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Mel Hein Jr., former Taft track coach and USC pole vaulter, dies

Former Taft track coach Mel Hein Jr.
Mel Hein Jr. died on Wednesday. He was the track coach at Taft High when this photo was taken in this 2000.
(Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)

Mel Hein Jr., a pole vaulter at USC who set the world indoor record of 16 feet, 5 3/4 inches in 1965 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and went on to win two City Section girls’ track championships and one boys’ title as coach at Woodland Hills Taft, died Wednesday in Reno after a brain infection, according to his son, Gary. He was 79.

Hein was an assistant coach for Taft’s 1986 state championship team led by future 400-meter Olympic champion Quincy Watts, who called Hein “a father figure.”

“He just cared about you,” Watts said.

Born Jan. 10, 1941, in Berkeley, Hein was the son of Hall of Fame football player Mel Hein Sr., who played 15 years for the New York Giants and was an eight-time All-Pro as a center and linebacker. Mel Sr. was an assistant USC football coach from 1951-65.

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Mel Jr. was a member of NCAA championship track and field teams at USC in 1961 and 1963. He and wife Judy raised three boys who became high school sports standouts at Taft. Gary played football, basketball and ran the hurdles. He won a City title in the hurdles, was a starting cornerback at California and became America’s No. 1 amateur rugby player. Curtis played football for Taft and USC. Cody was the City Section volleyball player of year in 1990. He became the women’s volleyball coach at Chico State and died last January at age 47 after a heart problem.

The family lived for three years in a 48-foot-long trailer in Topanga Canyon while Mel Jr. built his own house with an ocean view. He’d teach classes during the day, then come home and recruit his boys to help move bricks.

“My dad was always on the go,” Curtis said. “He was always somebody to inspire you to work hard and do it with a good attitude.”

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Even though pole vault was Mel Jr.'s specialty, his oldest son, Gary, remembers the time at Taft when he was trying the pole vault but not thrilled about it.

“I was doing well in the jumps and hurdles,” Gary said. “I decided maybe I should try pole vault. I came down hard one day on my neck. I said, ‘Hey dad, I think I’m a hurdler.’ There was an awkward moment, How’s he going to take it? I pushed the pole toward him. ‘That’s fine. Go be the best hurdler you can be.’ That’s the kind of coach and father he was.”

In 1999, Hein suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that required emergency surgery. His wife remembers the doctors coming out after the surgery to the waiting room to inform the family of his status.

“We’re all anxious and I’m looking at this doctor,” Judy said. “He took his mask off. I know that guy. ‘Mrs. Hein, I’m Shon Cook.’ He was on the cross-country team at Taft. He was a resident and assisted on that surgery. When Mel was released, he requested to wheel Mel outside. Mel said, ‘Shon, thank you.’ He said, ‘No, thank you.’ That surgery bought Mel 20 more years. That’s the life of a coach and the life of a family that loves sports.”

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Mel Jr. is survived by his wife Judy, sons Gary and Curtis and nine grandchildren. No funeral service is planned because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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