It’s easy to make Jack Errion smile.
Just ask him to reflect on his 36-year coaching career.
Errion, known to some of his former players as Smiling Jack because he never smiled at practice, turns into a veritable Cheshire Cat when discussing his coaching career at Corona del Mar and St. Anthony high schools.
Right now, Errion, 60, has many good reasons to smile, not the least of which includes this season’s Sea King team and his own health.
Corona del Mar (23-5) not only won the Sea View League title this season, but beat El Modena in the opening round of the CIF Southern Section 4-A playoffs before losing to a strong Dominguez team Tuesday.
Such success has become commonplace for Errion, but it is especially sweet for him now because he is still recovering from open-heart surgery last spring. The operation has put Errion on a season-to-season coaching basis.
Last spring Errion had part of his aorta--the main artery from the heart to the organs--replaced with an artificial one connecting the heart to the groin area.
He may not show the effects of the operation when he is coaching, but Errion himself is certainly aware of it.
“I wasn’t sure I could make it, but I thought I’d give it a shot,” Errion said of his decision to continue coaching.
“And it was harder than I thought it would be--after teaching to extend the day into coaching. The first month was tiring, but after that I must’ve just gotten in shape.
“Then after the season, you make an evaluation as to whether you got that old zip back.”
Given all that, Errion said he would decide a month after the season whether he would retire.
Errion began coaching at the school in 1976 after Tandy Gillis went to Orange Coast College, and since then has led the Sea Kings to two Southern Section 3-A division titles and numerous other semifinal appearances as well as league titles.
Errion began his career at St. Anthony in Long Beach from 1954-1976. He began coaching varsity basketball, junior varsity football and baseball and eventually became athletic director.
“We had good kids there,” Errion said. “We had good talent and the kids played hard.”
In the early 1960s, for example, Errion coached Paul and Jack Snow, the latter of whom went on to become a football star for Notre Dame and the Los Angeles Rams.
“Jack was a great athlete,” Errion recalled. “He was a very good basketball player, really. He had a good attitude--he played hard all the time. He could shoot the ball, too. He could’ve played college basketball if he hadn’t been so good in football.”
It was only fitting, then, that when Corona del Mar played Los Alamitos in a preseason tournament game last December, Errion coached against Griffin guard J.T. Snow, Jack’s son.
For as much affection as Errion has for his old players, the feeling, apparently, is mutual.
Several former players all mentioned that though they disliked Errion at the time because he worked them so hard in practice, they are now all thankful for what he did for them.
And those former players seem to have a good Jack Errion story to tell, too.
Said Rep. Dan Lundgren, (R-Long Beach), from Washington, D.C., who played for Errion in the early 1960s: “It was a rite of passage at St. Anthony to have Jack either as a coach or in the classroom. He had this needle about a mile long he could stick in you to motivate you. He was the first coach I had to use sarcasm as an effective method.
“I remember in football once, the guards brought in the plays to the huddle, and I was one of the guards. We had a complicated system, and I had to tell the quarterback to run a ‘left flanker out, right end around, 36-dive left’ or something like that.
“Well, I gave the QB the wrong call, there was a fumble and eventually we recovered the ball, but it was in the end zone, so the other team got a safety.
“Jack was just screaming at the quarterback even though it wasn’t his fault--I ran to the far end of the bench and didn’t say a word, that’s how afraid of him I was.”
Said Russ Welch, director of the Long Beach Athletic Club, who played for Errion in the 1950s: “Jack was one of those coaches that did it all, including driving the team bus, which back then must’ve been a 1930 job. He wore the same old clothes and drove the same old car--you’re never going to get rich teaching at a Catholic high school.
“He practiced us hard, too. We used to run that three-man weave for hours. Then we’d pass a medicine ball around before using a basketball--once you got to the basketball, it seemed like a pea after that and was a lot easier to pass.”
Said Bob McConnell, a vice-president with CBS in Washington, D.C.: “I remember showing up for practice one Saturday morning and there were the L . A . Lakers at the other end of the court. He knew somebody on the Lakers and got them to come to our gym and put on a clinic.
“I was center and I had to go up against Ray Felix, who was 7-foot-something. There was Elgin Baylor, Tommy Hawkins, Jerry West, I think. Those guys really put on a show. What a thrill that was for a high school kid to be on the same floor with the Lakers, and all because of Jack.”
Said Pete Talley, now the director of religious education for a Salt Lake City church: “When he was upset with a student in class, sometimes he’d kick the student’s desk over. Just walk up and kick it over and then act like nothing happened. He had a real deadpan, dry humor about him.”
Though he has long had a reputation as a stern perfectionist on the court, off it he is as witty and affable as his former players claim.
Perhaps the line from Errion that best captures both his sense of humor and his philosophy of basketball is when he was once quoted as saying that playing a zone defense was un-American.
Errion: “I have to admit that I did say it, but it was pretty much in jest--each coach uses what is successful for him. When I first came into coaching, Kentucky and the Boston Celtics were the two teams you heard about the most, and both of them played a strong man-to-man defense, so obviously that was a big influence.
“The reason I’ve stayed with it is that with man-to-man and just one good ballhandler, you can control games and maybe win a few against teams with more physical talent than you.”
Stay with it Errion has--in 36 seasons of coaching, his teams have never played a zone defense.
This is not to say that Errion hasn’t been able to adapt to the modern game. Errion is quite aware of the changes, subtle and otherwise, that the game has seen through the years.
“The biggest difference between coaching then and now is that basketball is so much more a full-court game now,” Errion said. “It used to be strictly a half-court game, but ever since those great UCLA teams with their full-court press, you’ve had to adjust to playing the game that way.”
The time will come, sooner or later, that Corona del Mar will have to do some adjusting to a basketball program without Errion, a man Athletic Director Ron Davis called the “dean of basketball coaches in Southern California.”
Dennis Evans, Corona del Mar principal, cited Errion as the type of faculty member that helped the school garner an award from the U.S. Department of Education as one of the top 109 secondary schools in the country in 1985.
Said Evans: “He’s a real professional and a gentleman. We need more people like him in education.”