Gary McKnight has been reviled and revered, and the image of him in his trademark red sweater might be the single-most identifiable boys basketball icon in Orange County. But McKnight's world is bigger than Santa Ana and its suburbia, and on Jan. 18 he became the winningest boys basketball coach in California.
His landmark victory came in the birthplace of basketball, against another of the nation's iconic prep programs, while Mater Dei was an uncharacteristic underdog.
Mater Dei defeated previously unbeaten Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha, 79-71, in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., on Martin Luther King Day. The Monarchs were an underdog before winning on national television. Mater Dei, now ranked No. 11 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25, had been No. 17; DeMatha (16-1) dropped from No. 5 to No. 14.
The victory made McKnight 844-77 (91.6 percent) in his career, the last 28 years spent at Mater Dei. Before that, he was head coach coach at Huntington Beach Ocean View, and an assistant at San Clemente and Saddleback Community College under the late Bill Mulligan, who died Jan. 12 at age 79. With his victory he surpassed Mike Phelps, who coached at Alameda St. Joseph and Oakland Bishop O'Dowd.
"When I got here, we inherited a very good team and parlayed it into good team after good team," McKnight said this week. "Some years our talent level was very strong, some years it was not as strong but we kept it pretty consistent. I'm proud of our players and the things that we accomplished."
Mater Dei (16-1) gave McKnight his milestone victory behind Tyler Lamb, who scored 23 points and had 11 rebounds. Although he got his historic victory 3,000 miles from his home court, McKnight said the setting and the experience was humbling as he received congratulatory notes from those around him.
McKnight, 57, who battled Mesothelioma 14 years ago and four months ago had a new Achilles tendon attached, says he would like to coach another 10 years. The national record is held by Robert Hughes (1,333-265), who coached Ft. Worth (Texas) Terrell and Ft. Worth Dunbar from 1959-2005.
Among McKnight's most gratifying seasons was the 1995 campaign in which his son, Clay, was a guard and the team went 36-1. Clay is now the head coach at Anaheim Fairmont Prep. The 1990 squad, which began the year as "a real good high school team" was an overachiever that won the state title and was also special. All told, the Monarchs have won 19 section titles and seven state titles.
Though the attention this week is based on his victories, McKnight thinks the losses are extremely relevant: There are only 77 in 28 years, fewer than 2.8 per season.
"We just don't lose many games," McKnight said. "It's been a lot of kids over a lot of years that have been pretty successful. I've been blessed with good coaches over the years and a lot of good players.
"You wonder where the time has gone. It seems like I was 29 years old and just got the job. The time has gone very quickly.
"But it has been rewarding. When my players come back and go out of their way to say hi to me, that's more important to me than anything else," McKnight said. "If I touched some of those kids' lives, and now I'm coaching their kids, I feel I've done something right."
On a personal level, one of the things McKnight is most proud of is that "we've been able to change with the kids over the last 28 years," he said. "The kids and parents have changed, and you have to change with them. I'm not nearly as tough as I was 28 years ago. There are different ways of coaching kids, and we've adapted pretty well. It's a lot different than it was back in the 1980s."
McKnight has softened as a coach, and he thinks the basketball community has softened its opinion of him.
"Over the years, I think it's grown into a deal where we've won so consistently, I think my first years might have been a little bit where people were looking for reasons why we won," McKnight said, addressing tales of recruiting to build his empire. "As the years went on, we won with so many different types of teams. I think (the perception of me) has changed as the years have gone on. People treat me with a lot of respect and are very nice to me and I'm appreciative.
"With the success we have, we've drawn the players, but we went a five-year stretch without one transfer, up to about two years ago. I think our program and our facility now attracts the players. We've always had good kids. I think we do good job. Good programs attract good players, Long Beach Poly, Westchester. If you're a football player you look at a certain school. If you're a basketball player in Orange County, you're going to look at Mater Dei or somewhere else. Parents today are going to look for a situation that will highlight their son."
Few sons, though, will ever be highlighted like McKnight.
Santa Margarita scores big with Welch
Harry Welch, who has coached football programs to eight Southern Section championships and is the only coach to win state bowl games in different divisions, has become the new coach at Santa Margarita.
Embodying experience, vitality, success and an ethical standard, Welch – who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita – jumped at the opportunity to challenge himself in the Trinity League, which competes in the Southern Section's marquee Pac-5 Division.
"It feels right," said Welch, who leaves small-school San Juan Capistrano St. Margaret's Episcopal after three seasons and a 42-1 record. "I felt like I had accomplished some good things at St. Margaret's, I loved the people there, but it's always interesting to test ourselves and see how we can fare against the very best."
