Reign Won't Go Away

Times Staff Writer

He snaps at officials, squabbles with other coaches and isn't happy unless he gets his way -- which seems to be most of the time.

Meet Gary McKnight, 50, music fan, self-deprecating humorist, cancer survivor, wannabe baseball coach and controversial leader of the high school boys' basketball program by which, in Southern California, all others are judged.

On Saturday, Santa Ana Mater Dei won its 17th Southern Section divisional championship in McKnight's 21 seasons. Tonight, the top-seeded Monarchs play Bakersfield Highland in the first round of the Southern California Regionals, four steps away from what would be their fifth state championship during McKnight's reign.

Care to bet against him? His Mater Dei teams have won 637 of 694 games, a .918 percentage.

Not bad for a guy who wasn't a star athlete but who learned as a teenager that diagraming the perfect play could be as gratifying as making that play -- just as long as in the end he came out a winner.

"He's a competitor," said Santa Margarita Coach Jerry DeBusk, whose teams are 0-8 against McKnight's Monarchs in the last four years. "I don't care if it's basketball or Little League baseball. He wants to win."

And win he does, though at a price.

"Gary's almost created a different world than what we have going," said Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley's Brian Mulligan, coach of the last Orange County team to defeat Mater Dei -- on Jan. 30, 1998. "It's a ridiculously pressure-filled world, and Gary gets looked at differently because of that."

Especially at times such as now, when, with three senior starters with NCAA Division I scholarships in his starting lineup, he knows there are great expectations.

"There's pressure with teams like this year's," McKnight acknowledged, "because we should win a state title."

'No-Nonsense' Mentor

Growing up, McKnight and his friends played baseball on the streets of Inglewood with a plastic bat and a Wiffle ball, using chalk to color in makeshift bases and pitching to each other until their arms turned to rubber.

When the bat cracked or the ball broke, the kids taped them back together and kept playing.

McKnight's sports heroes were Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and Vin Scully, but his family was of modest means; if they went to Dodger Stadium once a season it was a big deal.

He liked basketball, but it wasn't his passion. He wasn't particularly good at it, either.

Trying out for the San Clemente junior varsity after his family moved, he got cut. "He was lacking size, speed," Coach Stan DeMaggio recalled.

In baseball, McKnight was a solid first baseman and outfielder, but a broken right ankle limited his production as a senior and in two subsequent seasons at Saddleback College.

They were formative years anyway, because he observed perhaps his most influential mentor -- the late Marshall Adair, San Clemente's baseball coach.

"He had a drive and desire and toughness to him that I really modeled a lot of my coaching after," McKnight said. "He was a no-nonsense guy but could joke with you and get you laughing."

McKnight became a coach as a junior in high school, starting with youth football, then in a Boys' Club basketball league. A few years later, he was hired to coach the freshman basketball team at San Clemente. Next came stints coaching baseball at Laguna Beach High and basketball at Saddleback College and Huntington Beach Ocean View High.

"I liked him right away," recalled Jim Harris, Ocean View's varsity coach. "I watched his teams and they played to win. Man, they got after it."

McKnight coached the freshman and junior varsity teams to a combined 82-11 record and won a league championship in each of his four seasons.

He also was caught going overboard in an effort to win.

One year, McKnight had a sophomore sharpshooter who teammates ushered to the free-throw line even when he wasn't the one who got fouled. The player made 19 free throws in one game, still a school record.

Harris was livid when he found out. "There's no glory in winning unless everyone plays by the same rules," he told McKnight and the team.

A Winner; A Target

Harris and McKnight remain friends, but the Ocean View coach's words have become the mantra for critics of Mater Dei's basketball program.

Few of McKnight's detractors wish to be quoted by name, but their complaints have become familiar over the years.

McKnight, they say, has a sweet deal. The school, which is private and has a sterling academic record, attracts top athletes throughout Southern California -- many of them transfers who, in some years, have been accepted despite long waiting lists for new students.

The school won't say how many of its basketball players are allowed breaks on tuition -- which this year is $6,225 for Catholics and $7,050 for non-Catholics.

