As a player and coach, Dana Pagett has dealt with many emotional situations, but perhaps none as difficult as one two years ago far removed from a basketball arena.
Pagett, the basketball coach at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana, was the keynote speaker at a jam-packed South Bay luncheon honoring Rolling Hills High School Coach Cliff Warren, Pagett's mentor at El Segundo High in the mid-1960s.
Soon after taking the dais, Pagett broke down, brushing away tears.
"I used to pop off at officials. I was a wise guy," a somewhat stunned audience of high school players and coaches heard Pagett say. "Cliff helped me grow up."
Warren apparently did his job well.
Pagett has grown, say people who know him, from a feisty point guard on a Southern Section basketball finalist to a very successful community college coaching career.
"I believe in my heart that Dana is right there in coaching with some of the best," Warren said.
Climbed to No. 2
In seven seasons at Rancho Santiago, Pagett has already climbed to No. 2 in total victories, eclipsing a pair of names that are of near-legendary proportion in Orange County, Bob Oates and Stu Inman. Another notable coach on the list is former USC Coach Bob Boyd (recently hired at Chapman College of Orange). Only Rolland Todd, once a National Basketball Assn. assistant, has more victories (155) than Pagett (133).
Todd's record is expected to fall early next year, say school officials, who point out that Pagett is readying another championship caliber group.
Pagett has moved the standard of anticipated success up another level at Rancho Santiago, one of the oldest community colleges in the state. His 1986 Dons team set a school record with 29 victories.
"I've had a lot of good times here," Pagett said. "The level of play is much better than community colleges are given credit for."
Pagett says community college athletics suffer from a media drain, because "you can only give coverage to so much." He would like to see more student involvement on athletic, academic and social levels. "Students today don't explore reality from a social or academic standpoint," he said.
As a child growing up in El Segundo, basketball was the major reality to Pagett. His former teammates claim he slept with a basketball at his side.
"He never went out with girls," said Warren. "He was a point guard when there were no point guards, a coach on the floor, completely dedicated to basketball."
Winning was everything to Pagett and he didn't mind telling anyone so. He developed a command of the game few possessed.
He was viewed by some as a whiner, to the dismay of Warren and others who knew him better.
"Those days he was very confident. He just liked to get on the officials a little bit," Warren said.
There was no doubting Pagett's ability. He played on one of the greatest high school teams ever to grace the South Bay.
Most Valuable Player
Warren's 1966-67 El Segundo team won 34 consecutive games before a 62-56 overtime loss to Monrovia in the Southern Section 3-A championship game. El Segundo won five tournaments that season and Pagett was named the most valuable player in each. He was a prep All-American and named one of the nation's top 10 seniors.
Said Warren bluntly: "He was the best player the South Bay ever had."
But Pagett also had a great supporting cast, like center John Pleick, an all-Southern Section selection, who was a starter in college at Notre Dame.
"We all thought alike," Pagett, explained. "We knew our roles on the court and we knew our roles off the court. Any time you have that it's a special occurance."
Just about every player from that team had college scholarships from big time universities dangled in front of them. Pagett opted for USC, a major coup for Boyd.
USC Lost to UCLA
"He was the first recruit in the area to get away from John Wooden at UCLA," Warren explained.
But Wooden indirectly had the last say about Pagett's collegiate days. In his senior year (1971) USC was 24-2--a school record. But both losses were to UCLA and they cost the Trojans the Pac-8 title. In those days, only conference champions advanced to post-season play.
After his successful career at USC, Pagett played a year with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Assn. He then went into coaching, first as an assistant at Loyola-Marymount, then at Cal State Long Beach and Utah State. When Todd resigned at Rancho Santiago in 1982, Pagett got his first head coaching job. Pagett said he couldn't have planned his life any better.
"I knew at a very young age, maybe by the time I was in sixth grade, and this is unique, that I wanted to be a pro basketball player, that I wanted to be a coach," he said.
There were times in his adult life that he changed his mind briefly.
"I tried a few other things for a career, but I always came back to coaching," he said.
Pagett's relationship with Warren, stretching almost three decades, may have been an influence. Warren continues to have success at Rolling Hills. He refers to Pagett as "my best friend," and he sees at least a half dozen Rancho Santiago games a year.
Warren was asked to analyze Pagett as a coach.
"In the past three years he has been the most underrated coach in basketball," Warren said. "He has changed in that time. He might not even know it, but he has changed his style and the personality of his teams have changed."
Ironically, Rancho Santiago has finished among the state's top 20 each of the past three years, and much of that is attributed to the fact that Pagett has put more emphasis on defense, which compliments his patented up-tempo offense.
"Defense creates opportunities for your offense," Pagett explained. In his early years at Rancho Santiago, Pagett often saw opponents attempt to exploit the Dons' lack of defense. That isn't the case now.
Warren, who doesn't mind passing out compliments, says Pagett "is definitely the kind of coach you want your son around." The question is, will Pagett move on to handle other sons somewhere else, or has he become cushy on the community college level?
"Right now I'm very happy here," was all he would say.