A Football ‘Dinosaur’ Hopes to Start New Era : Coaching: Fired last year by Millikan, Dave Radford is rebuilding St. Anthony’s program.
On a sticky August afternoon inside a cool blockhouse newly painted soft purple and white, Dave Radford sat motionless, eyes riveted forward. A bookshelf next to him was crammed with books on philosophies of coaching football. Overhead, next to photographs of the crumbling Berlin Wall and tanks rumbling into China’s Tian An Men Square, were signs reading “Obey the Law” and “No Communists.”
The look in Radford’s eyes was intense, almost like a trance.
“Can’t let the bastards get to you,” he said suddenly, a purple cap bearing the interlocking letters “StA” cocked slightly to the side of his head.
Another four-hour football practice for St. Anthony High was about to begin at Clark Avenue Field in northeast Long Beach, and Radford, the new coach, wanted the players as focused as he was. Distractions would not be tolerated.
“The world is full of snipers,” he explained later. “It’s like one big Pac-Man. You can’t let them get you.”
A self-described coaching dinosaur who was fired from the football job at Millikan High because of his old-fashioned ways, Radford now has what may prove to be the biggest coaching challenge of his career: rebuilding a once-proud program desperately seeking to get back to its roots.
A powerhouse in the 1940s and ‘50s, the Saints have won only one league title since 1979. In the past nine seasons, the school has had seven coaches. Facilities were neglected with trash piling up. The showers even doubled as a place to watch game films when the tile floor wasn’t wet.
Saints football had become, as Radford puts it, “either a place for someone to end up or a steppingstone for a young coach looking to move up quickly.”
A throwback to the 1950s and ‘60s (he is one of the few remaining prep coaches who still wears a coat and tie on the sidelines during games), the 52-year-old Radford may be just what the Saints ordered. His brand of grind-it-out power football, combined with a one-for-all and all-for-one philosophy, wore thin at Millikan, where he was removed last December after six seasons and a 27-26-1 record. But St. Anthony, a 750-student parochial school in downtown Long Beach that practices and plays games cross-town at Clark Avenue Field adjacent to the St. Cyprian’s Church, appears to have room for his beliefs.
“Here we need somebody like a dinosaur,” said Mark Viens, the Saints’ athletic director. “He fits in here. Maybe somewhere else, (like in public school), he doesn’t.”
Former Jordan High Coach Kirk King, a longtime friend who is assisting Radford this season as volunteer coach, spelled out the differences.
“Being here, it’s like a quantum leap back to the ‘60s,” he said. “The kids have a good attitude. When you get 10 kids in a drill here and you are speaking to them, all 10 are listening to you. At a public school, maybe seven, eight of the 10 are listening to you, and they’re looking around, not watching everything.”
It’s Radford’s challenge, then, to bring the football team, which opens Friday by playing host to Cantwell, back to respectability. He admits it won’t be easy.
“There isn’t an oddsmaker in Vegas who would bet on us with our schedule,” he said. St. Anthony will play perennial powers Ontario Christian, Valley Christian, South Torrance and Serra. But on a later day, displaying the optimism that has been characteristic of his coaching career, Radford announced: “We will become a very good football team in very little time.”
Radford, who began his coaching career as an assistant at Poly in the mid-1960s, was also the coach at Jordan in the early 1970s, where he had a losing record. He was released from his Millikan coaching job at the conclusion of the season in December and was courted by the Saints almost immediately.
The parochial job appears to be a match made in heaven. His father, Ernie, coached the Saints during World War II and young Dave often played in the school hallways after hours while his father was on the practice field.
Dave Radford also rigidly believes in God and country. “God never whispers to me,” he said. “He just shouts. I’m very happy to be where I am.”
In public school, he was not permitted to discuss his views about the relationship between faith and football. “Here I can read the Scriptures to the players and they appreciate it,” he said.
He can be like fire and brimstone during practice, but he has a lighter side too. In 1972, while the coach at Jordan High, he allowed a Long Beach newspaper reporter to disguise himself as a high school student and practice with the football team during Hell Week so the reporter could write about the experience.
“Football is the last authoritarian part of American life,” Radford said. “These kids on this football team are willing to give up all their freedoms to play as a unit, a team. It’s truly a mystic experience. Ten years from now when these kids have their reunion, they won’t go looking for the guy they sat next to in chemistry class, they’ll look for the guy they stood next to on the football field.”
Radford is still mystified--even embarrassed--by his removal at Millikan, his alma mater. He was the school’s first class president and graduated in 1957 with the first diploma ever handed out.
“I bled Millikan,” he said.
As a coach, he led the Rams to the Moore League title in 1985 and to the semifinals of the Southern Section Division I playoffs a year later. But the past two seasons the Rams did not make the playoffs, and last year Millikan was 2-8.
“Dave is a great person with kids,” said retired Millikan Principal Wendol Murray, the man who fired Radford in December. “He is very student-centered. Dave’s passion--and he’ll tell you this--is football. He is a good teacher who has a personal relationship with kids.”
But Murray felt Radford’s approach had worn thin.
“We evaluated the football program at Millikan at the end of the school year. I talked to all the coaches, and the consensus was that it was time for a change, for someone younger to take over. And we already had that man on staff,” Murray said.
Dave Shawver, whose previous experience at Millikan was coaching underclass teams, was appointed to replace Radford. Shawver said he wants to take Millikan “in a new direction.”
Although he remains on the teaching staff at Millikan as a history teacher, Radford has not forgotten his football firing. “I have anger . . . but no bitterness about it,” he said.
But the sudden removal of Radford by Millikan is playing a big role in motivating him at St. Anthony. Said former Saints quarterback Dan O’Shea, an All-Southern Section passer in 1987 who is assisting Radford: “More than anything, Dave has something to prove to himself and to Long Beach.”
Shortly after he was hired at St. Anthony, Radford paid a Sunday afternoon visit to the blockhouse at Clark Avenue Field, two miles from his Long Beach home. He brought along his wife, Eva, and their 8-year-old son, David, and 7-year-old daughter, Amy.
A pungent odor greeted them as Radford opened the door. Unwashed uniforms from the team’s final game three months earlier were rotting in a heap in one cubicle. Bugs scurried from under sweaty under shirts as David and Amy helped their dad clean up the mess. Helmets and pads were scattered around the building. Another small room was filled with trash, and the showers were caked with dried soap. Many lockers were inoperable.
Eva took some of the uniforms home and washed them. Later Radford called a meeting of all prospective football players and asked them to help him rebuild the football program. He sought their help in soliciting donations from alumni and friends, and in the next six months they raised $5,000 to refurbish the building. King, calling on carpentry skills he learned in his youth, turned the room full of trash into a team room with amphitheater-style seating. Everything received a fresh coat of paint, and for the first time in more than a decade, a fresh outlook.
“Everything was a lot less organized in the past,” said senior tight end Jason Minter. “Now everything is much more positive, not negative. It wasn’t just prophecy when he said he was going to come in here and change things. He did something about it.”
Under Radford, the Saints now have a weightlifting program and a team council to handle disagreements between coaches and players. It’s all in keeping with Radford’s belief that a football team is family.
“All this school needed is a little love and a little tender care,” he said.
Later that muggy August afternoon, Radford stood rigidly on the practice field like a drill sergeant, barking out orders to about 45 players clad in practice pads and white helmets. Someday he hopes to double that turnout, but ultimately, he admitted, the real test for St. Anthony will come on game nights.
The players grunted and stretched. Radford pointed to their helmets, which bore no insignia.
“When we win that first game,” he said, “we’ll put a purple stripe down the middle. They’ve got to earn their stripes first.”