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Coach C and ‘The Incident’ : As Critics Cry ‘Foul’, a Santa Clara Legend Rebounds After His Controversial Call

Times Staff Writer

In his early years at Santa Clara High School, Lou Cvijanovich would sometimes line his players in front of a mirror in the locker room at halftime. “Take a hard look at your faces,” Cvijanovich would bellow, his own face lit with intensity. “Are you proud of yourselves? Are you playing the best game you can possibly play?”

Cvijanovich, who at 62 now uses a somewhat softer approach, has taken a hard look at himself recently after suffering through the most embarrassing controversy of his 31 years as Santa Clara’s basketball coach.

And there are unshakable voices in the background--an unsettling chorus of accusers and ax-grinders bent on drawing blood from a coach recognized as one of the winningest in the United States.

“The incident,” as he refers to it, occurred during the last week of December, but it gnawed at Cvijanovich (pronounced Cee-YAWN-o-vich) until Feb. 16, when sanctions were handed down by the CIF-Southern Section, a governing body of athletics for 470 Southland high schools.

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And as his team prepares for the Southern Section 2-A Division championship game Saturday, he would rather the incident be forgotten much the way he tells his players to forget bad passes and stupid fouls. Learn from a mistake, he preaches, then put it behind you and push on.

“Thank God it’s over. Let me start anew,” Cvijanovich pleads. “I’ve been tormented enough. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through over this.”

The trouble began Dec. 28, when Cvijanovich refused to bring his team back for the last two days of a tournament at Estancia High after the Saints blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead against Edison and lost, 39-38. The officiating, by all accounts, was atrocious. Cvijanovich, whose ample horse sense constantly wrestles his impulse to stampede, reasoned that anybody can be robbed, but only a fool returns to the scene a day later.

Breaking a written contract with the tournament was deemed outrageous by the Southern Section executive committee, which after hearing testimony from tournament officials and Cvijanovich, placed the entire Santa Clara athletic program on probation for 16 months. In addition, the basketball team is barred from playing in regular-season tournaments next season and the school must compensate Estancia High for revenues lost by virtue of Santa Clara’s two forfeited games.

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Outrage was also the reaction of several opposing coaches and the media. Just more proof, it was repeated, that Cvijanovich rules Santa Clara with an iron hand but believes himself above the rules. “Some say he had it coming,” said the coach of a team that is regularly beaten by Santa Clara. A column Feb. 5 in the Ventura Star-Free Press asked if high school basketball needs its own Bobby Knight, denouncing Cvijanovich for leaving the tournament and for not allowing his players to speak with reporters.

Yet, for all his bluster, Cvijanovich has drawn a fiercely loyal following. Many Ventura County coaches learned their trade under him. Ex-players express little other than admiration for him and one, Thomas S. Johnson, wrote a biography of Cvijanovich titled, “More Than A Coach.”

And nobody can deny that he’s a winner.

His basketball teams have a record of 592-202, making him the winningest continuously active coach in the West behind Ralph Tasker of Hobbs, N. M. Cvijanovich’s teams have won about 75% of the games he’s coached in three sports--more than 850 victories in all.

“Talk to any coach around and they’ll confirm that Lou Cvijanovich is the class of the high school coaching ranks,” says UCLA basketball coach Jim Harrick, who lives in Newbury Park and has scouted Santa Clara players for many years. “I saw his team play two weeks ago. His kids play great defense and any player from Santa Clara will be disciplined and fundamentally sound. In college, that can save a year of instruction.”

John Reardon, the Rio Mesa High football coach of 21 years, is second in service only to Cvijanovich among active coaches in the county. He began coaching as an assistant at Santa Clara in 1963 and ’64. “Lou is an institution,” Reardon says. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be coaching or teaching. He was a role model for me and I follow his philosophies to this day.”

Cvijanovich’s nature is as expansive as his career has been distinguished and he cements friendships through rituals of food and drink at such Oxnard establishments as Sam’s Saloon, which is owned by two of his sons.

