to seven, then to eight. Bring your lunch and stay all day.” The tournament still fills the gym to capacity each winter. “One time we had 250 girls here in one rooting section,” Covich said. “It was so big. You don’t have the rooting sections now like you used to have. Capacity-wise, we did all right. I never paid much attention to the fire marshal, I just used to fill it up.”