He also has a legion of assistant coaches and a lucrative contract with sports apparel giant Nike, which pays him a consultant's fee and supplies Monarch players with the latest shoes and gear, free.

Little wonder, the grumbling goes, that Mater Dei's lineup is routinely and generously sprinkled with transfers. This season is typical. Of the top six players, four are transfers -- forward D.J. Strawberry from Pasadena Blair, forward Marcel Jones from West Hills Chaminade, and guards Wesley Washington and Trevante Nelson from Fontana.

Also typically, McKnight is unapologetic. It's natural, the coach says, for basketball-minded youngsters -- and, for that matter, Nike -- to yearn to be associated with a winner.

"The success we've had, they're going to say, 'I've got a chance to play with kids who can play and really get seen,' " McKnight said. "And I think the kids are looking at an education as well."

McKnight says he doesn't recruit, and even a few of his critics agree. They say well-connected youth coaches such as Pat Barrett do it for him, an accusation both coaches deny.

Barrett, a Mater Dei assistant in McKnight's first three years, runs a collection of traveling teams known as the Southern California All-Stars. A number of his prodigies, including stars such as Cedric Bozeman and Jamal Sampson, have played for Mater Dei. But Barrett also can rattle off an impressive list of players -- Baron Davis, Jelani McCoy, Tayshaun Prince included -- who went elsewhere.

"I don't send kids there or campaign for him," Barrett said. "Kids like to go to successful programs, and Mater Dei has been one of the more successful ones over the last 20 years."

Indeed, for all the bickering about the Monarchs, the school has run afoul of the Southern Section only once, in 1988, when McKnight and former football coach Chuck Gallo met with three Corona del Mar athletes at the urging of a Mater Dei administrator.

The administrator was reassigned, and life went on for both coaches.

"People will step on the line and people will step over the line," said Dean Crowley, commissioner of the Southern Section from 1993-99. "Gary doesn't even step to the line. If there was something questionable, he was always going to call and ask questions."

Said McKnight: "We follow the rules about as strong as any high school out there. We take a lot of pride in it. I'm not going to put myself in a compromising situation."

As for the knock that the Monarchs enjoy an advantage with so many coaches, McKnight pleads guilty. He says the importance of assembling a strong staff is something he picked up from former Marquette Coach Al McGuire.

"He said there's five or six areas to being a head coach," McKnight said. "If you're dynamite in 2 1/2 or three of them, don't hire somebody the same as you. Hire someone who knows an area."

Mater Dei assistants are each asked to concentrate on one phase of the game, and he credits his staff for much of his success.

"I think there's a lot of head coaches in Orange County every bit as good as Gary McKnight," he said. "But there are few schools who have four or five coaches on campus and have the support system we have. That's our advantage."

Method or Madness?

Call up a few dozen acquaintances -- friends, foes and family -- to ask about McKnight and two consistently cited characteristics quickly emerge.

He really, really likes to win. He really, really hates to lose.

At anything.

McKnight is a Jimmy Buffett fan and he and his eldest son, Clay, an assistant under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, have a rivalry over even that: They compete to see who can attend the most Buffett concerts.

It goes like this: The coach calls his son from some far-flung locale to let him know that he's listening to "Come Monday" -- live.

When it's the other way around, and Clay has temporarily claimed victory as the more dedicated "Parrothead," grumbling often resonates from the other end of the line.

All in good fun, of course -- usually. But the same can't be said when McKnight gets wound up over a circumstance in a basketball game.

Consider his reaction to a summer-league loss years ago. The morning after, McKnight met his players at the school gym and told them to lace up their track shoes; they were going to run until somebody quit -- and whoever quit first would be demoted to the junior varsity.

After nearly two hours, forward Stuart Thomas couldn't keep going. He pulled up -- and earned a two-week demotion. Later, though, Thomas earned a scholarship to Stanford.

McKnight method, or McKnight madness?

The coach demands no less from game officials. A few years ago, with his team leading midway through the first quarter of another summer game (Is it the heat that sets him off?) the coach pulled his team from the floor because of what he perceived as biased officiating.

