Stoic expressions born of disbelief and shame crossed the faces of Mission Viejo High coaches and players as the game clock wound down on an October night in 1991.
The source of their torment was a 42-7 loss to Mater Dei in a nonleague football game at Santa Ana Stadium--an experience with which the proud Diablos were unfamiliar. Mission Viejo entered the game undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Orange County, but it left with the cheering of Mater Dei’s coaches, fans and players ringing in its ears.
Some key performers were unavailable because of injuries, but many of the team’s supporters believe there was more at work in the drubbing. The effects of years of turmoil on the Mission Viejo campus--and in the community--were catching up with the team.
“They gave us a real beating,” said Ken Sjobom, a Mission Viejo teacher and former longtime assistant football coach. “In all my years, we were never beaten like that.”
Including the rout by Mater Dei, Mission Viejo was 3-4 in its final seven games after winning its first four. What’s more, the Diablos lost in the first round of the Southern Section playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
They have not had a winning season since. But what occurred last year was especially galling to ardent supporters; the Diablos failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1976.
For the football team, 1991 proved to be a watershed. By the end of the next season, the corps of coaches who helped create and sustain football excellence at Mission Viejo would be gutted. And the problems were not exclusive to the football program.
Almost three years later, those demons have yet to be exorcised.
Today, Mission Viejo is attempting to piece together a football program--and an athletic department--that once was second to none in the county. Both became casualties in a war of ideology over a school logo and repeated losers in political battles with a principal whose style of leadership has been strongly criticized by coaches, parents and teachers, although he is commended for the school’s academic prowess. And while some believe Mission Viejo is well on the road to recovery, others doubt the Diablos will ever walk as successful a path again.
At one time, Mission Viejo was the yardstick by which other public school athletic departments in the county were measured.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Diablos dominated Southern Section play. Few schools in the state have sustained as high a level of play in as many sports over an equal period of time. Cal-Hi Sports selected Mission Viejo its state school of the year three times (1981, ’86 and ’87) for overall athletic success.
From 1977-90, the football team won eight South Coast League championships, two section titles and played in another section title game. The Diablos advanced to at least the semifinal round from 1984-90, and totaled 10 or more victories four consecutive seasons (1987-90). Mission Viejo was ranked first in the final county football poll in 1988 and ’90.
Bill Crow remembers those glory days well.
Crow led Mission Viejo to a section title in 1981 and was 73-22-6 in seven seasons as head coach. He stepped down in 1987 and is now an assistant at Trabuco Hills.
“We were real fortunate,” Crow said. “We did operate at a pretty successful level for a long time.”
And several other sports also provided their share of league titles and section championships.
The boys’ swimming and diving team won the section’s major-division title from 1975-88. The girls did the same from 1976-86.
“It got to the point where it was a shock if we didn’t win the (swimming) titles,” said Assistant Principal Wil Chong, who has spent 17 years at the school.
In baseball, Mission Viejo played in a section title game in 1985. The team won league championships in 1978 and ’89, and qualified for the playoffs 12 times from 1976-93.
Basketball also produced its share of trophies. The boys’ team won four league titles and played in two section title games from 1976-85. The girls won section championships in 1982 and ’87. There was also continued success in boys’ and girls’ soccer, track and tennis.
But Mission Viejo has fallen hard.
After the fall and winter sports seasons, Mission Viejo was 36th out of 38 large-division schools (at least 1,200 students) in competition for The Times’ All-Sports Awards. The Diablos had 41.025 points. Edison was first with 237.67.
The Times uses a formula based on teams’ winning percentages, finish in league and playoff results to determine points. Out of all public schools in Orange County, Mission Viejo had the third-lowest score.
Mission Viejo posted winning records in only two of 11 varsity sports it fielded in the fall and winter sessions. Judging by Mission Viejo’s current spring records, it probably will not improve much.
Even factoring in changes in enrollment and the cyclical nature of sports in public schools, such a sweeping decline is troubling to many. Some say situations that could have been avoided have irreparably damaged the program.
John Hattrup is concerned.
