It is easy to understand why Dwain Thornton had mixed emotions when he accepted the job as football coach at Muir High in Pasadena after last season.
He was excited to be taking over one of the most successful programs in Southern California. But the 49-year-old Thornton also knew about the pressure and responsibility that came with the package.
"It's much more difficult to come into a winning tradition and try to fill the shoes of a legend," Thornton said. "I liken it stepping in for John Wooden."
The winning tradition of Thornton's predecessor, Jim Brownfield, may not quite compare with the Wizard of Westwood but it is every bit as legendary to supporters of the Mustangs.
In 10 years, Brownfield's teams posted a 94-22-3 record, made the playoffs nine times, won five Pacific League titles including four in a row, captured back-to-back CIF Coastal Conference championships the last two years and entered this season with a 24-game winning streak--longest active streak in the Southern Section.
Indeed, Brownfield has left Thornton with a tough act to follow. But so far Thornton has risen to the challenge. The Mustangs have won their first two games to increase the streak to 26 heading into a showdown with L. A. City powerhouse Banning at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Pasadena City College.
As for pressure, Thornton says he hasn't felt it--yet.
"The pressures are put on me by me," the La Crescenta resident said. "There's no pressure put on me by the parents, the community or anybody else. It's just by me."
Thornton said he was surprised when approached about the position early last season. He had been an assistant football coach 10 years earlier and was teaching at Muir.
"Vice Principal Don Cooke asked me if I'd be interested in taking over the football team, and I thought he was kidding and laughed it off and went home," he recalled. "I told my wife and she said, 'Well, maybe he's serious.'
"So I asked him if he was serious and he said yes. He told me that Jim Brownfield was having health problems and may not be able to keep coaching. I told him I was interested but still didn't take it too seriously."
It was a few days after the season ended that Thornton received word that Brownfield was taking a leave of absence and he would be the new coach.
"They couldn't officially say anything to me until after the season," Thornton said. "It wasn't until the Monday after they won the CIF that they told me."
Brownfield's decision to leave may have triggered disappointment at first among Muir's returning players. One potential starter, quarterback Chip Edwards, transferred to South Pasadena High. But, Thornton said, "I don't know if it was because of that" and added that he has been accepted by his team and school officials.
"The players certainly made me feel that way," Thornton said. "We're such a young team that we didn't have many players who played under Brownfield, and the kids that did return were easy to work with and just wanted to play football."
Thornton, who has taught auto mechanics and computers at Muir for 20 years and was also a football and baseball assistant for 10 years, realizes that his familiarity with the program may have helped him get the job.
"I think one of the reasons they chose me is that I wasn't someone new. They knew me and I was familiar with the program."
But Thornton said there is not much common ground between his team and Brownfield's. Most of the starters from last year have graduated, there is an entirely new coaching staff and the formations on offense and defense have changed.
Not that Thornton does not have some of the same built-in problems that Brownfield faced. "Muir has always been kind of small and fast and you try to set up your offensive scheme to fit that," he said.
Thornton attempted to remedy the size problem by searching the campus for big players, which helps explain why the Mustangs have one of their biggest offensive lines in recent years with an average size of 235 pounds.
"I went out and got the big bodies," he said. "If I saw a big body, I talked to them and tried to convince them to play, and in most cases they did. But the kids I'm going with aren't really that big. I would rather have a 200-pound athlete who's built well and is quick than a 260-pounder who's big and slow."
The increased size on the line may help the Mustangs against their next two opponents--Banning and Antelope Valley--who have huge interior lines. Banning's offensive line averages about 260.
Those are two opponents that will certainly put Muir's 26-game winning streak to the test. But Thornton said maintaining the streak is a secondary consideration.
"You hear it now and then but mostly from the public and the media," he said. "It's exciting to them, but the way I look at it we're 2-0 and that's the only streak we're concerned about. The other one is there but we don't bring it up with the players.
"We have our team goals and the streak isn't one of them. I would like it to continue but I have to be realistic."