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Return to Power : Former Coach Ancich Has Led Revival of Football Program at St. Paul High

October 21, 1994|ERIC SHEPARD | TIMES PREP SPORTS EDITOR

It is an hour before kickoff and already the bleachers are filling up at St. Paul High in Santa Fe Springs. Parking is at such a premium that many neighbors have converted their driveways and lawns into lots and are making a little side money. Fans have to wait in long lines to buy tickets, and a program full of local ads costs a hefty $3.

All of this, though, is welcomed by the blue-collar community nestled between Whittier and Norwalk along I-605. Until last season, St. Paul had gone through an 11-year drought in football, and finding a seat at a home game was no problem.

During the losing spell, fans tended to reminisce about happier times. For 20 years, until 1981, the football team was a power in the Southland. Coach Marijon Ancich had a glittering record of 188-31-5, four undefeated seasons and three Southern Section titles. Kids in the area grew up dreaming of playing for the Swordsmen.

Things peaked in 1981, when St. Paul defeated Colton, 30-9, in the championship game before 30,000 at Anaheim Stadium and finished at 14-0. Ancich then surprised everybody by leaving to become the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The boisterous booster club held a wake.

That wake, for all practical purposes, lasted until last season, when Ancich returned. Hundreds of friends and supporters turned out for a welcome-back party that reportedly raised thousands of dollars.

"Marijon is obviously like the messiah coming back," said Steve Grady, the veteran coach at Loyola, another Catholic powerhouse.

Ancich, 56, is revered at St. Paul. His program was often mentioned among the best in the nation. Local Pop Warner, elementary and junior high football coaches knew his system and used it with their teams.

The four coaches who succeeded Ancich could never escape his shadow.

"Everyone wanted to live up to what he did," said Ron Henke, St. Paul's coach in 1991 and '92 who had a record of 8-14. "He was the one that started all the tradition. I know I had a lot of respect for what he did."

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St. Paul was opened in 1954. Ancich, a native of Yugoslavia who graduated from San Pedro High, often scouted for the football team while working as a longshoreman before becoming its coach in 1961.

In an era when relatively few teams made the playoffs, St. Paul was a frequent visitor, playing in five title games. From 1967-77, the team did not lose a home game.

The school's field, Cranham Stadium, seats 4,500, but crowds twice that size were not uncommon. The turf, Ancich's pride and joy, was immaculate.

Ancich earned a reputation as a stickler for detail, putting in 90 or more hours a week in preparation for that weekend's game. He was described as a strong disciplinarian who demanded respect.

His departure left a void. The football team was dropped from the prestigious Division I to III and had four losing seasons. Enrollment dropped from a peak of 1,500 in the early 1980s to a little more than 900 in 1993.

Ancich did not even last a season at Northern Arizona, admitting later that the move had been a mistake. He eventually signed to coach at Tustin High, where, beginning in 1984, he spent nine years rebuilding the football program. The Tillers won four league titles and advanced to two championship games during that time.

In the meantime, St. Paul supporters were putting pressure on administrators to bring Ancich back. When Henke resigned after the '92 season, Father Robert Gallagher agreed it was time to go after Ancich.

"A gift from heaven," Ancich said when offered the job. "In the back of my mind I had always hoped I would return someday."

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At his first meeting with St. Paul players last year, Ancich received a five-minute standing ovation. Former assistant coaches and players held a golf tournament in his honor and praised his return.

The impact was immediate. The football team, back to Division I status, finished the regular season 7-3 and nearly upset Mater Dei in the first round of the playoffs.

A team that had been out of the media spotlight was suddenly back in the headlines. Enrollment is back to more than 1,000, with this year's freshman class the largest in 10 years.

"If I had $250,000 to spend, I could not have bought better advertising for the school," Gallagher said. "Football is an important part of any school, and the team has certainly lifted the spirits around here. Instead of having to make cuts, we're growing."

That emphasis on football also draws criticism. Some question putting athletics over academics. Ancich's record has drawn accusations of recruiting, and many outsiders question his tactics.

Football players get special privileges at St. Paul, including top priority in the weight room. Ancich is regarded as a workaholic who keeps coaches away from their families during the season and requires too much time of his players.

He is not reluctant to chew out a player during a game, often resorting to various forms of intimidation.

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