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VALIANT FRONT : Welcoming the Challenge, New Coach Mark Lovett Boldly Predicts a Resurrection of the Once-Proud Football Program at St. Genevieve

Times Staff Writer

Dusk is drawing a golden curtain on a summer’s day at the Alemany High athletic field, but in a huddle of St. Genevieve football players the mood is dark.

The Valiants have just been humbled by the home team in their first passing-league exhibition of the season. There were touchdowns at the end of many an Indian rainbow on this evening, leaving Valiant defenders to grapple with their own despair and self-doubt.

Coach Mark Lovett had feared such a performance, but he also had predicted it. And now, standing amid the gloom of his weary charges, he would attempt to explain it.

“Folks, they’re supposed to beat the crap out of us,” he begins. “They’re Division I and we’re Division VII. . . . We’re just starting, just getting ready. This is just practice. There’s no reason to get depressed about it.”

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But depressed they are, and who could blame them?

St. Genevieve, which had qualified for the playoffs in nine of the previous 12 seasons, ended up 1-8 last season and was outscored, 255-38, in its losses. So excuse the returning players who might be experiencing a moment of doubt. Or worse, a flashback.

They have been told--promised, in fact--by their new coach that they won’t suffer through a similar season again. Was it a lie?

“I was nervous for the guys, but I think after our little talk they understand,” Lovett would later confide. “That’s the way it’s supposed to go the first time around.”

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His statement is made confidently. At the very least, it seems, he has convinced himself.

Lovett, 34, was selected to coach St. Genevieve from a field of almost two dozen candidates, and not necessarily because of his background as an assistant the past three seasons at Cal State Northridge.

He was hired largely because he is a true optimist--one who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. In Lovett’s case, the shades likely are not only rose-tinted but also framed in a funky pattern.

St. Genevieve’s new coach has a well-developed comedic side to his personality, and that might come in handy because he has inherited what is left from a team that managed to score in double figures only twice.

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At last season’s end, only 18 varsity players were suiting up for games. There had been twice that many for the Valiants’ opener.

So imagine Lovett’s surprise when 61 players--the majority of them varsity candidates--showed up for his first team meeting.

“There were a lot of people there who weren’t going to play football before,” says Ernest Schneider, a starter on defense last season. “I think everyone wanted to see what our new coach was like.”

What they witnessed was half Knute Rockne, half Jerry Lewis.

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“I had all my notes,” Lovett says. “Before I went in I went over everything I wanted to say. I always do when I’m going to be talking somewhere. Funny thing is, I never end up looking at them. I just start going.”

His introduction was part fire and brimstone, part slapstick comedy. “I wanted to be a little funny so they wouldn’t think I was a tight . . .,” Lovett says.

He cracked one-liners as he outlined his plans to crack the whip. He got down in a lineman’s stance. He told them exactly what they were going to do to all those teams who had kicked sod in their face masks.

And as his performance continued, Lovett could see his audience warming to the task.

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“Guys in the back were going, ‘Uh, Uh. Yeah! That’s right!’ ” Lovett says. “As soon as I saw that, I knew I had them.”

At the very least, the players found, their new mentor was enthusiastic.

“We came out of the room all wanting to put on pads and start playing,” Schneider says.

Lovett promises the “New Valiants” are going to play wide open on offense, “knock the crap out of people” on defense, win, and have fun. And not necessarily in that order.

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“I’ve been told, ‘Coach, you win three games and you’ll be a hero,’ ” Lovett says. “I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to win more than that!’ We’re going to win most of our games. I promise you we’ll be over .500. We do that and we’re going to blow this school away.”

He had the profile of Dom DeLuise but could show the intensity of Woody Hayes, and, better still, he wore shorts when he taught history class and the school’s administration dared not say a word about it.

His name was Mr. Whiskeyman and he was a football coach at Elkins Park Junior High in Cheltonham Township, Pa. There was another coach, too. Mr. Landau, a former professional football player. Same disposition. Same attire.

They were the stuff of which idols are made.

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“Mr. Whiskeyman, he was like a Lombardi-type guy, except with a big gut, and, God, he was so emotional,” Lovett says nostalgically. “These guys, I just liked their mannerisms I guess, because I decided right then that coaching football and teaching was what I wanted to do.”

It took more than 20 years, but Lovett has accomplished his stated intention.

Mr. Whiskeyman would surely be proud--particularly if he knew what had happened after Lovett left Elkins Park Junior High.

Mumford High looked ominous and had a reputation to match. The walls of the three-story Detroit schoolhouse were of blue marbled brick and it was surrounded by spike-tipped black wrought iron.

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“There was a cop on every floor to make sure kids were going to class,” Lovett says. “It was just after the Detroit riots, so things were a little crazy.”

