The young man in purple and black sneakers approaches Everett Whiteside in the lobby of Washington High School smiling and shaking his head.
“I’m mad at you,” he jokes. “Leaving for no reason at all.”
Whiteside shifts his lean frame forward in the chair to point at the young man’s shoes.
“What kind of shoes of are those?” he asks rhetorically.
The young man turns to reveal the “23” on the back of each sneaker.
“You have your reason right there,” Whiteside says. “Air Jordan, they’re made by Nike. That’s the reason. Nike’s the reason.”
After 19 years as head of Washington’s cross country team, Whiteside is leaving the program, packing everything he owns into a shipping crate and driving across the country with his two cats to Portland, Ore., camping and crashing with friends along the way. He leaves Friday.
“I’m at the point now where if I’m going to make a change like this, I’ve got to make it,” Whiteside said. “I think if I did one more year here it would be too late to go to something else. I think now’s the time I have to move because I’m young enough that I can still work 20 years in another area.”
His goal? To land a low level job with the Portland-based sports equipment giant and work his way into product development.
“Since probably 1992, as far as running stuff, I’ve not worn anything but Nike,” Whiteside said. “I could probably count on one hand the pieces of apparel that I have that are not Nike. As far as running stuff, they’re the best company, there’s no question. “
Whiteside, 43, graduated from the University of Alabama in May of 1994, and came to work as a cross country coach and English teacher at Washington in August of that year. Since then, his name has become synonymous with cross country in the Pensacola area, and he has built the Wildcats’ program into a perennial powerhouse.
A five-time News Journal cross country coach of the year, Whiteside’s boys teams have finished in the top 10 in the state 10 times during his tenure. He led his 2004 team to an undefeated season and eventual state championship.
“He has meant so much to us,” Washington athletic director Troy Faucheaux said. “Just his overall willingness to help people is what the whole community is going to miss. It is definitely going to be a big loss for the cross country community in the Panhandle.”
Never one to ask his team to do something he himself would not be prepared to do, Whiteside is an accomplished runner in his own right. Since returning to Pensacola after college, Whiteside has won the Double Bridge 15K eight times, the McGuire’s 5K seven times and the Fiesta 10K five times.
When he gives an interview, he has to bring along a cheat sheet of his accomplishments if he hopes to remember them all.
Walking the halls of Washington, Whiteside is stopped seemingly every few feet by teachers and students wishing him well while lamenting his departure.
He says he’ll miss the coaching life and the relationships he’s built here, but that he’s excited to try something new.
“It’s not easy to leave,” he says. “But it’s time.”