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Sunny Game Days of Yore Shine on Poly's Landreth

February 06, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The old coach, 81, who was the star of the reunion, moved slowly on the banquet room carpet through men only a little younger, men he had inspired so long ago. He smiled when they all said how marvelous he looked, but in front of a blown-up photo of himself as a young coach, Orian Landreth said, "I don't recognize the guy."

It was hard to. Then and now, separated by 60 years. And time, always the rascal, could have another laugh.

The man in the photo taken in 1926 was dark, handsome, 21 and in his first season as football coach at Poly High School. He wore a V-necked sweater over a shirt and tie and had thick, curly black hair that was combed high on his forehead in the style of the day.

But most of that hair is gone now, and Landreth's head, like most of the others in the room, reflected the ceiling lights. What was left was restricted to the sides and was no longer dark. He laughed about that.

Landreth wore glasses and a tan suit, which, like his face, had few wrinkles. He conceded the hair loss but not much else, except that he is two inches shorter now then when he stood 5 feet 9.

Same Weight Maintained

"I weigh 176," he said with pride.

The same as the young coach in the photo weighed.

"I swim, play golf, go hiking," he explained.

The reunion, at the Long Beach Elks Lodge, was for former Poly High athletes of an era preserved in sadly graying black-and-white photos, which never convey that there was golden sunshine then, and these men had their day in it.

Especially Landreth, who built championship teams while coaching football, basketball, baseball and track at Poly for 12 years.

Not everyone could come.

"I have attended funerals of at least six or seven of my football players," Landreth said.

Pounding still-sturdy shoulders and having the guys come up to him and say, "Put me in, coach," just like they did when they wore leather helmets, made Landreth happy. But he carried an underlying sadness.

"You look great," he was told many times.

"Wish I could say the same for my wife," he would reply in a hushed voice, "She can barely walk. The disease is so painful."

Frances Landreth, who has the bone disease osteoporosis, couldn't attend the reunion but belonged there. She was a student at Poly in the 1920s. They have been married more than 60 years.

Landreth was a fat baby who reminded his father of a toad the way he hopped around the family's farmhouse in Macksville, Kan.

And so he was stuck with "Toad" as a nickname, although he didn't resemble one for long.

"You develop early or you don't live through all that hard work on a wheat farm," Landreth said at the reunion. "I was doing a man's work at 12 years old."

He played end at Friends University in Wichita, where he met Frances, who then moved with her family to Long Beach. They would be reunited a few years later.

Landreth went from Friends to the University of Illinois, where he studied coaching for a year. He moved to California in 1924 when he got a job at a junior high in San Diego, where he watered and marked the football field as well as coached.

His first Poly team--one of the players was a year older than he--won four games and lost five in 1926 but the next year the Jackrabbits won the Southern California championship.

"I won 23 championships in 12 years," Landreth said. "Every player I coached gave 100%. All I wanted was desire and loyalty. We had a motto, 'The team that won't be beaten can't be beaten.' "

After leaving Poly, he coached football at the University of Arizona and football and track at Long Beach City College, where he was dean of student affairs.

For 33 years he was a college and pro football referee.

"I worked three, four Rose Bowls and a Cotton Bowl," he said.

"I called back Jon Arnett's 96-yard touchdown kickoff return in the USC-UCLA game in 1956 because five Trojans were offside."

And Jess Hill, the USC coach who was Landreth's golf partner, never let him forget it, Landreth said with a laugh.

When his former players gathered around Landreth in front of the old photo, the old coach accepted their compliments with modesty.

"All I ever did was get the footballs all out there and see if the uniforms fit," he said.

And the others, who knew better, smiled.

Dick Berryman, 70, who came from Paradise, Calif., for the reunion, said, "Believe me, this man had the ability to develop raw talent."

Berryman, a retired petroleum engineer who filled out his burgundy sweater and looked as powerful as the fullback he once was, said it was Landreth's demeanor that stood out the most.

"He could express himself in the English language without using swear words," Berryman said.

And Landreth confirmed, "I never cursed a boy in my life."

But, Berryman emphasized, "He could growl at us."

Especially if a player was not making good grades. Landreth tried to get his players college scholarships.

"A lot of our team went to college," Berryman said.

"I'm prouder of that than all the championships," Landreth said.

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