LONG BEACH — The band played, a baton twirled, a crown awaited a queen, players tensed for the kickoff and Gene (Skip) Rowland stood on the sidelines, true to his school in a cardinal blazer and as timeless as homecoming night itself at Wilson High School.
A Wilson Bruin most of his life--he was an All-CIF quarterback and later the football coach--Rowland looked at home as the game with Millikan High began last Friday night.
Precisely combed hair as white as the lights that looked down from the black sky and a V-neck sweater beneath the blazer gave him a nattiness that softened the gnarled look that is creeping in now that he is on the verge of 60.
Some of his former players, whose names he loves to tick off, had come "home" for the game and were up in the packed grandstand. He hoped they would come down.
Earlier in the day, Rowland had walked out to the school's little stadium for a pep rally, crossing the football field that was green except for muddy areas that had been covered with sawdust. "Same field I played on back in '43," he had said, referring to the year Wilson beat Poly for the first time, acquiring the name of Jinx Busters.
Field Didn't Look the Same
But the field didn't look the same to him. "Back then, by November you couldn't find a patch of grass," he had said.
At the rally, he had watched students in clown costumes run three-legged races and girls hug one another after being announced as princesses.
He had been fondly greeted by Joyce Van Zant, a dance teacher at the school who wore her old cardinal and gold Wilson cheerleading uniform that her mother had dug up.
And after chatting with former Wilson athletes in "W" jackets from the 1970s, he had lamented that letter jackets may become extinct because "they can cost up to $200 with all the decorations."
He had recalled having a letterman sweater, which "I sold the week I got out of school and took the money and went to the race track."
When the rally had ended and the students were filing past him, spreading the excitement that always gets to him, he had said, "Pretty nice school, huh?"
The day before homecoming, Rowland was in his office in the physical education building, where for 30 years he has listened to the bells vibrate outside the locker room to commence gym classes.
His cabinets hold the files of members, including himself, of Wilson's Athletic Hall of Fame. "This has been a great school, with great athletic teams," he said.
Rowland came to Long Beach in 1943 from Cincinnati and went on to play football at UCLA. He returned to Wilson in 1951 and has been there since, except for 1955-56 when he coached College of the Pacific. On his wall is a picture of Raiders Coach Tom Flores, whom Rowland coached at Pacific, with the inscription: "To Skip, my former coach and good friend."
Had Consistently Winning Teams
Rowland was head football coach at Wilson from 1951 to 1954 and from 1957 to 1963, an era when Wilson had 4,000 students, twice as many as now, and consistently winning teams. Then he was a longtime assistant football coach and also coached baseball for 14 seasons. He is ending his career as the golf coach.
He said he does not miss coaching football. He would rather play golf than put in the time required to analyze films. And his enthusiasm began to ebb in the 1970s when he realized that players had become less dedicated.
"You almost had to force kids to play, which is no fun," he said. "They should be playing because they love it."
Rowland has decided to retire next June.
"It's been fun watching generation after generation come through here," he said. "You're bound to miss it, but I think I've had a long enough run."
The game was tied, 7-7, when three of Rowland's old boys from the mid 1960s--Jeff Severson, Lenny Gaeta and Todd Key--descended on him. They talked about Wilson glory days.
"We had the horses, didn't we, Skip?" Key said.
"We had a few people who could play," Rowland agreed.
"In my three years our teams were 27-3-1, super teams," Key said. "When I played they hadn't lost a game on this field for five years; when we lost a game here it was devastating."
"It's changed," Severson said.
They joked about Gaeta catching passes with his "thick pasta fingers."
They talked about the Wilson greats--Bobby Grich, Dennis Dummit, Sid Smith, Ron Fujikawa, Jeff Burroughs, Dale Nosworthy and Terry DeKraii--and they talked about "The Skipper," as Grich used to call Rowland.
"He's a legend," said Severson, who was an NFL defensive back, of Rowland: "You never even thought about not doing anything he said. He was a disciplinarian just by his presence. We were in awe of him; it was like going to play for Lombardi. The tradition came through."
"That's why we're here tonight," Key said. "The tradition is still here."
Rowland, recalling a play in the first quarter, asked: "If we'd have had the ball down here on the 5-yard line, what would we have called?"
"Batter and bull," his three former players answered together.
When they went back into the stands, Rowland said, "I recognized Lenny Gaeta and Severson. I saw Key and it took me a little while for the name to come back. Oh, was he tough, a good linebacker. My wife can't understand how I can forget her birthday, but I never forget a good team or a good player."
And Rowland easily recognized 80-year-old Horace Smitheran, who came down to reminisce.
"He scored the school's first touchdown in 1926," Rowland said.
It was late in the game and Wilson was wrapping up a 21-7 victory.
"Ball! Ball!" Rowland shouted to the Wilson defensive backs when a pass was thrown. "Nice pop," he said when a Bruin made a hard tackle.
Wilson players were muddy, grass-stained and happy. Cheerleaders with flowers in their hair kept yelling. The band kept playing.
And Rowland enjoyed the final seconds of his last homecoming on the sidelines, standing with his arms folded, breathing the sweet stench of damp earth, spitting and yelling like he did 30 years ago . . . a coach forever.