While coaching high school football for seven decades in Southern California, starting as an assistant at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul in 1959, Marijon Ancich was more than the second-winningest head coach in California history. He was a trendsetter, an innovator and a man who helped prepare and inspire dozens of his former players and assistants to become head coaches.
Ancich, whose date of birth and age are unknown, died Saturday night after entering hospice care following a recent stroke, St. Paul announced. His death at 9:05 p.m. happened while Santa Ana Mater Dei and Concord De La Salle were playing in the CIF Open Division state championship bowl game at Cerritos College, a game Ancich’s teams would have been a contender to play in during his program’s glory days of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
“Marijon is the most organized person I know,” said Dick Bruich, a former assistant, who, like Ancich, has been inducted into multiple halls of fame. “He was always ahead of the game.”
A native of Yugoslavia who graduated from San Pedro High and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Ancich was a longshoreman for more than 40 years. He was believed to be 81 or 82 years old at the time of his death but was so secretive about his age that his wife, Jacquie, said in a 2009 interview, “You won’t get that answer out of me. He’ll get a divorce.”
Ancich had a career coaching record of 360-134-4 and won CIF Southern Section titles in 1968, ’72 and ’81. He had three coaching stints at St. Paul: 1961 to 1981, 1993 to 2005, and 2009 to 2011. He also coached nine seasons at Tustin from 1984 to 1992.
“He took a little Catholic school in the middle of nowhere and made it the center of the high school football universe,” said current St. Paul coach Rick Zepeda, who served as an Ancich assistant. “He made us feel like giants and we played accordingly.”
A St. Paul coaching tree in 2003 listed 116 players or assistants who coached with Ancich. He helped create so much excitement at St. Paul home games that the field became known as the Pit.
Bruich, who would go on to win CIF titles at Fontana and Fontana Kaiser, was an Ancich assistant from 1969 to 1974.
“I learned so much from him,” he said. “Everything we did, a lot of it was from him. He was great at believing you had to write everything down. I’m sure today everyone has their laptop, but he made sure you wrote it down because his philosophy was you didn’t learn it until you wrote it down.
“He was way ahead of the curve on summer weight programs. In 1969, nobody had that stuff going on. It was amazing. He was big on family. On game days, we had a team Mass, we said rosary on the way to the game and after in the chapel because that was a uniting thing. Marijon wasn’t going to invent a playbook. He was more into the process of going from point A to point B. He had a different practice plan every day. He kept a book of his practice plans over the years and could refer back.”
In 1981, St. Paul finished 14-0 and defeated Colton 30-9 in the Big Five championship game before 30,000 at Anaheim Stadium. Then Ancich resigned to become offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona University. St. Paul supporters were shocked. He lasted just one season at Northern Arizona and didn’t make it back to St. Paul until 1993.
“Marijon is obviously like the messiah coming back,” said Steve Grady, the veteran coach at Loyola, in 1993.
In 1974, there was an infamous “spying” incident. Three St. Paul assistants were caught observing a practice at Pioneer High in Whittier from a van across the street. The incident led to a forfeit and expulsion from the playoffs. Ancich said his assistants were in the area only because they were eating at a nearby restaurant.
Tim Lins, a former St. Paul tight end, said Ancich “is probably the major reason I went into coaching.” Lins became the head coach at Encino Crespi and Moorpark.
“The way he ran his program and the way he impacted so many guys over so much time ... the tradition he created was something else to be a part of,” Lins said. “There was an answer for everything and a way to do everything. It was a unique program. You don’t realize how unique until you leave.”
The pregame ritual for St. Paul players was to dress in navy blue blazers, gray slacks, light blue dress shirts and St. Paul ties. There would be a meal of steak and potatoes with no talking because Ancich expected players to focus solely on the game.
Ancich said of coaching in 2003: “To see them come back as adults is inspiring. Many of my former players have done some great things. You feel like you’re helping them.” In that article, Ancich said he had seven children with two wives.
Two of Ancich’s sons, Dusan and Visko, went into coaching. Dusan has been a successful head coach at Villa Park High.