Dennis Carline '79, MST '88, Influences a Generation of Underserved Youth
Dennis Carline ’79, MST ’88 remembers the day the basketball world almost lost Mfon Udoka.
The 6-foot-tall Nigerian-American student at Portland’s Benson Polytechnic High School had just experienced a brutally tough sequence under the basket: She had outjumped her rivals and teammates to win a rebound, then went up again for a layup, and missed.
Six straight times.
Carline, one of the 2020 recipients of the Pacific University Alumni Association’s Outstanding Alumni Achievement Awards and coach of that Benson women’s basketball team, clearly remembers watching the frustration of his sophomore student-athlete.
She walked away from the floor to the bench. Don’t put me back in, Carline said she told him. I missed six layups.
“You got six rebounds,” Carline reminded her. But he knew her confidence was shattered.
The next day, she didn’t show up for practice.
“I knew she was so frustrated, she was going to quit,” he recalls.
Carline saw Udoka standing and watching the practice, but decided not to say anything until practice ended. When he approached her afterward, she told him “I didn’t want to come. I’m thinking about quitting.”
He told her he understood. But, he added, “if you quit now, you’re throwing it all away. You’re going to be a Division I player.”
Udoka returned to the team. She went on to become an all-state, first-team selection in high school, then played four years for DePaul University in Chicago, then was drafted into the Women’s National Basketball Association. She went on to play professionally in the United States, Spain, Israel, Russia and China. She played on the Nigerian Olympic team and now coaches high school basketball in Texas. And she still talks to Carline regularly.
Carline made a long career coaching sports and counseling kids at all levels of Portland-area school systems, focusing on schools with underserved students. He coached and taught for 39 years at schools including Tubman Elementary, Glenhaven Elementary, Benson Polytechnic High School, Fort Vancouver High School, Roosevelt High School and De La Salle North Catholic, which enrolls low-income students. He has been named coach of the year multiple times and also has been honored with teaching and service awards given by parents and students.
“A lot of coaches misinterpret those kids,” he explained of Udoka and hundreds of others like her. “I never turn my back on them. I think that’s the art of coaching — reaching the kid.”
Phil Carter ’79, Carline’s roommate at Pacific and a longtime friend, said he respects the way Carline operates, even when it doesn’t involve speedy gratification.
“I’ve seen parents at the start of the season not liking him, because he wasn’t playing their kids,” Carter said. “But by the end of the season, they loved him.”
It was clear that Carline had a special touch with his players, and Carter said he told him he could coach college ball, or anywhere he wanted to. But, Carline told him, “I want to work with kids.”
It’s been a lifetime passion. He has commuted to and from schools all over the Portland area. He made sure that kids were safe and parents were comfortable. For years, he drove a station wagon so he could take younger players home after practice. Later, he graduated to a van. It was a huge commitment of time, but when he married his wife Debra Low ‘80, whom he met at Pacific, she knew what she was getting, he said. Debra and the couples’ children, Denetia, Daedra, Delissa and Dennis Jr., have been supportive at every step. Carline, in fact, has coached his kids along the way, so his coaching included a lot of family time.
Daughter Denetia Chimuku, who now coaches volleyball at Portland’s Roosevelt High School, where father Dennis is her assistant, says she and her siblings never lacked time with their dad. Even as young kids, they were with him all the time, including road trips with their dad’s teams of older players.
“We grew up in sports,” said Chimuku. “When I got older, I realized not everyone grew up in the gym.”
When she was inducted into the Portland Interscholastic League’s Hall of Fame as a volleyball athlete, Chimuku said, “I ended up talking all about my dad.”
Carter said he’s been out with Carline and it was as if he was “a mini Michael Jordan,” he said. “People would come up to him all the time and say, ‘Mr. Carline, Mr. Carline, I was on your team. Do you still drive that van?’”
For Carline, working with kids involved a lot more than sports. He’s been a health and physical education teacher, a drug and alcohol counselor, a student advocate, an integration specialist, and a mentor. He’s led kids’ fundraising cookie sales. He donated a $5,000 coaching award from NBC Comcast to sending student-athletes to sports summer camps, an opportunity many wouldn’t have otherwise. He launched a club volleyball team — the Starlings — so underserved kids could have the same opportunity to play outside of school, just as more privileged students could do.
He did all this without necessarily having experience as a coach and player in every sport. He played basketball from his earliest days in South Central Los Angeles and continued at Pacific, but volleyball was a new game for him. When he was asked while teaching at Glenhaven School in east Portland to coach volleyball, he said sure, even though “I didn’t know anything about volleyball.”
After a rocky beginning in which his inexperience was apparent, he set out to learn the sport from the inside. He put up volleyball nets and stayed for hours after school. Kids practiced. And eventually, his team won the city championship.
Now that he is mostly retired, Carline has taken on a role as a teacher of black history. You can see him on YouTube videos visiting schools like North Clackamas speaking to mostly white students, encouraging them to finish high school. “Everybody in this room has greatness in them,” he told them.
He’s taken the black history materials he displayed at Fort Vancouver, added to them by buying more, and taken them to schools that invite him to appear. He also has posted an extensive collection of material online, describing the contributions and tragedies experienced by African-Americans from Henrietta Lacks to Emmett Till. You can see a sampling on YouTube, on Facebook and on his website.
When Carline looks back, he sees his time at Pacific as formative, from playing basketball and running track to finding money with the help of the late Varina French to pay for his fifth and final year of education. He grew close to coaches like the late Jim Weber, who recruited him and later became a friend. Pacific prepared him well for his next chapter in life, he said.
“When I left Pacific, they asked ‘Where do you want to teach?’” he said. “I said ‘I want to teach at schools that are underserved. I’ll teach anywhere. Those schools need good teachers, too.’”