Welch, 64, takes over a program that finished 3-7 last season and for the first time failed to win a league game. However, it is also a program that has won two section titles and in 2006 reached the Pac-5 semifinals.
"He brings a tradition of success on the football field and in life," Principal Ray Dunne said. "Without question, he will be a Catholic-Christian role model for all of our student-athletes."
"He met everything we were looking for as far as our mission statement, his success and his leadership," Athletic Director Richard Schaaf said.
Welch won five section titles at Canyon Country Canyon, including the 2006 Division I Bowl against Concord De La Salle. He also won three titles at St. Margaret's, which has won four in a row, and also won the 2008 State Small School Bowl. His career record is 222-49-2, including a 46-game winning streak at Canyon in the mid-1980s. St. Margaret's won 30 of its Orange County record 44 consecutive games on his watch.
He replaced Mike Jacot, who resigned to focus on his family after seven seasons and a 38-38 record.
"I'm looking forward to it," Welch said. "I bring (to the table) a team and a coaching staff that's committed, enthusiastic, focused, disciplined and well-conditioned.
"I'm in great health and I have the enthusiasm of a youngster."
Charity begins at home
Referees get a raw deal lots of times, but those from the Foothill-Citrus Officials Association, who handled nine games at the MLK "I Have A Dream" Classic at Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos donated their checks to the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research.
And charity doesn't stop at home
George Sipa, who coaches some club soccer teams in the San Gabriel Valley, will host a shooting clinic on Friday, 6-8 p.m., at LaVerne Bonita High, with all money raised from donations going to the Red Cross for Haitian relief. Sipa did the same thing in 2004 after a tsunami devastated Sri Lanka. He is asking for a $20 donation. It it's raining, he will reschedule.
It was a good day for Southland teams in Springfield, Mass., at the Hoophall Classic on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Not only did McKnight get his state record 844th career victory, but Los Angeles Westchester defeated Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony, 55-51, after being tied at 46 apiece. Montana-bound Kareem Jamar led the Comets with 17 points in an effort that included two starters fouling out, Jordin Mayes and Reggie Murphy. Coach Ed Azzam credited Jamar, who scored eight points in the final two minutes, and Dwayne Polee with stepping up in the second half to provide the victory.
With its victory, Westchester moved to No. 12 in the Xcellent 25, right behind No. 11 Mater Dei.
Where there's a will, there's a way
Long Beach Poly closed its 65-57 Moore League victory over Long Beach Jordan with a 21-4 run over the last five minutes.
"We've been talking the last three games about our will," Poly coach Sharrief Metoyer told the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "It didn't look good for a while but they believed, and when a team believes in themselves they can do a whole lot of things."
The league victory, behind Jared Garber's 25 points, was another example of Poly's fourth-quarter will power. It outscored Austin (Texas) Westlake in the fourth quarter, 29-15, to score a 67-66 victory over the highest-rated team in the Whataburger tournament on Dec. 29.
Against Jordan, Poly (15-3) trailed by nine going into the fourth quarter.
Speaking of will
Gardena Serra trailed by a point going into the fourth quarter of its game against Jordan, but went on a 17-0 run in the first 2:12 of the quarter to score a 77-59 victory at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./Dr. Floyd Massey Jr. Classic. Serra's victory was its 19th in 20 games. "They've got so many shooters," Jordan coach Ron Massey told the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
Poor Jordan (8-9), victimized by huge fourth-quarter performances from Serra and Poly in back-to-back games. The Panthers also lost their two previous games – by a combined five points.
Former section commissioner passes
Stan Thomas, who was commissioner of the Southern Section from 1986-93, died Jan. 20 from a heart attack while in an Orange County hospital. He was 78.
A graduate of L.A. Manual Arts, he played football at Whittier College, was a principal at Santa Ana Foothill and an administrator in the Tustin Unified School District, and coached football at La Mirada. According to his son, Chris, he had been struggling with health issues the past 11 years.
Jackson tills the north 40
Chatsworth guard Monica Jackson scored 41 last week in a 66-54 loss to Lake Balboa Birmingham, and two nights later scored 39 in a 63-58 overtime victory over Woodland Hills Taft. In the latter game, Chatsworth suited up only five players. Jackson, a 5-7 senior guard, had five consecutive games in which she scored 37 or more. She has averaged 32.8 this season.
The long and mostly short of it
North Hollywood East Valley doesn't have any of its six players on its boys basketball team who are taller than 5-feet-10, but the third-year program is 7-2 and is in second place in the Los Angeles City Section's Valley League. Eddy Escobar has averaged 21 points and Manny Torres 15.