Mumford was an all-black school, an environment that was completely foreign to that which Lovett had experienced in Cheltonham. “My junior high school was about 95% Jewish,” Lovett says. “There were only three black kids in the whole school when I was in seventh grade.”

The Lovett family left Pennsylvania for Detroit in 1969 when Mark’s father got a job with Motown Records. It didn’t take long before Mark got a taste of what life would be like in the inner city.

His first street brawl took place before he ever enrolled in school. He had been playing sandlot football with some friends from Mumford against a group from Cooley High.

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Lovett says the rival team reacted to his scoring the game-winning touchdown by pulling out knives and picking a fight. The Mumford team backed off and headed for home, being careful to stay together as a group on their walk. All except for Lovett.

“I went down another block,” he says. “I was just going slow, feeling good because we won. I was on this little Stingray bike that couldn’t go very fast because it had these great big sprockets. And I’m just cruisin’, you know, when I hear this (noise), so I turn around and there must have been 60 guys, a gang, coming after me.

“So I’m hitting those pedals as fast as I can, but the bike’s not going anywhere because it’s got these big sprockets, and I got about 50 yards before they caught me. They said, ‘We hear you’re a new guy from Philadelphia. You’re going to Mumford, huh? Well, here’s your initiation.’ Boom! They just started hammering me.”

Lovett’s version of what happened next includes a rather gallant, if fruitless, attempt to fight back. The fight ended when the police arrived, but he had already been beaten up and thrown to the ground with the bike on top of him.

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“They all took off,” Lovett says, “but I said, ‘That’s all right. I’ll get them when we get to prime time,’ ” which meant during the upcoming season.

But Lovett lost that battle, too.

“Mumford had a good football field, but the team stunk,” he says. “I remember one play when I was getting ready to call a punt on center snap and the guys are looking up in the stands showing off their uniforms. ‘Heeey bab-ee, I’m playing today.’ I’m back there saying, ‘Hey, guys, let’s go.’ And they’re like ‘Shut up, man. I’m trying to show my girl this here uniform.’

“We lost almost every game, and after every game there was a fight, and we usually lost those, too.”

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The following year he was back in a more tranquil setting. His father was transferred again, this time to Los Angeles. The family settled in Woodland Hills and Lovett attended El Camino Real High.

Again, he was one of the few black kids in school--and the only one on the football team. But he fit right in and went on to help the team to its first league championship.

Lovett, a running back, still holds the school record for longest run from scrimmage, 92 yards against Reseda his junior year. Mark and his girlfriend, Pam, were selected “Class Couple.” Life was good again. He accepted a football scholarship to Arizona State.

Frank Kush was so charming during Lovett’s recruiting visit. He would meet Coach Frank Kush a few months later.

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“The stories?” Lovett says. “They’re all true. (Kush) used the Army and Marines approach--we’re going to lure you in and once you’re here, we’re going to beat you down until there’s nothing left except for bones. It was pure hell.”

Five years of it. “But we all stuck together,” Lovett says. “We had to because we all knew that guy was going to put us through the same kind of hell.”

There was a redshirt year, then a season of mostly sitting on the bench, followed by three as a 6-foot-1, 210-pound starter at fullback. Lovett says he almost quit as a freshman.

“I’d dress for games and stand on the sidelines and try to dirty my pants to look like I was playing,” Lovett says. “There was some old lady, an avid ASU fan I guess, who sat right behind our bench. ‘Hey Lovett, how come you never play?’ she’d say. I was like, ‘Come on lady, leave me alone.’ ”

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Kush gave him similar treatment.

“It wasn’t until my junior year he called me Mark,” Lovett says. “I was ’21' for three years. ‘Hey, 21! You, 21, get over here!’ Finally, my junior year I had a great block on Aaron Kyle, who ended up playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Just blew his butt off to the sideline and our running back was gone. I came off the field and Kush says, ‘Great block, Mark.’ ”

Lovett grabs his heart. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what a compliment! That’s it, I don’t want to play any more today. I’m done. I don’t even need to score a touchdown today.’ The man called me by my first name!”

As unhappy as he was at ASU--even as a starter--Lovett never let it be known to Kush.

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“I was always taught to do what the coach said. I was kind of a stooge guy,” Lovett says. “I started, but every time he wanted to use me as an example, he did.”

Lovett recalls one instance in particular. He had been selected team captain for a game against Brigham Young during his junior season. He went out for the coin toss, stayed in for one play and was replaced by a freshman. Then another freshman started alternating with the first freshman.

“I’m standing on the sidelines, captain of the damn team, and thinking, ‘What are you doing to me?’ ” Lovett says.

