Ken Simonton was an unlikely trailblazer for Oregon State. At Pittsburg (Calif.) High, Simonton had a dream of playing at USC. Mike Riley, then the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, took an interest in Simonton, but Riley eventually took the head coaching job at Oregon State.
Simonton followed Riley to Oregon State, but Riley soon left to be the head coach of the San Diego Chargers.
Under new coach Dennis Erickson, Simonton flourished, rushing for 5,044 career yards (still the third-highest total in Pac-12 history) and leading the Beavers to the Fiesta Bowl in 2000, still their only major bowl appearance since 1964. After Simonton followed a line of productive Oregon State running backs from Steven Jackson to Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers, giving the Beavers four of the top 17 rushers in Pac-12 history.
Simonton appeared on the Athlon Sports Pac-10 cover in 2000 and since his college career played for stints in the NFL and Canadian Football League. He has since returned to Southern California.
What are you up to these days?
Chasing kids. I’ve been really keeping myself busy. These last few years, I’ve been coaching at my alma mater Pittsburg High School and this last season I’ve transition to some youth track. My kids are that age where they’re starting to compete, so coaching some youth track is my big kick right now. My daughter qualified for the Junior Olympics in the long jump and mini (javelin).
What did you coach at Pittsburg?
I coached running backs and returners. High school is becoming so much like college, man. For me, unless you’re completely committed to coaching, they’re putting in so many hours, I wouldn’t even think about being a high school coach.
Did the running backs you coached know your Oregon State career?
A lot of the guys I’ve had are local guys as well, so, heck, their parents are guys I played against or with. It’s kind of neat. My runners use a lot of my highlights and high school stats as their measuring point. It gives them a good barometer. I had a kid who should be at Oregon State last year, but he had to go to junior college. My career from high school on has given them a good barometer of where to work.
You said your daughter (Mayelli) is involved in Junior Olympics. Does she take after dad a little bit?
It’s crazy. She’s not a sprinter yet. She doesn’t know how to use her arms. She’s kind of, “If it comes easy I like it. If I have to work at it, umm…” But I’m really proud of her because she’s learned to love the process. Kids her age ask if she won the race and she says, “No, but my time got better and I finished hard.” I’m really proud of her to be seven years old and kind of humble herself and learn to love the process. But she’s a natural jumper. She’s so consistent. My daughter is within six or seven inches in every meet.
Is there anything she does at this age that’s similar to where you were?
More than anything, I see she has great balance. She had a classmate who took years of gymnastics. And after a few days, I think she got tired of everyone clapping for her doing one-handed cartwheels. My daughter taught herself to do one-handed cartwheels. She has tremendous balance and a competitive nature. I can definitely see those two traits.
And what do you do for a day job?
For the past six years I’ve been an investigator with the Department of Labor. Our primary focus is looking at how workers are paid — minimum wage, overtime, child labor and record-keeping. That’s the base of what I do. Within that, we look at child labor issues, migrant workers and that their living arrangements are satisfactory. Quite honestly, that they’re living in human conditions. We get a myriad of cases, everything from aerospace to ag to mom and pop business.
Was this a field that interested you in college?
Heck no. That’s one of those things I kind of fell into. Our regional administrator served on our school board locally and when I stopped playing he asked about what I was doing and let me know they were doing some hiring. At the time, I really wanted to get into firefighting. That was really something I felt strongly about. Here in California, it’s such a competitive field. In the county where I live, there were maybe 6,000 applicants for maybe eight jobs. I took a few tests, did well but never quite high enough to get a foot in the door. I looked at this as viable option, and now I love it. Looking after low-wage workers and serving my community in this capacity is something where I can hold my head up high.
Do you still stay involved with Oregon State?
The new coach, Gary Andersen, I met him and some other alumni in Vegas during the summer. We got a chance to hear his vision and he got a chance to hear from some of us alums. I’ve tried to keep myself available. I’ve reached out to every running back since I left from Steven Jackson to Terron Ward who is fighting to compete in Atlanta right now. I always took it as a personal mission so that those runners knew who I was and knew that I was watching and that I was in support and that they always had an ear if they wanted to call and vent. I know how Corvallis can be at times. I let coach Andersen know that it was always on my heart to be around the program, and he kind of called me on it. He said, I’d love to have you and guys like Steven Jackson come back and watch the team compete and speak with them. He was very instrumental in making that happen.
You played early in Mike Riley’s first tenure at Oregon State. What do you remember about him getting started at Oregon State?
He was still at USC (when I first talked to him). We didn’t even have a home phone. He found my grandmother’s phone. Growing up as a runner, what was bigger than Tailback U. I was kind of sold on him from Day One. He believed in me from Day One. When he went up to Oregon State, it was crushing a little bit. When Mike recruited me, what he said was that he wanted to recruit guys who know how to win and came from winning program. His primary focus was turning that program around and getting the right guys in there no matter where they were from and guys who were sold out to winning. I don’t think people understand how competitive that man is.
How much did you realize at the time how special the 2000 season was for Oregon State? That’s still Oregon State’s only major bowl appearance since 1964.
Going into that season, I think we knew that was a team that every reason to splinter, to fracture. You had brothers from Florida, California, Texas, kids from the Midwest and Oregon. You talk about a rag-tag bunch… I tell people the biggest cultural change in Corvallis isn’t the people it’s the weather. There were just so many factors that we had to fight through. It was late spring, early summer that team made a decision to come together. We knew it before the coaching staff did. We knew we were good. And more than that, we were willing to fight. Guys realized there was nothing else out here but us. I think that team made a conscious decision that we didn’t have anything to lose. Let’s just go out and punch people in the face. I really wished the College Football Playoff was around then because at the end of the season, there wasn’t a team in the country that would have beat us. I really believe that.
When Riley was there and especially as they’ve gone through this coaching change, a lot of people have said this is the toughest job in the Pac-12 or one of the toughest jobs. Do you agree that this is a tough place for a guy to win?
Poppycock! I tell you what: It’s one of the best jobs in the Pac. It might be a tough place to recruit. You’re not going to get some of the can’t-miss five-star kind of kids unless they’ve got a little baggage, unless you take a chance on a Chad Johnson. That’s kind of a rare one. That guy was a legitimate talent, but he was looking for a home. Steven Jackson is a future Hall of Famer but he saw the momentum we were building. You had guys that were actively recruiting. In his early junior year, senior year, they got after this guy and made him feel like he was a stud before the rest of the world showed up. If you’ve got a bunch of lazy recruiters, it’s going to be a hard job. But if you have guys that are actively out recruiting and have a system of what they want to build… Put it this way: When I talk to young guys who are there, you have no distractions. You get a chance to play in the same conference as USC and you don’t have this big bull’s eye on you every time you burp out loud. If you recruit the right people, you’re going to get all the flair and the nuts environment any other Pac-12 university has. But at the end of the day you get to just focus on your business. I think if there’s a coach who is focused on building to that experience, the environment you get up there is second to none. The problem you had was some coaches, man, who at one point got lazy in recruiting. You stop recruiting the players that are there. I think that environment is really second to none. If Coach Andersen continues to recruit and recruits the guys that are there and continues that mindset of maintaining and keeping that environment exciting for the guys that are there, because there’s nothing else to do there. It’s football and the 60 guys in the locker room. You have the opportunity to live in a bubble, go to school and be nuts about building your own USC or UCLA. If you can recruit guys who are of that caliber, who are pissed off because they didn’t get that offers from USC or UCLA, you can’t tell me that if you can win at Boise or Baylor or TCU, that you can’t win at Oregon State.