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HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL

Marijon Ancich is still up to old tricks

Now in his third tour of duty at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul, where his legendary coaching career started, he is teaching young men about the sport and life.

September 22, 2009|Ben Bolch

Marijon Ancich barely moved, his expression never changing.

The white-haired football coach from Santa Fe Springs St. Paul High showed no emotion as his team converted on fourth down early in a recent game against Whittier Pioneer.

Ancich remained similarly stoic after quarterback Paul Lopez salvaged a broken play by passing for a touchdown.

But this riled him: Leading by two touchdowns, his team was penalized for a false start.

"What the hell is going on?" the suddenly animated coach bellowed as he hobbled along the sideline on his balky right knee.

It was vintage Ancich -- taking the good in stride, fuming over perceived lack of discipline -- exactly what those who know California's winningest high school football coach have come to expect.

"The only time he gets mad," said Don Ward, who has roamed the sideline as a photographer at St. Paul games for 37 years, "is if a guy makes a mental mistake."

Ancich is three games into his third stint as coach at St. Paul, where he started in 1961. He has won 72.5% of his games overall and logged 281 of his state-record 346 victories in 35 years with the Swordsmen. Ancich leads Concord De La Salle's Bob Ladouceur by one victory going into Friday's home game against Lancaster Paraclete.

These days, though, milestone victories seem to stir the players more than the coach himself. After St. Paul defeated Los Angeles Garfield this season, players shouted "Three forty-five! Three forty-five!"

Ancich just went about his business. He says he returned to St. Paul to win a different numbers game: The school has only 625 students, less than half than in its heyday in the 1980s. The number of boys is 290; in 1973, 273 came out for spring football.

The decline prompted an aggressive marketing campaign intended to help enrollment reach 1,000 within five years, with Ancich a central figure in the movement.

"He's the winningest coach in California," Principal Lori Barr said. "That itself brings a level of interest that no other school can bring."

Defensive tackle Mark Cabral said he got goose bumps when he heard the legendary coach was coming back for his senior year. Lopez, the senior quarterback, said he was thrilled he could play for the same man who coached his father in the 1970s, and even more pleased to learn that Ancich had incorporated more passing in his offense over the years.

"Back then it was six yards and a cloud of dust," Lopez said, referring to his father's playing days. "Just shut up and run the ball -- power, power, power. You know we're going to run; try and stop it."

Ancich still calls the Swordsmen's offensive plays, but he would more readily divulge his playbook than his age.

"Let's just put it this way: I'm leaning on the number seven," he said with a chuckle. "I'm going to get near that 70."

If Ancich was 22 when he graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1959, then that would put him in the neighborhood of 72. Barr said she knows Ancich's age but won't tell. Anton Felando, a longtime friend, joked that a trip to the coach's native Croatia might be required to determine his actual age.

Ancich's wife, Jacquie, shoots a how-dare-you-ask look when pressed. "You won't get that answer out of me," she said. "He'll get a divorce."

Those who have been part of Ancich's three tours at St. Paul -- he also coached the Swordsmen from 1961 to 1981 and from 1993 to 2005 -- say, however old he is, the coach is as active as ever. He assembles detailed practice plans, runs "chalk talk" sessions with players and returns home around 11 p.m. to complete his second or third crossword puzzle of the day.

His words also still hold gravity.

"He can make a guy like me that's 5-6 feel like I'm 6-5," said running backs coach Lou Cabral, who was a third-string tailback at St. Paul in the early 1980s. "When we look at the film, we don't know how we did it, but we did it because he said we could do it. Unbelievable."

Cabral said Ancich's ability to instill confidence in his players extends beyond the high school football field.

"That goes on to your college and your workplace," Cabral said. "You believe it here, you're going to believe it after you leave here."

Paul Lopez Sr. said Ancich's presence was comparable to that of the college coach he played for -- Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant.

"That was one of the reasons I went back there," Lopez said, "because I figured I played for a legend in California, so I might as well try to play for a legend in college."

Longtime observers say Ancich hasn't changed much, but he says he has made some adjustments. He has had to. The days of "yes, sir" and "no, sir" are mostly gone and teachers and coaches compete with iPods and Blackberrys for students' attention.

"The climate has changed and it's a little harder to get things done," Ancich said. "It isn't where you just coach. You have to be a psychologist, a referee and about everything now."

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