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WHERE ARE THEY NOW: RAY O’CONNOR : Coach Moves On but Keeps on Move

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hardly a neighborhood eyesore, the finely cropped Bermuda grass that covered the front lawn of the two-story home would have been perfectly acceptable to most people, but not to Ray O’Connor.

So back and forth he pushed the mower to shave the lawn some more. It was dusk and the chore could have waited another day, maybe even a week, but O’Connor continued hurriedly in a race to finish in daylight.

“This will only take a minute,” he assured a visitor.

There’s no stopping O’Connor. Now 65 and two years removed from Taft High, where he was the physical education department chairman and coached primarily football and baseball for more than two decades, he remains a no-nonsense, hands-on guy who takes care of business on his own terms.

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Despite suffering a heart attack a few years ago, O’Connor refuses to slow down. He is a general building contractor and sells roofs for a Valley-based company. When he is not doing that, O’Connor is busy repairing earthquake-related damages to the home he built himself in 1960.

And O’Connor apparently does it all with the same intensity that was his trademark during his coaching career. There’s no ambiguity in his actions or opinions. He might measure his words more carefully for public consumption, but the essence of the man is clear.

“I’m a person who demands perfection,” O’Connor said. “I gave . . . to the people in my department all the time and they resented it. But the problem is that in every successful operation, someone has to crack the whip.”

On the athletic fields, O’Connor was a regular Zorro as a player and coach.

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As a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher and quarterback at Venice High, O’Connor said he drew the interest of major league baseball scouts and college football recruiters even before he graduated in 1947. He said Notre Dame, coming off back-to-back national championships, offered him a football scholarship but he turned it down after getting a letter from a friend who had tried to make the team.

“He said he couldn’t cut it,” O’Connor recalled. “He said the players were so awesome he recommended I go someplace else.”

O’Connor then decided to explore pro baseball offers and had tryouts with the St. Louis Browns and Chicago Cubs. Neither led to a contract and O’Connor opted for college baseball at UCLA, where he played varsity for three seasons. After going 8-2 with a 3.70 earned-run average in 1951, O’Connor signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and played three seasons in the minor leagues before hurting his rotator cuff.

With his pitching days over, O’Connor got his teaching credential and eventually landed at Canoga Park High, where he coached the junior varsity baseball squad in the late 1950s. Doug MacKenzie, who headed the Hunter baseball program for 37 seasons until 1987, realized from the beginning that O’Connor was a gifted coach.

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“He did a great job of getting the JV players ready (for varsity),” said MacKenzie, who recently resigned after coaching at Ribet Academy for three seasons. “But he knew I was a young man and I wasn’t ready to retire, so he jumped to Taft when that school opened (in the fall of 1960).”

At Taft, O’Connor helped mold the Toreadors into football champions and created one of the best prep baseball programs in Southern California, one continuously loaded with talented players.

Among those who played baseball for O’Connor were eventual major leaguers Larry Dierker, Robin Yount, Pete LaCock, Kelly Paris and Rick Auerbach. Kevin Kennedy, the Texas Rangers’ manager, was a catcher on one of O’Connor’s teams. It was rare for his teams not to feature at least one major league prospect every season and the ones with that kind of potential seemed to flourish under his guidance.

“His background was filled with practical experience,” said Dierker, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who won 139 games in a 14-year career with the Houston Astros and is now a broadcaster with the club. “He would drive you a little harder than some of the other coaches. But he really knew his stuff. He had the ability to get a lot out of the guys who had the little extra talent. . . . If you were on a fast track (to success), he could help you tremendously.”

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Dierker, who was already on a virtual bullet train, impressed O’Connor the first time they met in 1962.

“He told me he wanted to try out for the baseball team,” O’Connor said. “I asked him what position he played and he said ‘pitcher’. So I had him throw to me one day after school. He threw about three pitches and I said, ‘I’ve seen enough.’ I told my wife later that I had my first major league pitcher right there.”

However, even with an abundance of talent on his teams, O’Connor took the Toreadors to only one City Section championship game, losing to Monroe, 9-8, in 1974. Still, Taft dominated the West Valley League for many years and claimed 10 titles under O’Connor, who won more than 200 games before he stopped coaching baseball in 1982. Some of his hardest-fought battles were against MacKenzie and Canoga Park.

“He was fiery and we had our share of arguments,” MacKenzie said. “I remember one day at Lanark Park (Canoga’s home field), the rubber was in the wrong place on the mound. He never bothered to get the (park) caretaker. He just went over and moved it without asking, and it wasn’t even his field.”

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In football, O’Connor teamed with Hal Lambert to make Taft a force in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the Valley was the stage for some phenomenally spirited high school rivalries. Lambert was the head coach and O’Connor the line coach in basically a two-man operation that produced seven league titles. They were part of an era O’Connor remembers fondly.

“We didn’t have (stadium) lights at Taft until ’64 or ’65, so we used to play (home games) at Pierce College,” O’Connor said. “There were times when we had 8,500 and 10,000 people for games against Birmingham, which had powerful teams then.”

One of the Taft players in the mid-'60s was Kim Griffith, a guard and linebacker who later played at UCLA and is now a newspaper executive. To him, O’Connor and Lambert were coaches with integrity who showed genuine concern for their players.

“As I look back, (O’Connor) and Lambert were the most dedicated, caring individuals I’ve known in sports,” Griffith said. “Ray was a character. He was emotional. But I was fortunate to play for them. They were very good people.”

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For Peggy O’Connor, her husband’s nature and unbridled candor have been part of her life for a long time. They were married in 1950 and raised three children--two daughters and a son--in the home they have shared for 34 years. And although Peggy O’Connor agrees that her husband sometimes projects a rough persona, there are other qualities his detractors never acknowledge.

“He is a very demanding person,” she said. “He expected 100% of his students. But he is also very soft-hearted. He took great pride in teaching sports.”

That pride contributed toward O’Connor’s decision to quit coaching football after the 1980 season. He felt there were too many walk-on coaches at Taft with not enough knowledge about the game who joined the ranks for the wrong reasons.

“I loved coaching football and I loved the kids,” O’Connor said. “But I got out when I saw all those people coming into the coaching business who didn’t have the kids’ best interests at hand.”

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In 1987, however, O’Connor returned to coaching when he took over the Taft golf team and steered it to three City championships in four seasons. Soon after, he retired for good.

“I have really enjoyed the retirement,” O’Connor said. “I haven’t missed the regimentation of teaching or the bull of the administration. But I miss the kids and I miss the coaching.”


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