Lou’s teams usually win, and Lou always buys.

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“A good time to me is sitting down with a great bunch of people, eating dinner and having a couple drinks,” he says. “Breaking bread and drinking with people, somehow there is a change of heart and a change of mind. World leaders ought to do that, I’m convinced. There would be a lot more peace in the world.”

These days, he would settle for peace of mind. Perhaps the lasting lesson of the controversy is that at an age when most of his contemporaries have long ago quit coaching and are counting the semesters to retirement and life in a customized golf cart, Lou Cvijanovich still burns with competitive desire.

In fact, he is distressed that the turmoil has distracted his players from their quest for the 2-A championship. The Saints (22-3), whose only losses are the one to Edison and the ensuing forfeits, will face Orange Lutheran for the title at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Sports Arena. The winner qualifies for the state tournament, which Santa Clara has never won.

“I’ve never had a team that has been through what this team has gone through because of me,” says Cvijanovich, who is also Santa Clara’s athletic director. “They have weathered this beautifully.”

Of course, he has had lots of teams with which to compare. Coach C, as he is known at Santa Clara, has led the Saints to 12 Southern Section championships (two in football, one in baseball and nine in basketball) and holds the section records for most overall and basketball titles. From 1958 until 1970 he coached all three sports (he quit baseball in ’70 and football in ’75) and by 1964--the year John Wooden won his first NCAA basketball title at UCLA--Cvijanovich had won seven Southern Section titles. His teams have won 33 league championships.

What has he done lately? The Saints are one win away from their fifth Southern Section title of the decade. By comparison, all other Ventura County basketball teams have won a grand total of five Southern Section championships since 1950.

“Lou is one of the most consistent people I’ve known and his record speaks for that consistency,” says Jim Swisher, an administrator at Santa Clara who played under Cvijanovich in the early 1960s. “He keeps up with changes in the profession, is very well-read and is on top of every new method.”

Those methods extend beyond the court to the fundamentals of fund-raising. Santa Clara, one of two coeducational Catholic high schools in the county, has a tight network of boosters who don’t tighten their purse strings when the basketball program is in need.

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The school was $50,000 short of funds for completing its $1-million gymnasium, Friedrich Pavilion, three years ago before Cvijanovich and booster Ed Knight had a brainstorm.

“We organized a sit-down dinner for boosters in the old gym, all the booze you could drink,” Cvijanovich recalls. “We got 304 people. I put up the number 50 on the scoreboard, 15 minutes on the scoreboard clock and announced that I wanted that 50 erased by the time the clock expired. In 15 minutes we raised $63,000.”

His methods also include transforming talented but undisciplined Oxnard toughs into Saints through equal application of discipline and understanding.

“Lou’s players are very disciplined, almost mechanical in what they do,” says Bob LaBelle, who coached basketball from 1979 to 1987 at Agoura High, a Frontier League foe of Santa Clara. “His approach works with the kid who goes there. He can be very tough on a player, but if that kid has an arm around him, it will be Lou’s.”

With a strong word or a swift kick, Cvijanovich, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound self-described “mean old cuss,” fills players with fear (“The fear of God,” he has said many times) to form a fearless team.

Instead of exorcising the toughness inbred in a boy, he exercises it and straps it to a leash just long enough to frighten the wits out of every pleasant opposing player whose soft touch was developed shooting free throws on a quiet suburban driveway. His players, all of whom shave their heads before the season, are known for rabid defense, savage screens and relentless rebounding.

However, Cvijanovich also appreciates the less aggressive, more thoughtful type of player.

“The non-aggressive kid has attributes that the aggressive kid doesn’t have,” he says. “I make our kids tough. People say you can’t, but you can talk to kids, rally them and get them to really go after it. These are nice kids I’m talking about.

“Other kids are naturally aggressive and you have to harness that, give it direction. It takes both kinds. They learn from each other.”