A 1976 graduate of the school, Hattrup led Mission Viejo to its two girls’ basketball section titles and seven league titles in 10 years. This season he took over the Brea-Olinda girls’ program, where he had been an assistant since 1987. The Ladycats were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Hattrup said. “I felt that we had one of the best coaching staffs, if not the best, in Orange County at Mission Viejo.
“All of the coaches got along, and we all did things together. I’m glad I made the move not just because of the national championship but also for other reasons.”
No problem loomed larger than the battle of wills over the logo.
A fierce-looking devil was formerly used to represent the school’s nickname. Diablo is Spanish for devil.
But in 1986, the Saddleback Valley Unified School District banned the logo amid complaints by fundamentalist Christians in the community. The group pushing for change said the image represented evil and wanted the Diablo name to go as well. A compromise was reached to ban only the logo.
A drawing of a bulldog was adopted, and students were told they could no longer display the old logo on campus. But the bulldog never caught on.
The school board’s decision divided the community.
Parents and students defied the action, displaying the banned emblem on hats, jackets and T-shirts during school and in the stands at games.
Angry words were exchanged at school meetings, and two lawsuits were filed by parents who claimed their children’s free-speech rights were being infringed upon. One suit was settled, and the other is still pending, according to a district spokeswoman.
Harvey Ohman was president of the school’s All-Sports Booster Club when the controversy hit.
“That whole thing created the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Ohman said. “We had always been a very close-knit (school), but that created factions.”
Hoping to again unite the community, school officials held an election in 1993 to decide on a new logo. A depiction of a smiling baby devil, the only option remotely resembling the previous logo, was chosen.
But that move has been stalled because of a copyright problem. Even if the new logo does mollify some, sources said, several fences cannot be mended.
Many said the logo issue cost Mike Rush, the former head football coach, his job.
Rush had sided with players and students who rebelled against the ban, which sources said enraged Principal Robert Metz. Metz is described by some coaches, teachers and boosters as a domineering administrator who does not permit opposition from the faculty.
Though Metz admits he runs a tight ship, he rebuts charges of Draconian rule. And even Metz’s harshest critics praise him for academic strides made under him.
“Metz went crazy over the whole devil thing,” said one former booster club member who asked to remain anonymous. “Metz wanted (Rush) to prevent the kids from wearing any stuff with the devil.
“Metz wanted him to watch the kids 24 hours a day. Rush said you can’t watch kids 24 hours a day.”
Memos obtained by The Times show that Metz pressured Rush, and other members of the athletic department, to enforce the ban.
In one memo to Rush dated Nov. 4, 1992, Metz wrote: “Apparently, the devil on the hat has expanded to include the varsity (football) team. I expect you to take care of the situation with your (team).”
Rush did not fulfill Metz’s mandate and was given an ultimatum.
“Metz gave him a (form) to sign, which said that Rush would stop everyone from wearing the devil,” the former booster club member said. “When Rush refused to sign, Metz forced him to resign.”
Rush was fired by Metz in March, 1993, after five seasons as head coach and 15 total on the coaching staff.
Rush died of a heart attack eight months later at age 46.
Metz declined to discuss the situation, saying he could not because it is a personnel matter.
“I think 99% of things might be different if that logo stuff never came up,” Ohman said. “Personalities got involved, and it created one problem after another.”
A group calling itself the Committee For Concerned Parents spearheaded a movement to have the stadium at Mission Viejo named in honor of Rush, but the district torpedoed the plan because Mission Viejo shares the stadium with Laguna Hills. The board has asked for other memorial recommendations.
“I feel an injustice was committed against Mike Rush,” said Arleen Brown, co-founder of the committee. “Mike Rush was forced to resign because he refused to uphold the illegal ban on the Diablo mascot.
“No one should have to go through the stress he went through.”
Metz said he never deals with his staff in an unprofessional manner. But Rush was not the only coach with whom he battled.
Dave (Wally) Clark said Metz drove him from Mission Viejo.
Clark was an assistant coach on the football and baseball teams from 1981-90. He said he had a good relationship with Metz--until his son won the varsity catching job over Metz’s son during the 1989 baseball season.
Now the football coach at Murrieta Valley, Clark is speaking about the situation for the first time publicly.
