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Popular Coach, a Commander on the Field, Returns to St. Paul : Football: Marijon Ancich is back, school pride is soaring, and it's only spring practice.

June 03, 1993|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA FE SPRINGS — Marijon Ancich returned last week to St. Paul High. He was back on the football field, site of his greatest triumphs, where he has always felt at home.

The veteran coach built the 1,100-student school into one of the most respected prep football powers in the country in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s. When he left at the end of the 1981 season, boosters held a wake.

This spring, Ancich, 54, who had been coaching at Tustin High, was coaxed back to St. Paul by alumni who yearned for a return to the days of Swordsmen glory.

"A gift from heaven," Ancich had said when offered the job.

Ancich averaged nine victories a season. Since he left, the team has had six winning years, six losing years and a 58-59-3 record. The number of boys playing the sport has steadily declined. Four coaches have come and gone in the last 12 years. Each found it difficult to live up to the expectations of boosters, who constantly reminded them of the good old days under Ancich.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 17, 1993 Home Edition Southeast Part J Page 6 Column 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Football record: St. Paul High School's football record in 1990 was 8-4-2. A story in the June 3 edition of The Times listed an incorrect record, based on information supplied by school officials.

"He was the one that started all the tradition there," said Ron Henke, who resigned as coach last winter and returned to his native Cincinnati after posting a two-year record of 8-14. "Everyone wanted to live up to what he did. I know I had a lot of respect for what Ancich started."

*

Founded in 1954 in the oil fields of Santa Fe Springs, St. Paul High remains a throwback to yesteryear. Players still address coaches as "sir" and wear coats and ties on game days. Several generations of families have attended the tight-knit Catholic school at which football has always played a major role.

"Football gives us a positive image in the community as a winner," Athletic Director Leo Gutierrez said.

Ancich, a Yugoslavia native who graduated from San Pedro High, came to St. Paul in 1961 and compiled a record of 188-37-6. In an era when relatively few teams qualified for the playoffs, he drove the Swordsmen to five Division I title games, winning three. From 1967 to 1977, St. Paul did not lose a home game.

"Marijon Ancich was the tradition at St. Paul High School," said Don Ward, former booster club vice president.

The Swordsmen played to standing-room crowds of 10,000 at Cranham Stadium, known as "The Pit" because St. Paul won 95% of the games played there.

In 1981, St. Paul went 14-0, set 30 school records and defeated Colton, 30-9, in the Big Five Conference title game before nearly 30,000 fans in Anaheim Stadium.

In addition to victories, Ancich's popularity stemmed from a strong belief in family values and a blend of pride, patience and discipline.

"When he was here, there was an aura," said Ed Begany, an assistant coach on the current team and a player on Ancich's last St. Paul team. "There was a lot of discipline and a lot of belief in what you could do."

Cordiality also was part of the Ancich legacy.

"No matter who you were, no matter what he was doing, Marijon would have time to talk to you," Ward said.

Bob Henry, a booster writing in a program for the team's football banquet after Ancich's last season, predicted that future coaches would have "a tough act to follow."

"Years from now, when historians look back on prep sports, the Ancich era at St. Paul will rank at the top because he was and is more than a coach," Henry wrote. "He has enriched and positively influenced our lives--especially those of our children--like few men have or will."

*

Saying it was time for a new challenge, Ancich left St. Paul to become offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. But the coach, accustomed to being in charge, found it difficult to work for someone else.

He left Flagstaff after less than a year. In 1983, he was a volunteer assistant at Cerritos College. In 1984, he was named coach at Tustin High, near his Orange County home. In nine seasons, Tustin was 55-27-2 and played in two CIF Southern Section title games. It also won its first league title in more than 30 years.

St. Paul, meanwhile, had become a revolving door for coaches who faced the specter of Ancich wherever they turned. Football was downgraded at the school by the CIF Southern Section from Division I to Division III in 1989, and the Swordsmen (8-4-1) lost in the 1990 division title game to Anaheim Esperanza.

The program was returned to the top level, Division I, in 1992, as the team became part of the revamped Del Rey League. St. Paul made the playoffs, but finished 5-6.

Running back Morris Luevano, a junior who gained more than 1,300 yards in all-purpose running in 1992, said the program was headed nowhere.

"We would fight with each other. We weren't together as a team," he said.

Discontented boosters had long lobbied for the return of Ancich. When Henke resigned, they once again confronted Father Robert J. Gallagher, the school principal.

"The idea was always resurrected about getting Coach Ancich back," Gallagher said. "Initially, I didn't feel it was the right move to make, because he had not been gone that long."

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