There was no question that Rick Baker belonged in the National High School Hall of Fame.
The only question was: What took the selection committee so long to vote him in?
Baker coached the Hopi Jr/Sr. High School boys cross country teams to 27 consecutive small-school state titles. He became the school’s head coach in 1987, so this national honor has been a long time coming.
John Wooden, college basketball’s winningest coach, brought UCLA 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year span, seven of those in a row. An unheard-of accomplishment. The Wizard of Westwood was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1973 — a year before he won the 12th title.
Baker had to win 27 before he got his props. But that finally came on July 1 in Orlando, Fla., when he joined 11 other sports figures from around the country who were being inducted into the National Federation of State High Schools Hall of Fame during the organization’s annual meeting.
His induction was the culmination of a long journey that began in 1974 when Baker played basketball, football, and ran cross country at Winslow High School. He was the state’s champion in the mile event in 1977 and continued competing in the sport at University of Central Oklahoma.
Baker, who generally goes by ‘Rickey’, was raised in the Village of Tewa on the Hopi reservation and steeped in the Hopi tradition of great distance runners. He brought that passion for the sport with him when he became head cross country coach at the Hopi school more than three decades ago.
“It goes back to our Hopi culture,” he explained when receiving his national honor. “Hopis have always been known as distance runners. That culture is already there, instilled in their families. When we get them at the high school level, it’s not that hard for me to unlock that passion. I just have to train them to do what we do as a team, across the terrain we use, which is perfect for distance running.”
Three years after his hire at Hopi HS, he won the first of 27 straight state championships, a string not broken until a Northland Prep team from Flagstaff defeated his runners for the Division 4 state title on Nov. 3 of 2017.
When he had to address fans and the media afterward, it was something he wasn’t prepared for. “We’ve never been in this position before,” he offered. “I’ve never prepared a losing speech.”
Hopi’s state-championship winning streak is reportedly the third-longest in any sport.
Under Baker’s direction, the Hopi XC program gradually increased its exposure. In 1999, the school set a state record for low scores by compiling a 15-point total as its runners claimed all five top spots in the championship race. In the summer of 2016, the program was featured in an ESPN documentary that gave it unprecedented national exposure.
Through the years, the Hopi program has been moved around to compete in different divisions. But the results were always the same. The Bruins have won 11 conference titles in 2A, six more in 3A, and the last 10 in 4A. When Northland Prep broke the streak, Hopi had just been moved up again.
But Baker hasn’t been a one-dimensional coach. Through the 30 years he has devoted to the profession, he has also coached girls cross country, boys basketball, and girls and boys track & field at the Keams Canyon school. He coached boys basketball for 18 years and won a state title in 1997.
Baker says he’s not finished yet: “It’s an honor to be inducted because it’s the pinnacle of coaching. But it’s still a part of the journey.
“There’s more to accomplish.”