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Mayhem's Architect

September 22, 2002|STEVE CLOW | Steve Clow is a Times assistant National editor.

Of the hundreds of football games he has coached, this one sticks with Don Markham the way you'd remember a haywire cash machine spitting out stacks of twenties. It was 1986, and his Riverside Ramona High Rams were a sloppy bunch. ''We went out there with 19 or 20 kids . . . I had no more linemen. I had to grab a PE student and put him in for a week, and I remember he wore sweats under his pants. We were ragtag and we looked terrible. And we played a real good football team.''

The opponent was Damien High of La Verne, and even one of Markham's assistant coaches ''thought we were going to get killed by this team.'' By halftime, however, Ramona had built a 52-0 lead, and the nervous assistant had changed his tune, telling Markham giddily: ''Coach, we oughta go to jail for what we're about to do here.'' Ramona won 68-12, which Markham recalls with amazement: ''We, with not much, just annihilated them. Our system was rolling.''

And it has rolled ever since.

Markham's system is called the double wing, a blend of the old--a Vince Lombardi-style running attack--with the downright prehistoric--an intricate shell-game deception from the leather-helmet era. It bears little resemblance to the pass-intensive West Coast offense that now dominates the sport: no wide receivers, nine men tightly bunched at the line of scrimmage, constant motion and a quarterback who blocks on almost every play. Telegenic glamour boys need not apply.

Double-wing advocates say that in his years of tinkering within football's DNA, Markham--unlike most high school coaches--has actually managed to decode a few of its genetic secrets, creating a virulent new offensive strain. He unveiled it for that 1986 season, deciding it was time to see if the touchdowns came as easily when the chalkboard Xs and Os were real, live, imperfect teenagers banging helmets on Friday nights. Success was instantaneous, and contagious. It has made the former cop something of a guru among youth and high school football coaches around the nation.

After four years at Ramona he took his act to Bandon, Ore., where he inherited a team that had not had a winning season since 1968. The Bandon team began scoring 70 and 80 points in a game. State athletic officials responded by enacting a 45-point ''mercy'' provision that some still call ''the Markham rule.'' Returning to Southern California in 1994, Markham guided Bloomington High to a perfect 14-0 season in which it broke the national high school scoring record (since eclipsed), averaging 63 points per game. It was a moment of glory for the Inland Empire school, which held onto Markham for three more seasons. Overall, his double-wing teams have won 143 games while losing 38.

Thousands of high schools play football; a few hundred have adopted the double wing, according to those who have promoted it through Web sites, videos, clinics and a book. Advocates say it is easy to teach and enables teams with poor or mediocre talent to compete with stronger rivals, giving long-suffering programs a chance for instant success. ''I guess cult is a bad word in your part of the world, but it is cultish,'' says Jack Tourtillotte, principal and offensive coordinator at Maine's Boothbay Region High, the 2001 class C state champs. ''I have coached 31 years, and I would never run anything different.''

It is a triumph of system over athleticism, relying on gutty, hard-nosed kids who will buy into it in the absence of a roster full of future college stars--even if the buying-into part doesn't always occur right away. "My sense is that if [Markham] goes to a new city, a lot of the kids are ambivalent at best," says Gary Etcheverry, head coach of the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts and a longtime Markham fan. "He, in almost every case, is wildly successful in that first game. Kids who were ambivalent walk off the field in a daze."

But as the offense has grown, so has the backlash. Parents complain that their sons' individual talents as passers or receivers are obscured by the relentless running plays. Fans say the action is difficult to follow, and even some double-wing coaches consider it boring or inelegant. In the lockstep, TV-influenced world of football theory, the double wing is hopelessly uncool.

''Generally, it's not in vogue. You won't see it on Sunday afternoon or on Monday Night Football. To be quite truthful, it's rather boring,'' says Phil Bravo, head coach at Monarch High School outside Boulder, Colo. And he loves the double wing, having won 11 league championships in 16 years. So does Jerry Vallotton, assistant football coach at Foothill High near Redding and author of ''The Toss,'' a double-wing how-to dedicated in part to Markham. Vallotton acknowledges that the offense is ''about as artistic as sumo wrestling.''

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