Not very high praise
The liaison between the Southern Section and the San Gabriel Valley association of officials has recommended that Basil Woodruff, the first-year coach at Monrovia, be suspended for the remainder of the year for a confrontation he had with an official after an overtime loss at San Marino. There did appear to be, at the very least, incidental contact between Woodruff and the female official. Referees ejected Woodruff post-game, so he missed the following game per section rules; the school also suspended him for a second game. Liaison Joe Conte filed a report with the section office seeking Woodruff's suspension for the rest of the season, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
Walk tall and carry a big trophy
Credit John Murphy of the Riverside Press-Enterprise for this line describing a skirmish in the stands of a Corona Santiago-Corona Centennial girls basketball game in which Santiago, ranked sixth in the state, won its 11th consecutive game, 68-50, behind Jasmine Lister's 17 points and Jade Khuri's 16: "But then (Centennial) Husky football coach Matt Logan stepped into the crowd and cooled things down. I'm not sure, but I think he may have threatened to hit the offenders with his 2008 National Coach of the Year award."
No news apparently is news
Troy Thomas and Bill Redell will remain as coaches at their respective schools next season, apparently. Thomas, who coached Servite to the Southern Section Pac-5 football championship and a Division II State Bowl victory in his fifth season, has told various media he is not a candidate for the opening at his alma mater, Encino Crespi.
Redell, who coached Westlake Village Oaks Christian to six section titles before finishing second to Gardena Serra this past season, has agreed to stave off retirement for another year. To alleviate some of his on-field activities – he has a bad back from an automobile injury – he has promoted longtime assistant Mark Bates to assistant head coach. In 11 seasons with Oaks Christian the program is 121-12-1.
Sometimes there's news, except when it's not
The Los Angeles Daily News reported Wednesday that former Ventura St. Bonaventure coach Jon Mack was negotiating his contract to become the new coach at Crespi. Thursday night, on his way back from his first interview at the school, Mack declared, "I'm not a negotiator."
"I don't coach for money," Mack said. "Yesterday I agreed to interview and I interviewed today. The ball's in their court. I really enjoyed it, it was a great group that really loves that school and they conveyed a sense of family and commitment to the school. It was a very positive experience. Whether they enjoyed it or not, I don't know.
"I was honored that they called and wanted to meet."
The Los Angeles Times reported that Dean Herrington of Mission Hills Alemany had interviewed for that position but had removed himself from contention.
Markham in at Rialto
Don Markham was unanimously approved as the new football coach at Rialto. Markham, 70, has won five Southern Section titles and is a coaching legend in the Inland Empire with 265 victories among his 314-115-1 overall record in California and Oregon. He inherits a program that went 1-9 last season. The former member of the Los Angeles Police Department, in spite of the victories, is probably most well-known for the 1994 season when his Bloomington squad – using a double-wing offense – averaged 63 points per game and set a state scoring record.
It is Markham's second go-round at Rialto; he was 13-9 in 2000-01, providing the school with its only winning seasons and playoff berths.
The interesting backstory at Riverside North
Riverside North principal Dale Kinnear told the Riverside Press Enterprise on Tuesday that the football job had not yet been advertised following the resignation several weeks ago by Scott Pearne.
This is interesting because:
After the 2007 season, Kinnear fired coach Lou Randall ostensibly because there wasn't enough discipline in the program and athletes weren't getting good enough grades. On the field, North had just finished 13-1 and won its second consecutive section title, its third in five years. Randall's teams also had finished 14-0 twice, and had won 27 of its 28 previous games.
Since the decision to remove Randall -- he was replaced by Yucaipa's Pearne -- North went 6-14 overall, 3-11 in league, although the Big VIII is tougher than the Ivy League that North had dominated.
This is what Kinnear said at the time he dismissed Randall: "I think our football team is about more than wins and losses. The overall growth and academic success of each of our athletes will produce even more success on the field."
So far, not so much.
Shaan Johnson of Cerritos Gahr, who caught 76 passes for 1,451 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, has reportedly committed to Utah State.
Redlands East Valley offensive lineman David Peterson has committed to San Jose State, and REV quarterback Tyler Shreve has committed to Utah after decommitting from Colorado State.
Darien Johnson, a defensive back at La Puente Bishop Amat, has committed to New Mexico.
Anthony Barr of Loyola, who could play running back or linebacker, has committed to UCLA.
Here's some food for thought: Of the four marquee football head coaching positions that opened in the Southern Section Pac-5 Division – Loyola, Crespi, Santa Margarita, and Bellflower St. John Bosco – the schools that began their searches first still have not been filled; meanwhile Bosco hired Jason Negro and Santa Margarita hired Harry Welch.
Martin Henderson began covering Southland preps in 1993 for the Los Angeles Times. He contributes to the Orange County Register, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and San Bernardino Sun, and offers up motorsports opinions at Racescribe.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.