Making Their Mark : Favorite Son Steps Forth at Marina

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mark Rehling probably doesn't have anything to lose, except some football games. And that's nothing new to a Marina program that has been largely unable to keep up with its rivals the past decade.

Rehling has been around the program forever and has been through more valleys than peaks on the staff at Marina.

Except now, after coaching 23 years on the same sidelines and in the shadows, it is Rehling's program.

"I don't think I have anything to prove," Rehling said. "My only responsibility is to give all that I know and to give those kids the things I believe in. . . . Like [former UCLA basketball Coach] John Wooden says, 'Success is part of a journey, it's not something you can measure in one victory or one season.' It's an overall picture."

That is a nice perspective for a coach at Marina, where dwindling numbers in recent years have prevented the Vikings from being competitive in the Sunset League. Coach Dave Thompson, who guided the program through some of its best times from 1978 to 1985, wasn't nearly as successful in his second tenure beginning in 1991.

The program's younger players fell by the wayside; only about half continued playing beyond their freshman year. The off-season weight program wasn't stressed, which enabled stronger Sunset League teams to manhandle the Vikings. Marina went 6-4 in 1994 but only 1-4 in the Sunset League.

Thompson resigned for personal reasons. Marina hired a favorite son.

Rehling graduated from Marina in 1971 and began coaching there in 1972. He has never been anywhere else, except for Golden West College in 1971, when he realized that playing football wasn't in his future.

So, after spending his career as an assistant, he is now the Viking king.

The first day of practice?

"It was fun. It was like, Wow, after all these years . . . ' he said. "Being head coach is not something I always wanted. I was really happy as an assistant, but I felt like Marina called. My alma mater called. I felt they needed someone to love them, and I do."

That much is obvious.

Rehling, an English teacher, began his coaching career under Coach Leon Wheeler. Wheeler was a hard-liner, an old-school coach by today's standards who tried to shame players into toughness back when there were no water breaks and wounds went unbandaged.

Rehling had tremendous respect for Wheeler, as well as for Golden West Coach Ray Shackleford and his first football coach, Jim Coon, who now team-teaches a class with his former bench-warmer. Their impact steered him toward his future path.

Rehling coached the freshman team and didn't earn a dime. But at least he was in football, and he has picked up a few dimes along the way.

He has had a 180-degree view of football--the good and bad--as an assistant under Wheeler (1972-73), Mike Hennigan (1974-77), Thompson (1978-85), Chris Ramsey (1986-88), John Seely (1989-90) and Thompson again (1991-94).

Like a good student, he learned from all of them.

"Everyone you come into contact with in life, I believe there's something to be learned from every situation," Rehling said. "Whether it's the successful coach, or your inspirational coach like Leon Wheeler, or Dave Thompson who treated us so well and was so great with the kids. [I learned] organization from John Seely, and what it's like to almost be run out of town from Chris Ramsey. From Mike Hennigan, I learned that you have to look at what you've done, and evaluate what you've done under the circumstances, and that just because you fail under those circumstances doesn't mean that you can't coach."

But Rehling also said he's different from all the rest.

"I try to be firm yet compassionate," he said. "I hate wasted time. I believe that you let your yes be your yes and your no be your no. I tell kids, 'This is what I expect from you, and these are the consequences,' and then I follow through on the consequences.

"Basically, my philosophy is that I want to create a family environment, where the coaches feel like they're worthwhile and contributing, and the players feel that the coaches have their best interests at stake and that they're going to give the kids a chance every Friday night.

"You can't guarantee victory unless you're blessed with hundreds of athletes. In the situation we're in, the kids have to know that the coaches are working hard for them and are willing to give them a chance."

The Rehling era opened with a 42-0 loss to Corona del Mar and continued with a 32-13 loss to Newport Harbor. But the other telling numbers at Marina are 26 juniors and seniors on the varsity, and six sophomores. Those are cruel numbers going against the county's biggest and best football teams, such as top-ranked Los Alamitos, No. 2 Esperanza and Edison in the Sunset League.

"The kids I do have are wonderful, but there just aren't many of them," Rehling said. "The really hard part is dealing with players who no longer want to play football; they may have played last year and decided they don't want to play this year. Knowing the kids you have are working so hard and the others seem to be letting them down."

Just two or three of those who are no longer in the program, Rehling said, "could make a real big difference."

And that's Rehling's new task, to keep players in the program.

"Dave Thompson has been a friend of mine for a long time; he left for personal reasons," Rehling said. "When a person is having personal problems, a program like football can get out of hand. It's not Dave's fault, but it's been a real challenge to try to give kids a structure that shows there really is a program for them.

"We've tried to instill some values--friendship, responsibility, self-discipline, loyalty, hope. We talk about those things all the time. "

Rehling said learning how to budget the program's finances has been difficult, too. Of course, he never had to deal with that as an assistant. Nor did he have to deal with the time demands.

"What I'm doing right now is another 40-50 hours a week on top of my teaching, and then there's the off-season stuff that just keeps going," said Rehling, who was hired in May. "That's the biggest shock of moving from assistant to head coach--how much time it costs.

"You want to live a balanced life, you want to have time for family and faith, and when you take this job, especially when you get it as late as I have and have to rebuild things, it literally eats up everything that it can. I can barely teach a class period without someone bringing a note to me that something needs to be done."

And the time demands on Rehling will only get greater. The first essay papers begin arriving today.

"Teaching English is not something where you can roll the textbook out if you're going to do it well," he said. "I can only imagine what it will be like to try to keep up with the paper-grading load."

His wife, Joanne, and sons Greg, 9, and Garret, 6, probably won't see much of him through November.

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Marina Athletic Director Larry Doyle says Rehling can turn the program around, but is cautiously optimistic that Rehling will be there until he retires.

"My only concern is that Mark's family is important to him, which it should be," Doyle said. "He has two sons and his wife is supportive of his football; my concern is if it cuts into the quality time he's going to get to spend with them-- that will drive him out more than winning and losing."

Rehling, who considered himself a water polo player, began a life in football only because his uncle, Eddie Hernandez, was a standout at Laguna Beach in the 1950s. And on the varsity his senior year, only a miracle permitted Rehling to move from fifth-string defensive tackle to starter.

One teammate got a girlfriend pregnant, married her and joined the Marines. Another was thrown in jail. Another broke his ankle the first week of two-a-day practices. Finally, another sprained his knee.

That's how Rehling became a starter on the defensive line of the 1970 Marina team--through "the hand of Providence," he said.

And now, he hopes he has taken his final coaching job.

Once a Viking, always a Viking.

And he insists he hasn't missed anything by growing up in one program.

"I know a lot of football coaches and I don't think I would have learned a whole lot more," Rehling said. "There's something to be said for family and loyalty and being in your own hometown."

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