Prep Wednesday : After All These Years, VanHoorebeke Still in a Class by Himself

Times Staff Writer

Orange County’s best football coach of the past 20 years?

Yeah, right, and after that we’ll tackle that tough “Name the father of our country” poser.

C’mon, this is strictly no contest. All together now:

Clare VanHoorebeke, Clare VanHoorebeke, Clare VanHoorebeke.


Influenced Orange County football? The man practically invented it. He’s the best in the past 20 years, the past 30 years, the past . . .

Before VanHoorebeke showed up at Anaheim High in 1950, there was little in the way of weight training, game films, scouting trips and ridiculously long hours on the field and off.

After VanHoorebeke, there was an Orange County style : players of perhaps lesser athletic skill who excelled and succeeded because of execution and training; coaches whose teams won because of the coach’s preparation, discipline, more preparation and a passion to do everything just so.

“We’ve all had to pattern ourselves after Van,” said Santa Ana’s Dick Hill, who began coaching at Downey High School in 1956.


Fifteen years after his retirement, 10 years after his death in 1978 from a heart attack, VanHoorebeke still casts a sizable shadow over the county.

With his beat-up blue cap, tattered letterman’s jacket, whistle and sweat pants, VanHoorebeke didn’t look like as much like a coach as a “Room 222" stereotype of one.

His football techniques were simple and direct. He once said a wide receiver “is not a football player, he’s just a guy who stands way out there.”

He coached for 23 years at Anaheim, through the 1972 season. His teams compiled a record of 190-49-10, won 16 Sunset League championships and made 17 appearances in the Southern Section playoffs when only first-place teams were guaranteed a playoff spot.

He gave the county some of its greatest players. Fullback Tom Fitzpatrick, who was the 1967 Southern Section player of the year; tight end Gerry Mullins, who went on to play on four Super Bowl championship teams with the Pittsburgh Steelers; and running back Mickey Flynn, perhaps the greatest Orange County player in terms of impact and recognition.

Flynn, a two-time Southern Section player of the year who played from 1954 to 1956, rushed for 3,651 yards and 55 touchdowns. A testament to VanHoorebeke’s style was that all 55 of Flynn’s touchdowns came rushing. When Anaheim played Downey and its outstanding back, Randy Meadows, in the 1956 Southern Section championship game at the Coliseum, 41,383 showed up to watch. The game ended in a 13-13 tie. The crowd remains the largest for a high school championship game in California.

That’s another thing VanHoorebeke generated: interest. Crowds of 10,000 were said to disappoint him. Anaheim had one of the first football booster clubs.

“On Friday night, the stores closed because the owners and the customers were out watching Anaheim play football,” former Anaheim City Manager Keith Murdoch said in 1978.


A newspaper columnist once wrote that VanHoorebeke was “a hero in Anaheim when Disneyland was just 160 acres of orange trees.” The hero arrived at school each morning in a pickup truck and carried his lunch in a tin pail. Hail to the chief.

VanHoorebeke’s living legacy has been coaches, lots of coaches. Among his former players are head coaches such as Pat Mahoney of Villa Park and Jerry Witte of Saddleback. Frank Doretti (Los Alamitos) and Bob Salerno (Anaheim), former assistants to VanHoorebeke, are two of the county’s top assistants. There are many others.

“We’re all over the place,” Doretti said.

If there is one thing that identifies a VanHoorebeke disciple it’s his work ethic. VanHoorebeke was the first high school coach in the area to study game films, the first to send scouts to games. His workday seemed never to end. After coaching a game on Friday, he and his staff would take the film to Hollywood to have it processed. While they waited, they would meet with the lower-level coaches who had scouted upcoming opponents.

Then came the films. Witte, then an offensive lineman at Anaheim, remembers the films.

“I used to hate it. It just went on and on; four hours in the film room was not unusual. Every play was played, dissected and replayed 20 times. You just hoped you did something right, because you knew you were going to get it if you didn’t. Guys just cringed when the projector stopped.”

VanHoorebeke was always working. He was the first guy to arrive at school and the last to leave. His offense was less than spectacular but run to perfection.

“He was a stickler for the little things,” Doretti said. “If the quarterback took one wrong step, he stopped everything, went over it with him and we started it again. Needless to say, practices were long.”


Said Witte: “Putting in the hours were important to Van. And I think that’s the one constant you’ll see in the people who played for him or coached under him. The work ethic. I think he gave that to everyone he came in contact with. He made everybody work harder.”

The night before a playoff game against El Rancho in 1967, El Rancho Coach Ernie Johnson thought he’d play a joke on his friend VanHoorebeke. He set his alarm for 1 a.m. and called VanHoorebeke’s house, planning to tell him his star players were being held in a Tijuana jail.

Johnson told The Times in 1978: “I thought that would keep him up the rest of the night. I dialed his number, but before the first ring was finished, Van had picked up the phone. He had just finished his staff meeting. That really scared me. My trick backfired. If he was working that late, how was I ever going to catch up to him.”

More than two decades later, no one has.