“If I tried to sit down on the bench, he’d say, ‘No, you stay right here.’ So I’m walking up the sideline like a puppet with him and every time it’s a crucial play or a crucial block had to be made it was, ‘Get in there. Run this play.’ Every scoring down I’m in there making the big block, then I get pulled out and the other guys go in. Second half, I’m going out for the coin toss feeling embarrassed. It’s like, ‘What’s this 21 doing out here? He’s not even playing.’ That’s the kind of thing (Kush) would do to me.”

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After the season, Lovett’s teammates voted him the team’s sportsmanship award. “You know why?” Lovett says. “Because they said, ‘Coach dogged him and he never said a word. He deserves that award.’ ”

Lovett was voted team captain and most valuable player after his senior season, but his disdain for Kush’s coaching methods grew.

“Once I left, once I grew up, I said, ‘You . . . I understand what you’re about. You could do it a different way.’

Which is precisely what Lovett plans to do with his own team.

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“I’m not as crazy as he was,” Lovett says, referring to Kush. “But I am tough. It’s just that I’m nice to them after I beat the crap out of them.”

John Fleming, who coaches the St. Genevieve linemen, played at El Camino Real in 1984-85 when Lovett was a coach there.

He was among the players enraptured with an intense yet playful assistant who wore spandex shorts--"pink spandex, checkered spandex, and this is before spandex was even in,” Fleming says--and drove a kit car that resembled a broken down dune buggy.

“Normally, football practice is a drudge thing, especially working out when it’s hot in the summer,” Fleming says. “But Mark always made it fun for us. And he showed alot of dedication and love for the sport. He was volunteering his time and after his car blew up, sometimes he’d bike to El Camino all the way from Van Nuys. Or, he’d catch the bus. I gave him rides home and so did a couple of other guys.”

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But, despite the best efforts of Lovett and the rest of the Conquistadore coaching staff, the team continued to lose. In 1985, Lovett’s last season as an assistant there, El Camino Real’s offense scored only one touchdown.

“You could tell it was dragging him down,” Fleming said. “He’d try to stay up, but he’d get frustrated because we weren’t hitting. I remember one time he threw down his clipboard and said, ‘Fleming, hand me your helmet.’ So I did. With no pads on he just went, crack, into another guy. One time he did it with no helmet on and he chipped his tooth.

“I liked his style.”

Lovett spent the past three seasons coaching skill positions as a volunteer at Northridge while earning $4 an hour working from midnight to 8 a.m. as a security guard. “I was riding a damn bike everywhere,” Lovett says. “It was like living through Kush’s hell all over again.”

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The Matadors had winning records each season, but Lovett grew increasingly discontent with his lack of say about the direction of CSUN’s offense. He also missed watching professional football on television on Sunday.

“I lived that seven-day-a-week life in college,” Lovett says. “Those last three years at CSUN, I was burning out. Right now I want six days and then have my day of rest. Besides, I have too many hobbies to be a college coach.”

Among them: watching and taping movies, raising tropical fish, building model trains, and playing for and writing a newsletter for a two-time modified league champion softball team. In addition, he still plays football.

“CSUN never knew, but on Saturdays I played in a flag football league down in L.A. at Martin Luther King Park,” Lovett says. “Coach (Bob) Burt was always wondering, ‘Why weren’t you at the team meal?’

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“Because I’m in a ballgame, man. I’m out there scoring touchdowns. I figured if we weren’t gonna score any at night at least I would score me one or two in the afternoon. But I never told him that. I’d say, ‘I’m just not hungry. Can’t eat in the afternoon.’ ”

The man’s own hand, which is guided by an evil spirit, has attempted to murder him. It’s time for drastic measures. A gas-powered chain saw--doesn’t everyone stash one in the kitchen?--is pulled out and, after a bloody battle, the hand is hacked off.

But still, it lives.

“I love this stuff,” Lovett says, as the hand makes a run for it across his television screen. “I’m a real horror fan, so I like all the blood and guts.”

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In all, there are more than 500 movies on tapes that line cabinets on both sides of the two TV screens and three video recorders Lovett has stacked neatly against the wall of the Van Nuys apartment he shares with his wife, Gayle, and children, Nicholas, 7, and Marki Jenel, 4 months.

“I do a lot of dummying and make my own little tapes,” he says. “I’ll just cut out the best clips from a movie. I like ‘Friday the 13th’ and Freddie and all that stuff.”

His scariest tape? That would be the one with clips from last season’s St. Genevieve games.

“It really is a horror film,” Lovett says, popping in the tape. “What I see is just laziness. No pursuit on defense. They’re just joggin’ around out there. . . .”

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As he speaks, another Valiant effort ends in disarray, prompting a distraught reaction from a coach on the sideline.

“You see the coach throw his hands up?” Lovett says. “That’s what the whole year was like.”

“Some of the guys tell me that the coaches quit on them. I can’t really say what all happened for sure. But I do know that we’re not going 1-8 again or I’ll be tossing up more than my hands.”


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