Given our heat wave you wouldn’t know it’s almost fall. We can tell if for no other reason than football season has arrived. (As pigskin fans all across America let out a collective sigh, “Finally!”)
Today the Santa Monica High School Vikings travel to Redondo Union to take on the Sea Hawks with a 7 p.m. kickoff to open the 2013 football season. The Vikings are led by head coach Travis Clark, who’s in his fifth year at the helm of his high school alma mater.
Samohi has had its share of legendary head coaches in its storied football history, which includes seven CIF championships. Jim Sutherland coached from 1941 to 1952 and compiled an 80-13-4 record while Dr. Tebb Kusserow coached from 1971 to 1990 and was 122-49-4. Simply put, being the head football coach at Samohi is a tough act to follow.
For the charismatic Clark the journey has been, “Like living a dream.” He’s only the second African-American head coach at Samohi, and the first to also be an alum. He’s already compiled an impressive 36-15 record.
More than 60 years ago, Coach Sutherland’s remarkable success came despite the stressful times. His players were children of the Great Depression and, if that wasn’t enough, then came WW II. Fathers went to war while mothers went to work in the war effort. Single-parent families and alcoholism were not uncommon.
On Dec. 6, 1941, Samohi beat Pomona in the CIF semi-finals on their home field. The next day Pearl Harbor was bombed. One week after that the Vikings won the title by beating Pasadena in the L.A. Coliseum, but their joy was lessened by the stark reality that the world had changed.
After that Christmas vacation most of the boys over 18 had enlisted and there wasn’t a single Japanese student on campus. Fear of another attack gripped much of the West Coast. So getting teenage boys to focus on football practice wasn’t easy.
But Sutherland, a teacher of basic fundamentals, was a strong father figure. No one wanted to disappoint Coach. On the field he was a dictator and a perfectionist, but he was always fair. For example, early in the season he implemented “The Circle.”
If two linemen were competing for the same spot, they would face each other in a circle in front of their peers and the winner was declared the starter. Sure enough, in his inaugural season Sutherland led the Vikings to a CIF Championship. (Their first since 1920.)
During WW II, Sutherland joined the Navy. But after returning, in 1947, he led the Vikings to another CIF Championship. And they won again in 1952 with Ronnie Knox, a movie-star handsome quarterback who was a magician with the ball. Knox was a wonderful passer, a rugged runner and a ferocious hitter on defense coming out of the secondary. (In those days players played both sides of the ball.) Unfortunately his adoptive father, Harvey, was overbearing, to put it mildly.
Along with offering Ronnie a scholarship, U.C. Berkeley hired Sutherland as an assistant coach. That year, 1953, Samohi won another CIF Championship with likeable Jackie Douglas at quarterback. Jackie went to Stanford, where he was a backup to John Brodie, a future NFL MVP with the 49ers.
A multi-sport athlete, Douglas won the 1961 Pacific Southwest Tournament at the L.A. Tennis Club, the second most prestigious tourney in the country behind the U.S. Open. He eventually became one of Santa Monica’s most successful realtors (Jon Douglas Company) and was a partner in a group that owns the building I live in until his death in 2010. A tragic soul, Knox died in 1992, having led the life of a transient poet.
Flashing back, in 1956 Sutherland became the head coach for the Washington State Cougars. Even when he was “let go” after his eighth season the university helped him acquire a Mercedes dealership in Pullman from which he became wealthy. In fact, he retired to a home on Hayden Lake in Idaho, built and owned by Bing Crosby.
Sutherland was so beloved by his former players that in 1977 they flew him in for a testimonial dinner held at the Miramar. The gala event was attended by over 150 well-wishers and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Sadly, Coach died less than three years later, but he lived on in the hearts of the kids who played for him. Now in their 80s, when they speak of him they’re still kids at heart.
A 1961 Samohi graduate, Kusserow became the Vikings head coach at age 29 in 1971. Reflecting the program’s remarkable continuity, Kusserow was Clark’s coach when he was a Viking. He is currently writing about Samohi’s seven CIF championship seasons chronicling the history of the times in which they took place. When completed it’s a project that I very much look forward to reviewing.
It is said by some that life is a circle. So it is that this column was inspired by a football coach who helped turn boys into men over 60 years ago. I wonder if some day Coach Clark and his kids might also achieve something legendary. Perhaps then another writer will tell that story as I’ve tried to do here. And the circle rolls on.
Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.