“During the season, we had no clue he was so upset,” Clark said. “He was angry, and he never said anything to us, but when the season was over he blew up.”
In meetings with Clark and Coach Ron Drake after the season, Clark said Metz lambasted them for not starting his son.
“He told us we were horrible coaches,” Clark said. “He wasn’t talking to us as a parent, he was talking to us as a principal.
“When you’re in that type of position, you have to sometimes divorce yourself from being a parent. He had a hard time doing that.”
Clark remained at Mission Viejo for one more year and left for Murrieta Valley before the start of the 1991 school year. He said his final year on campus was the most difficult of his life.
“We didn’t talk for the whole year before I left . . . not a word was spoken between us,” Clark said. “The stress and the strain really got to me. Knowing your boss hated you was real tough.”
Drake spent 17 years at Mission Viejo as the head baseball coach and a football assistant. He left the football team after the 1991 season and resigned as the baseball coach last season despite great success--a 249-134 record and 12 playoff appearances.
At the time of his resignation, Drake said he was stepping down for personal reasons. Drake will not comment on the situation, but friends have said he was badly hurt by Metz’s anger toward him.
“The only thing I want to say is that I have a lot of fond memories and a lot of passion for (Mission Viejo),” said Drake, who transferred to Laguna Hills before the start of the school year. Drake spent the previous year assisting in baseball and football at Capistrano Valley.
“What happened bothers me a lot. It was very difficult, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
Clark blames Metz for much of what has happened to the school’s athletic program--especially in football.
“In many ways, Metz is a great principal,” Clark said. “Academically, he took that school to new heights.
“But the demise of the program began when the administration got rid off all the coaches, and it was all for personal reasons. All of a sudden, everything we built just went away because of personal reasons.”
Clark applied for the football coaching position after Rush resigned but was turned down. Marty Spalding was selected, which angered many parents. Spalding was formerly an assistant at archrival El Toro, and he further angered some parents by hiring former El Toro Coach Bob Johnson as an assistant.
“Spalding and Johnson came in with three strikes on them,” said Ohman, former president of the booster club. “The community would have responded to any other coaches but them.”
Mission Viejo went 4-6 and missed the playoffs last season. Spalding resigned in November.
In addition to being an assistant coach on the football team, Sjobom was the head coach on the junior varsity baseball team from 1979-84 and 1987-92. He assisted Drake in 1993.
When Drake resigned, Sjobom applied for the varsity job. But he was turned down despite having won eight league titles and 69% of his games (162-72).
The job was given to Pat Wren, who arrived at Mission Viejo in 1992 and had a record of 4-16 on the junior varsity in 1993. This season, the baseball team is last in the South Coast League at 3-17, 0-11 in league play.
Sjobom declined to discuss the baseball-coaching situation or to elaborate on his reasons for leaving the football team. Wren did not return phone calls.
Metz denies Clark’s claim about the outbursts and said coaches who left Mission Viejo did so on their own volition. Metz said he does not use his position as principal to influence selection committees.
“None of the coaches leaving had anything to do with my leadership ability,” Metz said. “There was nothing personal with respect to the way I’ve dealt with my staff.
“The bottom line is that there is nothing in my regime that allows for anything personal. I don’t deal in that format. I have never dealt like that.”
Metz, who has been principal since 1981, agrees the coaching turnover in baseball and football has been high and that the instability has weakened the programs. But Metz blames the turnover on what he said was conflict within the previous football staff.
Assistant Principal Chong is in charge of the athletic department. He, too, places the responsibility for the turnover on the coaches.
“I don’t think (Metz) had trouble dealing with anyone,” Chong said. “If there comes a time when coaches don’t feel they can go along with the philosophy of the administration, then they have a choice to make.”
Both Metz and Chong said the problems with the coaching situation cannot solely account for the decline in won-loss records. They pinpoint declining enrollment as the main culprit.
“One of the difficulties we have to face in playing Division I athletics is that our competition has as many as 700 to 800 students more than us,” Metz said. “When you compare the number of blue-chip athletes per hundred, obviously the greater number of students you have the better.”
