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An American Ideal : Millikan Coach Teaches Patriotism and Moral Values Along With History and What Wins Football Games

September 18, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

Girls in short cheerleading skirts yelled and danced in a swirling frenzy of Millikan High School blue and gold. Dave Radford, the football coach who minutes earlier in his role as history teacher had tried to convey the importance of a 16th-Century philosopher, stood amused and amazed by endless waves of these people he calls pepsters.

"I'm trying to teach Cervantes, and this is what's really happening," Radford said. "It's like a Wagnerian opera. Here come the gold-star dancers. Watch out."

To music, another frantic group performed in front of students happy to be out of class, out under trees, socializing.

This was a rally the morning before last Friday night's Milk Bowl, an annual preseason scrimmage involving teams in the Moore League. The football players, wearing their jerseys, sat transfixed by the swirling on the stage above them.

He Played Center at Millikan

Radford, his hands in his jacket pockets, was a 47-year-old in a sea of adolescents. Thirty years ago, when this school first opened in Long Beach and there were maybe five cheerleaders, he played center for the Millikan Rams.

"This school cannot go back (to classes) until every one of these girls has performed her deal," Radford said. "Sometimes we have parents with video cameras here. We are a cheerleader's school. Sometimes they forget to announce the team."

But because pep rallies are richly American, Radford can forgive such transgressions.

Here was a man who calls the "Star-Spangled Banner" "my favorite song, tied right there with 'Amazing Grace.' " He lectures on history from beneath an American flag. He says the Revolutionary War is "the best coaching manual ever invented." His favorite 20th-Century American is Dwight Eisenhower--"a warrior, an educator, a good family man," said Radford, who believes he, too, is all three.

And, to complete the patriotic package, Radford loves football.

With Whistle and Clipboard

On a recent afternoon, the daily metamorphosis from history teacher to coach having again occurred, Radford roamed the Millikan football field, surveying practice through little blue, half-closed eyes. He had a whistle and a clipboard. His black hair, which in morning history class was freshly combed, was disheveled beneath a baseball cap. A bulging stomach, hidden earlier by a lectern, kept his shirt from staying tucked in. The voice that came from a small, thin-lipped mouth was much louder than when he explained Cervantes in Room 424. His face, pink then, was red.

On that field, flanked by bleachers and 22 tall palm trees, Radford and his assistants taught football skills.

His forte, though, is instilling in his players the values he cherishes--of school, community and home.

"There's more to life than just blocking and tackling, although that's pretty important," Radford had said before the practice. "We like to have kids be good students and joys to their families. We keep things in proper perspective."

The day before the pep rally, he had told the team: "You are going to have to walk away from outrageous actions. There's no excuse for any of us to be involved in any incident on campus. You are several cuts above the average."

Exemplary Conduct Expected

If that sounded preachy, sometimes that is the way it is.

"We let them see a bigger picture of where they fit," Radford explained. "Playing football at Millikan does not give them privileges, it gives them additional responsibilities. They have to be leaders in carrying out school rules; they have to be in the forefront of what's right.

"The main thing I want is to have people say, 'That's a typical Millikan team.' To me, there's no better compliment. We're a 'yes, sir, no, sir' program. We dress well, we conduct ourselves as gentlemen. We go to our pregame meal at Sizzler and three or four adult patrons will come up and compliment the coaches on how well the kids behave."

In 1956, when Radford was hiking the ball and first starting to like Ike, Millikan won the CIF championship. That was the birth, he likes to believe, of a special tradition.

"At homecoming, we have guys who played here do a 20-, 30-second deal before we go out (to play)," Radford said. "There's tears everywhere. It's such a feeling to see the continuity of what you're trying to do. These kids see successful guys who played here two years ago or 25 years ago saying how important it was to play football at Millikan. You can't buy it. You can't duplicate it. Our gardener here is a Millikan guy. He'll do anything for me. I'll do anything for him--keep guys off the field or pick spurs out of the grass."

'Everybody's Friendly Here'

Behind Radford, up in the stands, two cheerleaders--one black, one white--watched practice. "Look at those two," Radford said. "Everybody's friendly here. It's been fun to watch Millikan change its racial balance. We've got kids with swimming pools and kids without sinks; we've got 'em all, but they're all Rams first."

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