Danny Ainge, a former NBA player and coach, happened to be in the gym that day because his son, Austin, was playing for the opposing team.

"Coach, what are you doing?" Ainge said, chasing McKnight.

"We're not going to play with these officials," the coach said.

"If you can't handle these officials," Ainge scolded, "you should let one of your assistants coach. All the kids and the parents want to see this game. You are the only person in the gym who doesn't want to play today."

McKnight put his team back on the floor a few minutes later.

A True Love

There was a time when McKnight yearned for greater challenges, and with all his success it's at least something of a surprise that he's still coaching at the high school level.

He expressed interest in coaching vacancies at Utah State, UC Irvine and his alma mater, Cal State Fullerton, in recent years, yet was never so much as interviewed.

It bothered him then; not so much now. He is entrenched at Mater Dei and seems at peace with his legacy.

McKnight still has a temper, still grouses when he doesn't get his way. But opposing coaches sense a difference in him.

A fan barks at him to stop standing and pacing. "Sit down, I can't see the game!" And the stout coach turns sideways and freezes for a second or two. "Now I really can't see the game!" the fan chirps.

McKnight smiles slyly.

The competitive fire is still there, but the coach has mellowed a bit.

Cancer couldn't stop him, but it did change his perspective.

A doctor found a tumor in his chest seven years ago, necessitating the removal of 2 1/2 ribs and part of a lung. For the next five years, McKnight underwent numerous chest X-rays and other tests to confirm his recovery.

"At times in that cancer ward, you look at people not as fortunate as you and wonder, 'Why am I the lucky one?' " McKnight said. "Every day is a good day to me now."

The coach has no feeling on the left side of his chest where the tumor was removed. Making matters worse, he suffers from adult-onset diabetes and has lost sensation in his toes.

With persistent concerns about his health, many of McKnight's peers have closed ranks around him.

The antidote for his worries? Not basketball.

McKnight and his wife, Judy, have five sons, and he has coached them all in baseball. A picture of the boys outfitted in various uniforms hangs above the fireplace at the family's Mission Viejo home.

In the next week or two, the basketball season will end, but McKnight will keep right on coaching -- from a dugout.

"Baseball is my love," McKnight said. "I played the sport, I really know the sport and enjoy it. Sometimes I think I probably would have been better off being a [high school] baseball coach."



McKnight Milestones

Accomplishments of Gary McKnight, boys' high school basketball coach at Mater Dei:




A Legacy of Success

Gary McKnight's accomplishments as Mater Dei's boys' basketball coach:

*--* Season Rec Titles 1982-83 29-3 Angelus League, Southern Section 83-84 28-2 Angelus League 84-85 29-0 Angelus League, Southern Section* 85-86 30-1 Angelus League, Southern Section 86-87 31-1 Angelus League, Southern Section, Southern California regional, state 87-88 21-8 Southern Section 88-89 25-3 Angelus League 89-90 34-1 Angelus League, Southern Section, Southern California regional, state 90-91 25-5 Angelus League 91-92 34-2 Angelus League, Southern Section, Southern California regional 92-93 33-2 South Coast League, Southern Section 93-94 33-1 South Coast League, Southern Section 94-95 36-1 South Coast League, Southern Section, Southern California reg., state 95-96 34-2 South Coast League, Southern Section 96-97 32-3 South Coast League, Southern Section 97-98 21-8 South Coast League 98-99 34-4 South Coast League, Southern Section, Southern California regional 99-2000 35-1** Serra League, Southern Section 00-01 33-2 Serra League, Southern Section, Southern California regional, state 01-02 29-5 Serra League, Southern Section 02-03 31-2 Serra League, Southern Section TOTALS 637-57 20 league, 17 Southern Section, 6 S. California regional, 4 state


* The Southern Section did not participate in state basketball playoffs during the 1984-85 school year.

** Mater Dei was credited with a forfeit victory over Fresno Clovis West in the Southern California regional final after improprieties were found within the Golden Eagle program.

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