Marijon Ancich teaches his physical education classes in style these days
By Rob Fernas, Times Staff Writer
Marijon Ancich teaches his physical education classes in style these days — at the wheel of a golf cart that makes it easier for the 66-year-old coaching legend to get around the Santa Fe Springs St. Paul campus.
Football boosters and colleagues pitched in to buy the cart last year, after Ancich had surgery to alleviate a painful case of sciatica. Before then, he said, "It got to the point where I couldn't get across the field. I had to go sit down."
Brent Newcomb, 61, knows the feeling. The veteran football coach at Antelope Valley had a heart attack in 1997 and had his hip replaced two years ago.
When his doctor told him to take it easy during a game last month after a bout of dizzy spells, Newcomb tried to put his players at ease by telling them, "If I happen to drop dead on the field, that's right where I want to die. You guys keep playing."
Though the years have taken a physical toll on Ancich and Newcomb, they have no intentions of stepping aside. The excitement of Friday nights keeps them in a routine that has defined their lives for several decades.
"Guys who are 66 years old are usually on a fishing boat somewhere," St. Paul assistant coach Marc Hernandez said of Ancich. "Marijon is still molding young men. That's something not many people can do."
Ancich, in his 41st season as a head coach, and Newcomb, in his 26th season, have combined to coach 766 high school games. Yet they had never stood across the field from each other until Friday night, when St. Paul played at Antelope Valley in a Southern Section Division III quarterfinal.
Second-seeded St. Paul won, 35-20, to give Ancich his 331st career victory, the second-highest total in California history behind Herb Meyer of Oceanside El Camino.
Newcomb has 204 victories as of the end of this season.
Ancich's teams won three section titles and appeared in five finals during his first stint at St. Paul from 1961 to 1981, and he guided Tustin to two championship games in nine seasons from 1984 to 1992.
Newcomb's Antelope Valley teams have won three section titles and appeared in six finals.
"Once it gets in your blood, it's hard to get out," Newcomb said. "I'm not a person who goes home and turns on a saw in the garage and starts wood projects. I'm not into painting or gardening. My hobby is football. My best friends are football coaches."
Like Newcomb, Ancich said he still gets a kick out of working with teenagers.
"I still enjoy the competitive experiences of the students," Ancich said. "It keeps your mind focused and you have the ability to watch guys grow up in front of you.
"To see them come back as adults is inspiring. Many of my former players have done some great things. You feel like you're helping them."
Many of Ancich's former players and assistants have coached in the Southland, including Dick Bruich of Fontana Kaiser, Pat Degnan of Quartz Hill, Tim Lins of Moorpark and former Cal State Northridge and Temescal Canyon coach Bob Burt. A "Family Tree" in the St. Paul program lists 116 coaches who either played or coached for Ancich.
"I don't think there's any coach in Southern California who doesn't have some tie to Marijon Ancich," Hernandez said. "He's kind of like the father of football in Southern California."
Ancich's personal family tree also has deep roots. He has seven children from two marriages and 27 grandchildren. His oldest child, daughter Joette McEntee, died last year at age 47 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
Many alumni remain loyal to St. Paul, returning to attend games and help with fund-raising projects. Some are drawn by the traditions initiated by Ancich and that continue to distinguish the Swordsmen program.
Players still embrace the school's pregame ritual. Dressed neatly in navy-blue blazers, gray slacks, light-blue dress shirts and St. Paul ties, they have traditionally enjoyed a meal of steak and potatoes with one stipulation — no talking.
The idea is to make the players focus on the game, and far more often than not, it's worked. Ancich has a career record of 331-117-10 and has won 18 league titles, 14 of them at St. Paul.
But Ancich acknowledged that getting his players' attention becomes increasingly difficult with each season.
"The most difficult thing is getting the information into their heads," he said. "Our strength has always been preparation, but that's really hard to do now. Everyone has these [video] games. The distractions are unbelievable."
Ancich, a 1955 San Pedro High graduate, started as an assistant at St. Paul in 1959, becoming the coach two years later.
After St. Paul capped a perfect 1981 season with a 30-9 victory over Colton in the Division I final, he accepted a job as offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona. But he soon grew weary of the college game and returned to Southern California after one year, helping out at Cerritos College for a season before becoming the coach at Tustin in 1984.
Tustin was 3-17 in the two seasons before his arrival. Under Ancich, the Tillers won four league titles and reached the playoffs seven times.
Despite his advancing age, Ancich still shoulders the bulk of the coaching duties for St. Paul.
"A lot of head coaches have coordinators left and right," Hernandez said. "He's basically the offensive and defensive coordinators. As assistant coaches, we implement it, but he does all the play-calling and sets the defense. He's still sharp as can be. I'm just glad I'm on his side."
Newcomb said he considers Ancich one of the three greatest coaches in the state, along with El Camino's Meyer and Bob Ladouceur of Concord De La Salle.
"It's really impressive what he's done for football," Newcomb said. "It's an honor for us to play against St. Paul."
It's not often when Newcomb has faced a more experienced coach. He started as an assistant at Antelope Valley in 1969, when the high-desert community was sparsely populated.
"We used to have alfalfa, mining and aerospace," Newcomb said. "Now we've got shopping malls and everyone drives to L.A. to work."
Newcomb learned many of his coaching techniques as an assistant under John Lowry, who guided Antelope Valley to section titles in 1976 and 1977 before resigning. Newcomb became coach the next season and soon distinguished himself.
His teams won a section title in 1981 and reached the final in 1985 and 1986. Perhaps the highlight of the 1986 season came when the Antelopes ended Canyon Country Canyon's 47-game winning streak, among the longest in state history, in a regular-season game at Antelope Valley.
It was "one of our greatest victories," Newcomb said.
Others would follow. Antelope Valley won Division II titles by beating Canyon in 1988 and Newhall Hart in 1994.
Newcomb had established a winning tradition, but his career appeared in jeopardy after he suffered a heart attack a few months after the 1997 season.
For a coach who had hinted at retirement in the past, it seemed a perfect time for Newcomb to step down. But any talk of retirement faded as Newcomb's health improved and Antelope Valley continued to enjoy success.
This is the fourth consecutive season the Antelopes have advanced at least to the quarterfinals. Newcomb's record is 204-109-3 with 11 league titles.
"He enjoys what he's doing," said Newcomb's son Brandon, the team's offensive coordinator. "We're still playing in big games. That's what it's all about."
Along the way, Newcomb has grown more understanding of his players, many of whom have little knowledge of the program's tradition.
"I've had to change a little bit," he said. "Our players used to have buzz haircuts and say, 'Yes, sir; no, sir.' We've had a lot of people move up from L.A. Now there's always a kid or a parent testing you."
Newcomb said he doesn't know when he'll stop coaching, but he does know what would make his final seasons easier on him.
"I'd probably be a lot better off if I had a golf cart," he said.
Informed that Ancich already uses a cart, he replied, "That's amazing. I've been thinking about getting one."
Just goes to show that great minds — and aging bodies — think alike.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times