Mission Viejo has suffered a continual decline in the student body since its peak enrollment of 2,699 in 1977, according to the district. Mission Viejo is the oldest school in the district, and some of its enrollment has been pulled away with the opening of El Toro, Laguna Hills and Trabuco Hills high schools.
As of April 1, Mission Viejo was the third-largest school in the district with an enrollment of 1,678. El Toro (2,092) is first and Trabuco Hills (1,714) second. Throughout the late 1970s and ‘80s, Mission Viejo’s enrollment remained about 2,200.
Mission Viejo has the lowest enrollment in the South Coast League, although it is not the smallest school competing in Division I. But Metz and Chong argue that shrinking enrollment, coupled with the emergence of nearby, private Santa Margarita as an athletic force, have combined to dilute the talent pool.
Because of this, they said it is impossible for Mission Viejo to maintain its former level of dominance. That theory, however, does not hold water. Despite a significant enrollment drop, Edison still runs one of the best athletic programs in the county, as shown by The Times’ All-Sports rankings.
And Mission Viejo’s enrollment drop didn’t immediately signal doom for the football program. In 1990, the Diablos were 11-2 and advanced to a section semifinal. Enrollment then was 1,700, only slightly higher than today.
“We would like to win every year, but that’s not realistic,” Metz said. “We’re not going to win (section titles) again and again and again and again like we used to.”
So in what direction does Mission Viejo head now?
Well, more change is taking place. And many believe the current moves will help.
Potentially the biggest boost to the program, several Diablo supporters said, will come in July when Metz leaves to become director of secondary education for the district.
Tustin Principal Duffy Clark will replace Metz. The Tillers maintained and cultivated a strong athletic program during Clark’s six-year tenure as principal, a fact that pleases current All-Sports Booster Club President John Dellos.
“We wanted someone who recognized that athletics are an integral part of a school program,” said Dellos, a member of the selection committee.
Said Clark: “Athletics play a part in a total school program. It’s one of the three major components, along with academics and other activities, that help to create a successful environment.”
New football Coach Bill Denny also wants to help the Mission Viejo environment.
Formerly an assistant under Rush and Spalding, Denny is popular with many parents. They believe he can put the program back on solid ground.
“A lot of people have rallied around Denny,” said Ohman, who also announces Diablo football games. “The real feeling is that he can bring it back.”
Denny has moved swiftly. He is bringing in former players to coach and teach current players about the program’s tradition. Boys’ Athletic Director Steve Carnes, who coached Lawndale Leuzinger to a section title in 1985, will also lend a hand.
Denny has talked with the players about putting troubles behind and banding together to get back on top. He also plans to speak with the booster club soon.
“We’ll take the positive from the past, and combine that with some energetic new people and build on that,” he said. “I want the kids here to feel like they are special because they’re playing at Mission Viejo High.
“That’s the feeling I want to build on because this is a special place.”
As many can attest, that’s a feeling few have had at Mission Viejo in quite awhile.
20 Years of Mission Viejo Football
Year Record League Finish Playoffs Coach 1974 5-4-0 Fourth Did not qualify John Murio 1975 6-4-0 Second Lost in first round John Murio 1976 4-5-0 Fourth Did not qualify John Murio 1977 7-4-0 Tied for first Lost in quarterfinals John Murio 1978 9-4-0 Third Won championship John Murio 1979 10-1-0 First Lost in quarterfinals John Murio 1980 7-3-1 Tied for first Lost in first round Bill Crow 1981 13-0-1 First Won championship Bill Crow 1982 8-2-1 First Lost in quarterfinals Bill Crow 1983 7-5-0 Third Lost in quarterfinals Bill Crow 1984 8-3-2 Second Lost in semifinals Bill Crow 1985 11-2-1 Third Lost in finals Bill Crow 1986 8-5-0 Third Lost in semifinals Bill Crow 1987 11-2-0 First Lost in semifinals Bill Crow 1988 12-1-0 First Lost in semifinals Mike Rush 1989 10-3-0 Third Lost in semifinals Mike Rush 1990 11-2-0 First Lost in semifinals Mike Rush 1991 7-4-0 Third Lost in first round Mike Rush 1992 5-6-0 Third Lost in first round Mike Rush 1993 4-6-0 Fifth Did not qualify Marty Spalding