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Reign Won't Go Away

Mater Dei's McKnight may not move to next level, but in high school, like him or not, he is king with 17 Southern Section titles in 21 years.

March 11, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

He snaps at officials, squabbles with other coaches and isn't happy unless he gets his way -- which seems to be most of the time.

Meet Gary McKnight, 50, music fan, self-deprecating humorist, cancer survivor, wannabe baseball coach and controversial leader of the high school boys' basketball program by which, in Southern California, all others are judged.

On Saturday, Santa Ana Mater Dei won its 17th Southern Section divisional championship in McKnight's 21 seasons. Tonight, the top-seeded Monarchs play Bakersfield Highland in the first round of the Southern California Regionals, four steps away from what would be their fifth state championship during McKnight's reign.

Care to bet against him? His Mater Dei teams have won 637 of 694 games, a .918 percentage.

Not bad for a guy who wasn't a star athlete but who learned as a teenager that diagraming the perfect play could be as gratifying as making that play -- just as long as in the end he came out a winner.

"He's a competitor," said Santa Margarita Coach Jerry DeBusk, whose teams are 0-8 against McKnight's Monarchs in the last four years. "I don't care if it's basketball or Little League baseball. He wants to win."

And win he does, though at a price.

"Gary's almost created a different world than what we have going," said Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley's Brian Mulligan, coach of the last Orange County team to defeat Mater Dei -- on Jan. 30, 1998. "It's a ridiculously pressure-filled world, and Gary gets looked at differently because of that."

Especially at times such as now, when, with three senior starters with NCAA Division I scholarships in his starting lineup, he knows there are great expectations.

"There's pressure with teams like this year's," McKnight acknowledged, "because we should win a state title."

'No-Nonsense' Mentor

Growing up, McKnight and his friends played baseball on the streets of Inglewood with a plastic bat and a Wiffle ball, using chalk to color in makeshift bases and pitching to each other until their arms turned to rubber.

When the bat cracked or the ball broke, the kids taped them back together and kept playing.

McKnight's sports heroes were Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and Vin Scully, but his family was of modest means; if they went to Dodger Stadium once a season it was a big deal.

He liked basketball, but it wasn't his passion. He wasn't particularly good at it, either.

Trying out for the San Clemente junior varsity after his family moved, he got cut. "He was lacking size, speed," Coach Stan DeMaggio recalled.

In baseball, McKnight was a solid first baseman and outfielder, but a broken right ankle limited his production as a senior and in two subsequent seasons at Saddleback College.

They were formative years anyway, because he observed perhaps his most influential mentor -- the late Marshall Adair, San Clemente's baseball coach.

"He had a drive and desire and toughness to him that I really modeled a lot of my coaching after," McKnight said. "He was a no-nonsense guy but could joke with you and get you laughing."

McKnight became a coach as a junior in high school, starting with youth football, then in a Boys' Club basketball league. A few years later, he was hired to coach the freshman basketball team at San Clemente. Next came stints coaching baseball at Laguna Beach High and basketball at Saddleback College and Huntington Beach Ocean View High.

"I liked him right away," recalled Jim Harris, Ocean View's varsity coach. "I watched his teams and they played to win. Man, they got after it."

McKnight coached the freshman and junior varsity teams to a combined 82-11 record and won a league championship in each of his four seasons.

He also was caught going overboard in an effort to win.

One year, McKnight had a sophomore sharpshooter who teammates ushered to the free-throw line even when he wasn't the one who got fouled. The player made 19 free throws in one game, still a school record.

Harris was livid when he found out. "There's no glory in winning unless everyone plays by the same rules," he told McKnight and the team.

A Winner; A Target

Harris and McKnight remain friends, but the Ocean View coach's words have become the mantra for critics of Mater Dei's basketball program.

Few of McKnight's detractors wish to be quoted by name, but their complaints have become familiar over the years.

McKnight, they say, has a sweet deal. The school, which is private and has a sterling academic record, attracts top athletes throughout Southern California -- many of them transfers who, in some years, have been accepted despite long waiting lists for new students.

The school won't say how many of its basketball players are allowed breaks on tuition -- which this year is $6,225 for Catholics and $7,050 for non-Catholics.

He also has a legion of assistant coaches and a lucrative contract with sports apparel giant Nike, which pays him a consultant's fee and supplies Monarch players with the latest shoes and gear, free.

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