In his early years at Santa Clara High School, Lou Cvijanovich would sometimes line his players in front of a mirror in the locker room at halftime. "Take a hard look at your faces," Cvijanovich would bellow, his own face lit with intensity. "Are you proud of yourselves? Are you playing the best game you can possibly play?"
Cvijanovich, who at 62 now uses a somewhat softer approach, has taken a hard look at himself recently after suffering through the most embarrassing controversy of his 31 years as Santa Clara's basketball coach.
And there are unshakable voices in the background--an unsettling chorus of accusers and ax-grinders bent on drawing blood from a coach recognized as one of the winningest in the United States.
"The incident," as he refers to it, occurred during the last week of December, but it gnawed at Cvijanovich (pronounced Cee-YAWN-o-vich) until Feb. 16, when sanctions were handed down by the CIF-Southern Section, a governing body of athletics for 470 Southland high schools.
And as his team prepares for the Southern Section 2-A Division championship game Saturday, he would rather the incident be forgotten much the way he tells his players to forget bad passes and stupid fouls. Learn from a mistake, he preaches, then put it behind you and push on.
"Thank God it's over. Let me start anew," Cvijanovich pleads. "I've been tormented enough. You wouldn't believe what I've been through over this."
The trouble began Dec. 28, when Cvijanovich refused to bring his team back for the last two days of a tournament at Estancia High after the Saints blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead against Edison and lost, 39-38. The officiating, by all accounts, was atrocious. Cvijanovich, whose ample horse sense constantly wrestles his impulse to stampede, reasoned that anybody can be robbed, but only a fool returns to the scene a day later.
Breaking a written contract with the tournament was deemed outrageous by the Southern Section executive committee, which after hearing testimony from tournament officials and Cvijanovich, placed the entire Santa Clara athletic program on probation for 16 months. In addition, the basketball team is barred from playing in regular-season tournaments next season and the school must compensate Estancia High for revenues lost by virtue of Santa Clara's two forfeited games.
Outrage was also the reaction of several opposing coaches and the media. Just more proof, it was repeated, that Cvijanovich rules Santa Clara with an iron hand but believes himself above the rules. "Some say he had it coming," said the coach of a team that is regularly beaten by Santa Clara. A column Feb. 5 in the Ventura Star-Free Press asked if high school basketball needs its own Bobby Knight, denouncing Cvijanovich for leaving the tournament and for not allowing his players to speak with reporters.
Yet, for all his bluster, Cvijanovich has drawn a fiercely loyal following. Many Ventura County coaches learned their trade under him. Ex-players express little other than admiration for him and one, Thomas S. Johnson, wrote a biography of Cvijanovich titled, "More Than A Coach."
And nobody can deny that he's a winner.
His basketball teams have a record of 592-202, making him the winningest continuously active coach in the West behind Ralph Tasker of Hobbs, N. M. Cvijanovich's teams have won about 75% of the games he's coached in three sports--more than 850 victories in all.
"Talk to any coach around and they'll confirm that Lou Cvijanovich is the class of the high school coaching ranks," says UCLA basketball coach Jim Harrick, who lives in Newbury Park and has scouted Santa Clara players for many years. "I saw his team play two weeks ago. His kids play great defense and any player from Santa Clara will be disciplined and fundamentally sound. In college, that can save a year of instruction."
John Reardon, the Rio Mesa High football coach of 21 years, is second in service only to Cvijanovich among active coaches in the county. He began coaching as an assistant at Santa Clara in 1963 and '64. "Lou is an institution," Reardon says. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be coaching or teaching. He was a role model for me and I follow his philosophies to this day."
Cvijanovich's nature is as expansive as his career has been distinguished and he cements friendships through rituals of food and drink at such Oxnard establishments as Sam's Saloon, which is owned by two of his sons.
Lou's teams usually win, and Lou always buys.
"A good time to me is sitting down with a great bunch of people, eating dinner and having a couple drinks," he says. "Breaking bread and drinking with people, somehow there is a change of heart and a change of mind. World leaders ought to do that, I'm convinced. There would be a lot more peace in the world."