A tip of the hat to my old football coach


Please indulge me an excursion beyond the borders of Gonzales County, Texas.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles – hop I-10 West for about 1,400 miles and jump on I-5 North and exit off Los Feliz Boulevard (you can’t miss it).

I attended John Marshall High School.

You may not know Marshall High School by name, but you’ve seen it – from Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video to the finale of “Grease” to “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Boy Meets World,” numerous movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed at the last standing brick high school in Los Angeles.

But my musings today about my high school of 40 years ago aren’t about Hollywood trivia.

I learned last week that my varsity football coach, Hiroshi Tanaka, died at the age of 84.

Tanaka, who as a child was in an internment camp in Utah during World War II, coached the team from 1972 to 1979 – during which he led it to its first winning seasons and playoff berths in a dozen years.

He had some notable players along the way, including Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl winning coach Andy Reid, and Patriots and Packers player Ron Spears.

Tanaka had a lot of successes.

Well, until his final two seasons – which is when I showed up.

A year after taking second place in conference and reaching the playoffs, we went 0-9 in 1978. Just to prove that wasn’t a fluke, we went 0-9 in 1979.

Coach Tanaka’s winless last two seasons were as much a reflection of the loss of some key senior players and a realignment that left us over-matched on numbers, talent, and experience.

In addition, while the country was getting its first glimpses of the West Coast Offense and Run-and-Shoot formations, we came up with our own special offense: the Stumble and Fumble.

I also think we were doomed by our mascot.

We faced teams like the Panthers, Gauchos, Huskies, Wildcats, and Sentinels.

We” being the Barristers.

John Marshall? Fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court. Ring a bell?

So we were represented by a mascot named after an obsolete term for a lawyer, with a cherub face, dressed in a blue gown and mortarboard hat, and holding a scroll.

Johnny Barrister’s striking pose invoked all the fear of someone saying “hit me and I’ll sue!”

And, God bless our cheerleaders, but “2-4-6-8 … litigate, litigate!” didn’t inspire us on the field.

Tanaka took the losing in stride. Yes, he hated to lose. But he also remained amazingly patient. I only remember him really losing it with us a couple of times. By his nature, “losing it” meant raising his voice and using a rare and relatively mild profanity. In hindsight, he was trying to instill in us the importance of finishing strong, putting your best effort forward, and not giving up, no matter the result. He preached team over the individual.

That really didn’t hit me until the bus ride back from our last game of the 1979 season. It was a strange feeling not only realizing I was never going to play again, but that I hadn’t given my best effort for the team.

It was akin to someone losing a family member and lamenting “if I only had one more day with them.”

Tanaka was out as varsity coach after that season, demoted to the sub-varsity team. Dan Beattie moved up to varsity, bringing with him a talented group of players he developed.

I can’t pinpoint when or why, but after I graduated, I asked Coach Beattie if I could help. He really didn’t know me. I ended up filming the varsity games.

But I also managed to get Beattie to let me run the JVs. He didn’t have a plan for a JV team in 1980, so I offered to work with the players – mainly getting them to run the opponents’ offense and defense in practice. I also ran them through the only drills I knew – from Coach Tanaka.

We only played one game at the end of the season – my coaching debut – which we won.

By the 1981 season, Beattie and his assistant, Ken Gerard, warmed up to having me around. We actually played a full season of JV games. As Tanaka taught me, practice all you want, but there is no substitution for actually playing the game.

In 1982, about six of my JVs were now varsity starters. And several others were key role players. By then, I’d jumped over to Hollywood High to coach sub-varsity defense. But dang if Marshall didn’t go out and win the school’s first-ever city football championship that season.

I claim no role in that championship. For two years, I simply gave some young players something instead of standing around while the varsity practiced.

However, I’d like to think that first championship had a little sprinkle of Coach T in it.

I can’t remember the last time I spoke with Coach Tanaka, but I do remember him joking with me and – as always – being his kind and sincere self.

Like those people who influence most us in life, my memories about coach are more about how he treated me and his example than the wins (or lack thereof) on the field.

Sometimes, our greatest lessons are learned through losses.

Rest in peace, Coach Tanaka.

(Steve Fountain is the Publisher of the Gonzales Inquirer).