A Coach of Quick Wit, Slow Talk : 19-Year Veteran Is an Institution at Schurr

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

His voice, familiar in the Deep South but foreign to Montebello, is Ken Davis’ trademark. The many years he has spent far from his native Georgia have affected it little.

“They say it’s speeded up from what I used to do,” said the only football coach Schurr High School has ever had. “A lot of the kids try to mimic me. One good thing, when you call someone on the phone they know who you are immediately.”

Success also identifies Davis, 52, who is in his 19th season as coach of the Spartans and has been at the same school longer than any other coach in the Southeast/Long Beach area.

“He’s like Matlock,” said Millikan High Coach Dave Radford, referring to the TV lawyer portrayed by Andy Griffith. “He gives you that slow-talking drawl, but behind that is one of the quickest minds in Southern California football.”


Radford and Davis once attended Cal State Long Beach together and are now non-conference rivals.

Players Tend to Be Small

Small, with narrow shoulders, a pale cross-hatched neck and red hair fading to gray, the bespectacled Davis looks as unimposing as his players. “I can look most of my linemen in the eye,” he drawled, making a point that his team is almost always at a distinct size disadvantage.

But in heart and aggressiveness, they more than match up.

“I’ve never had a kid get a football scholarship in all these years,” Davis said. “But we’ve still managed to win 120 games (including a CIF championship in 1980). I have a good staff, and we get the most out of our players. We have a lot of small kids who give you 100% and take a lot of pride in being a Spartan.”

The losses?

“I try not to keep track of them,” Davis said.

Davis’ record, according to Athletic Director Don Hill, is 124-57-1.

The new season has been painful for Davis, and not just because injuries and academic difficulties have cost him several players.

He was supposed to have back surgery during the summer. “Somethin’ to do with a disc, but that’s no big deal, just one of those things,” he said. “I was feeling better so I put it off, then I got blind-sided in practice. I only sleep two or three hours a night. I can’t hardly lay down.”

But each afternoon he is on the practice field, which sits with the gym and a parking lot on a sun-baked Montebello hill above the Pomona Freeway.

“You demand something from the kids, you have to expect the same from yourself,” he said. “But there comes a time you can’t cope with it. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

An opening game loss to Montebello High, 28-6, had not helped his back or spirit. “We weren’t very spectacular,” Davis said with his typical dry humor a few hours before a game last week with Pioneer High.

Davis was unsure whether to give his Knute Rockne pep talk or the Vince Lombardi one. “Maybe I’ll give excerpts from both,” he said. “After last week I better give them something.”

In the 1950s, Davis played linebacker, center and running back on the Waynesboro (Ga.) High football team.

“We were the Purple Hurricane . . . that’ll strike fear into your heart, won’t it?” he said.

He last visited Waynesboro a year ago, returning for his mother’s funeral.

“You go back there and people are different,” he said. “Friendlier, more genuine, more caring about other people. If your neighbors cook something for dinner, they cook a little extra and bring it over to you.”

It was mainly at his mother’s insistence that he sought higher education.

“We were very poor,” he said. “The poor people stay and work in factories, gas stations or on farms.

But he broke out, and, in the eyes of his hometown, quite successfully. A 1988 story on Davis in the Waynesboro True Citizen began: “The Waynesboro High School class of 1954 produced its share of doctors, scientists, attorneys and entrepreneurs. It also produced one heck of a football coach in Ken Davis, son of Mr. and Mrs. James C. Davis.”

After high school, Davis joined the Navy and was stationed at San Diego. Later, he went to Orange Coast College and, in 1964, graduated from Cal State Long Beach. Before moving to Schurr when it changed from a junior high to a high school in 1971, he coached at Servite High in Anaheim, San Marcos in Santa Barbara and Keppel in Alhambra.

A picture of Bear Bryant, the late Alabama coach, is above Davis’ desk. “Him and Lombardi are probably my two biggest (heroes),” he said.

So it is no accident that Davis, usually dressed in the school colors of green and gold, is a motivator, too.

“I love to listen to his halftime talks,” said equipment manager Jim Fagan. “Once at Millikan he had them so fired up they couldn’t wait to get out there. He was yelling and screaming. Then on the kickoff everyone over-pursued and they (opponents) ran it back for a touchdown.”

“I don’t know where he gets the words,” quarterback Jay Macias said, “but somehow they’re always the right words. And they’re always simple.”

“I just let it be spontaneous,” Davis said. “It just comes out naturally, I guess. I used to be a pretty wild guy. I still have my moments. Some years back I broke my hand, punching a blackboard that didn’t move. I was trying to fire up the troops but I came out on the short end of that one.”

The coach never fails to renew his enthusiasm each season.

“As you get older the fires don’t seem to burn so fiercely or brightly, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t get worked up,” he said. “I still enjoy it as much as ever.”

Davis, who lives with Helen, his wife of 34 years, in Whittier, thought about the satisfaction his years at Schurr have brought him.

“I guess it’s just working with the kids, and the fun of being around them,” he said. “I like to see them win and be successful. And there’s a big challenge in trying to get them to play up to their potential.”

But there is dismay: “You get kids now who could care less about grades. They don’t think school is important. It’s kind of a sad situation and it seems to be going on at a lot of places.”

And frustration: “It’d be kinda fun to coach in a place that has (college) Division I players, but that’s the way it goes. I like it here. This district pays pretty good salaries.”

Among the players on whom Davis has had a lasting impact is Armando Marentes, captain of Davis’ first team and now Schurr’s vice principal. “Everything I learned I learned from Coach Davis,” Marentes said. “Behind his back we made fun of his accent, but the respect was always there. I’m the vice principal now and I still call him Coach Davis.”

Marentes said Davis has not changed: “No matter who you were or how good or bad you were, you went by the rules, and that’s exactly the same now.”

Davis also teaches physical education, conveying with seriousness the techniques of games such as badminton. “In P.E. at some places they just throw out a couple of balls and say play,” he said. “We have a highly developed program. There’s actually teaching going on.”

Thus Davis has become a Schurr institution. “Yeah, a mental institution,” he said.

“See that guy on crutches,” Davis said before meeting with his players last Thursday afternoon before the Pioneer game. “He got hurt Tuesday, he’s a two-way starter. Another nail in the coffin.”

As he walked from the gym to the meeting room on a day as hot as Georgia, Davis pulled down the bill of his green cap to stave off any reoccurrence of skin cancer. “I’m afraid I wasn’t made to be in the sun,” he said.

In a mirrored room, the Schurr players, in their gold jerseys, sat on the floor and listened to their coach.

Davis would ask a question about strategy and when it was answered would say, “Is that right, Mike? . . . Do you agree with that, Dan?”

The players called him sir.

“Pressure,” Davis told them, “brings out the best in a lot of people. When you’re standing there on the goal line and they’ve got the ball fourth and one, you’ve got to say, ‘I hope he runs at me.’ That’s pressure, and you make it work. I like pressure. To me, the most fun is when you come back and win a game with 10 seconds left. . . . It don’t get no better than that.”

He concluded his speech by pointing a finger at his players. “You guys better be ready,” he said.

They were. They beat Pioneer, 28-8.

The next day Davis saw his doctor, who advised that he quit teaching and coaching until his back is taken care of.

“You can see my answer,” Davis said on the practice field Monday, refusing, like his accent, to change.