An American Ideal : Millikan Coach Teaches Patriotism and Moral Values Along With History and What Wins Football Games

Times Staff Writer

Girls in short cheerleading skirts yelled and danced in a swirling frenzy of Millikan High School blue and gold. Dave Radford, the football coach who minutes earlier in his role as history teacher had tried to convey the importance of a 16th-Century philosopher, stood amused and amazed by endless waves of these people he calls pepsters.

"I'm trying to teach Cervantes, and this is what's really happening," Radford said. "It's like a Wagnerian opera. Here come the gold-star dancers. Watch out."

To music, another frantic group performed in front of students happy to be out of class, out under trees, socializing.

This was a rally the morning before last Friday night's Milk Bowl, an annual preseason scrimmage involving teams in the Moore League. The football players, wearing their jerseys, sat transfixed by the swirling on the stage above them.

He Played Center at Millikan

Radford, his hands in his jacket pockets, was a 47-year-old in a sea of adolescents. Thirty years ago, when this school first opened in Long Beach and there were maybe five cheerleaders, he played center for the Millikan Rams.

"This school cannot go back (to classes) until every one of these girls has performed her deal," Radford said. "Sometimes we have parents with video cameras here. We are a cheerleader's school. Sometimes they forget to announce the team."

But because pep rallies are richly American, Radford can forgive such transgressions.

Here was a man who calls the "Star-Spangled Banner" "my favorite song, tied right there with 'Amazing Grace.' " He lectures on history from beneath an American flag. He says the Revolutionary War is "the best coaching manual ever invented." His favorite 20th-Century American is Dwight Eisenhower--"a warrior, an educator, a good family man," said Radford, who believes he, too, is all three.

And, to complete the patriotic package, Radford loves football.

With Whistle and Clipboard

On a recent afternoon, the daily metamorphosis from history teacher to coach having again occurred, Radford roamed the Millikan football field, surveying practice through little blue, half-closed eyes. He had a whistle and a clipboard. His black hair, which in morning history class was freshly combed, was disheveled beneath a baseball cap. A bulging stomach, hidden earlier by a lectern, kept his shirt from staying tucked in. The voice that came from a small, thin-lipped mouth was much louder than when he explained Cervantes in Room 424. His face, pink then, was red.

On that field, flanked by bleachers and 22 tall palm trees, Radford and his assistants taught football skills.

His forte, though, is instilling in his players the values he cherishes--of school, community and home.

"There's more to life than just blocking and tackling, although that's pretty important," Radford had said before the practice. "We like to have kids be good students and joys to their families. We keep things in proper perspective."

The day before the pep rally, he had told the team: "You are going to have to walk away from outrageous actions. There's no excuse for any of us to be involved in any incident on campus. You are several cuts above the average."

Exemplary Conduct Expected

If that sounded preachy, sometimes that is the way it is.

"We let them see a bigger picture of where they fit," Radford explained. "Playing football at Millikan does not give them privileges, it gives them additional responsibilities. They have to be leaders in carrying out school rules; they have to be in the forefront of what's right.

"The main thing I want is to have people say, 'That's a typical Millikan team.' To me, there's no better compliment. We're a 'yes, sir, no, sir' program. We dress well, we conduct ourselves as gentlemen. We go to our pregame meal at Sizzler and three or four adult patrons will come up and compliment the coaches on how well the kids behave."

In 1956, when Radford was hiking the ball and first starting to like Ike, Millikan won the CIF championship. That was the birth, he likes to believe, of a special tradition.

"At homecoming, we have guys who played here do a 20-, 30-second deal before we go out (to play)," Radford said. "There's tears everywhere. It's such a feeling to see the continuity of what you're trying to do. These kids see successful guys who played here two years ago or 25 years ago saying how important it was to play football at Millikan. You can't buy it. You can't duplicate it. Our gardener here is a Millikan guy. He'll do anything for me. I'll do anything for him--keep guys off the field or pick spurs out of the grass."

'Everybody's Friendly Here'

Behind Radford, up in the stands, two cheerleaders--one black, one white--watched practice. "Look at those two," Radford said. "Everybody's friendly here. It's been fun to watch Millikan change its racial balance. We've got kids with swimming pools and kids without sinks; we've got 'em all, but they're all Rams first."

Radford wants dearly to win. "The idea of heading up a winning game is an incredible high," he said. "But we are really thrilled when we see these kids graduate and become productive members of the community. That is really our payoff."

Still, defeats leave him grumpy, although he always tries to remember how simply his mother once put it: "Their 17-year-olds beat your 17-year-olds." The grumpiness leaves only when perspective sets in after a few days and the players are back into cars and girls. "Their life goes on," he said. And then, Radford realizes, so does his.

It is only within his context of ideals that Radford wants to win.

"I wouldn't put up with a jerk just because he could help us win," he said. "I wouldn't want to win by begging a teacher to change a grade. I wouldn't want to win by playing an injured kid."

Two Seasons at University

Radford was an assistant coach at Long Beach Poly in the 1960s, then was defensive back coach for two seasons at Cal State Long Beach, where his success was reflected in 65 pass interceptions. In 1971, his first wife told him, "Choose me or football." Radford's answer was, "Honey, that's the wrong question." He chose to take the head coaching job at Jordan High.

"Coaching is something I wanted to do probably since I was 3 years old," said Radford, whose father, Ernie, was a coach. "I love coaching. Friday nights are just indescribable. Nothing like them, win or lose . . . to see young men in such a rare state of really caring."

After a 15-31 record at Jordan, Radford joined Dick DeHaven's staff at Millikan in 1977. Last season, he replaced DeHaven (now a Millikan assistant) as head coach and led the Rams to a 4-1 league record.

Radford said DeHaven wanted to step aside because of all the many administrative duties required of a head coach, duties that now weigh heavily on Radford.

"The resentment comes when you have to worry about whether a (safety warning) seal is on a helmet rather than how my kids did on the first day of preschool," he said.

Remarried With Young Children

Radford, who has grown daughters from his first marriage, remarried six years ago and has a 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.

Radford said his wife, Eva, 28, is "the best thing that's happened to me."

Obviously, she likes football.

During practice, Radford watched as the assistant coaches he depends on heavily taught the offensive and defensive techniques that Radford says spawn confidence.

"You know what to do, you know you can do it--that's how you win," he said.

The players not participating sat on a bench across the field, a long line of gold helmets shining in the sun.

"I like it when I can see kids sit and understand what the drill's about," Radford said. "They are not the focus of attention, but they're not screwing around or being goofy. You don't have to baby-sit them."

His Role Is to Inspire

Radford's role seemed mainly to inspire and build character. He did not hassle or scold his players, letting assistants do that as well as explaining the plays. But his knowledge of the inner workings of the game is not questioned.

"I probably look at three times as much film as the other Moore League coaches," he said.

And Radford can always refer to "the best coaching manual ever invented."

England was No. 1 before the Revolutionary War, and America was a decided underdog.

"No (betting) line," Radford said. "But the Americans had great leadership and confidence. They banded together and put up with hardships at Valley Forge. They had the ability to take advantage of the breaks, and the main thing was, they didn't blow it."

That great upset taught Radford that no team he plays should ever be considered too tough. That would be un-American.


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