Legendary coach and administrator Jim Fenwick is ready to retire
After 46 years as a football coach and athletic administrator, the legendary Jim Fenwick is retiring Dec. 31. If you lived anywhere in the San Fernando Valley since the 1970s and followed football, you’d know the name. If you ever met him, you’d know him as a kind, compassionate man determined to make a difference.
Junior college is the real Last Chance U. People who show up could have all A’s or all Fs on their high school report cards, and no matter how good or bad their reputation is, they’re given a chance or two or even three.
Fenwick has been playing the role of family helper since he started coaching junior college football as an assistant at Pierce College in 1974. He became coach in 1981. Twice he was coach at L.A. Valley College. He was coach at Cal State Northridge in 1997 and coach for four years at Eastern Oregon with stops as an assistant at Miami (Ohio), New Mexico, Pacific and Occidental College.
His life journey almost came to a screeching halt in 2004 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Chemotherapy and other therapies weren’t producing results. A bone marrow match couldn’t be found.
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“I was sent home a couple times because things weren’t working and there weren’t any matches,” he said.
He enrolled in a clinical trial using a partial bone marrow match from his son Casey.
“It was my last resort and last chance,” he said.
It worked. Sixteen years later, he’s 68, healthy and about to step down as athletic director at Valley College while bragging about how Casey’s blood is still flowing through his body.
“I got it when I was 52, so I’m still a kid,” he said.
Aside from the many scholarship players he sent on to four-year schools, the lives he helped change through coaching football will be his lasting legacy.
“It’s a team game,” he said. “I’m very fortunate you can be a teacher and coach and help a lot of kids, but you can’t do it yourself. You’ve had assistants who made it possible. You give each kid a role to play. I’ve seen a lot of joy and success. It’s been a lot of rewarding years. Some years didn’t work out, but you learn how to make it better the next time.”
One of those players Fenwick helped was Eric Carpenter, an All-City wide receiver at Granada Hills in the 1990s who was too slow to attract any college offers. He enrolled at Valley, then followed Fenwick to CSUN. He got to play four years of college football, earned two degrees and joined the Los Angeles Fire Department a year later after acing a job interview in which he used Fenwick as a reference.
“You’re asked a series of questions,” Carpenter recalled. “You’re asked about challenges, you’re asked about influences, you’re asked about diversity. You’re asked about team atmosphere. I was able to directly reference coach Fenwick and make correlations to my football experiences.”
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Carpenter will be soon celebrating his 20th year with the LAFD, working at a station in Van Nuys, not too far from Valley College.
“He’s one of my favorite people,” Carpenter said. “He had the ability to find these diamonds in the rough. He never really told an athlete no, but creating that atmosphere, nobody wanted to leave his program. Everyone wanted to be a part of it.”
Fenwick has been married to his wife, Gayle, since April 27, 1974. They will have plenty of time to visit with their five grandchildren. Casey lives in Northern California, and their other son, Tyler, is football coach at Southeastern Oklahoma State.
Something tells me he’ll be spending plenty of time in Oklahoma wearing a headset high above the stadium. Coaches never really retire if someone asks for their opinion, and Fenwick still has plenty to offer.
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