Understanding what makes a teen-ager tick is perhaps Cvijanovich’s greatest gift. And he has learned that results of his efforts are often delayed. “At 17, I was a nut. It all sunk in later,” he says. “That’s why I will help any kid, athlete or not. The percentage is that a lot of kids will fail now and see the light later.”

Understanding what makes Cvijanovich tick requires a glimpse into his upbringing.

He was born Luka Cvijanovich in 1926. His Serbian emigrant father ran a saloon in Jerome, Ariz., a copper-mining town and authentic slice of the Old West 150 miles north of Phoenix. A historical booklet published by Southwest Parks and Monuments Assn. describes the Jerome of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s as “a hard story of hard rock, hard work, hard liquor and hard play.”

Cvijanovich recalls that as a teen-ager, he and friends would “sit up on a cement slab above town and look down on all the fistfights.”

Besides his tightknit family, Cvijanovich’s only escape from the temptations of what the New York Sun once described as “the wickedest town in the West” was his high school coach in three sports, Frank Sancett, a disciplinarian who went on to coach the University of Arizona baseball team to the College World Series 10 times in 23 years.

“He instilled values that I instill in my players,” Cvijanovich says. “You cannot succeed unless you work hard. There are lots of pitfalls and you must be strong enough to persevere.”

Lou’s high school sweetheart, Martha Sue Stanley, wouldn’t marry him unless he got a college education. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Cvijanovich married and graduated from Arizona State. Lou, Martha and their son, Sam, the first of eight children, moved to Oxnard, where Lou landed a junior high school teaching and coaching job in 1953.

Five years later, Cvijanovich began his career at Santa Clara and soon earned a reputation for a quick-draw temper.

“Our doctor says that Lou will never have a heart attack because he yells and blows off his stress,” Martha Cvijanovich says. The doctor also told Martha not to encourage her husband to retire. “Lou needs the release and, of course, he loves coaching so,” she says.

The coach brightens at the mention of future Saints, whom he calls his cherubs. “They’re a fine bunch,” he says as he details a recent upset scored by a team from one of Santa Clara’s four feeder grammar schools.

Cvijanovich, who says “I’ll coach until I drop dead,” unlocks the doors of Friedrich Pavilion at 8 a.m. every Saturday and readies the court for the Santa Clara youth league of 26 teams.

His generosity with the gym extends to other schools--two Saturdays ago both Santa Clara gyms were in use from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. In addition to the youth league, the Oxnard College men’s and women’s teams had games and two high school girls’ playoff games were held. “That’s got to be a record,” he says.

Reardon, the Rio Mesa football coach, points out the side of Cvijanovich that those grammar school players know, saying, “Lou is a very compassionate man, a very giving man.”

And while it might not ring true to his detractors, Cvijanovich espouses a global point of view.

“The bottom line, after you get past the wins and losses, is kids and the U.S.A.,” he says. “Sometimes we screw up the whole athletic thing by building these bitter rivalries. It’s just kids. Leave it on the floor. The only team is the human race. If it becomes divisive, then it’s a waste of time.”

It is in this spirit that Cvijanovich went on his hands and knees to help Marc Groff, the St. Bonaventure High basketball coach, paint a newly required three-point stripe on the St. Bonaventure court two years ago. “He had already done the line on his floor, so he came over to mine and spent four hours drawing the arc,” Groff recalls.

St. Bonaventure played Santa Clara for the first time two weeks ago in the opening round of the playoffs. The Saints won, 77-53, but the Seraphs--like most Santa Clara victims--left the court with their dignity intact.

“They could have really roughed us up,” Groff says. “But Lou made a point of not running up the score.”

For Cvijanovich, a win is not complete unless he wins over the opposition as well. As for the finger-pointing foes who have recently caused him anguish, he only wishes he could sit them all around a table and buy everyone dinner and a round of drinks. By the end of the evening, he’s certain, the room would be full of nothing but Saints.


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