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Don Markham: 1940-2018

May 15th, 2018 · 1 Comment · Football, Sports Journalism, The Sun

Where to begin?

Don Markham.

Rebel, loner, iconoclast. Admired, loved, loathed.

One of the great football minds to stride across the sport’s stage in the history of Inland Empire prep football, as well as one of the most polarizing personalities.

Markham died at age 78 yesterday, and anyone who saw his teams play will remember him.

First, some links.

–Let’s start with a long post I did eight years ago, after Markham had been asked to step down as coach at Rialto High School. It has a chunky middle bit that describes much of what Markham wanted to do as a coach and how he did it. (And his teams did nearly everything in a way different to conventional wisdom.) In that post, I suggest he give up coaching, after having resigned at Rialto. (He came back for a few more years.)

–Then, some scratchy video of his masterpiece team, the 1994 Bloomington Bruins, who went 14-0 and set a prep national record (since broken) by scoring 880 points in a season. One video bit here, and a longer bit here. (The latter begins with some pre-game stuff; hang on for game action.)

The videos show the highest expression of the double-wing formation, the system he mostly stuck with after starting his career with the related but less flexible “stack-I”. (Three backs lined up directly behind the quarterback, with the tailback carrying about 80 percent of the time.)

–And here is some embedded video from 2012 produced by the Riverside Press-Enterprise, with the newspaper’s Matt Caulkins interviewing Markham (who is seated on the right) and Dick Bruich, former coach at Fontana and Kaiser high schools, and a man whose teams went 10-2 against Markham teams. It is nice the video still exists.

Great stuff.

It has Markham talking about being one of the first (if not the first) member of the LAPD to Roman Polanski’s house in 1969 — where the Manson Family had slaughtered six people, including the pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Said Markham: “I try not to remember those things.” Apparently, the incident helped convince him to give up police work, after six years as a cop, and become a coach and teacher.

Also, Bruich brings up Linda Markham, Don’s wife of a half-century, and notes how important Linda was to everything her husband did as a coach. As Bruich notes: “Not too many people know about how many things they do together.” Says Don, immediately agreeing: “She used to do my equipment, she did the team dinner, she did video-ing …”

Linda Markham could readily be found at any game her husband coached, executing some significant function.

The interview video also is useful in giving viewers an idea of what Markham (and also Bruich) are about. Markham is a bit reticent, and when he says he does not have an opinion on a particular question … he is not being evasive. He did not spend time thinking about other teams or coaches. And he concedes he often could not remember the names of his players.

All of that shows how utterly focused he was on doing his football job. After a game, especially a game his team had lost (which always surprised him), he would gaze into the distance, while answering reporters’ questions, as if he were replaying the critical moments in his head, while existing in a sort of dreamlike state.

A point I did not make, back in 2010, was how Markham was one of the best at seeing a game from the sideline — almost always without a headset linked to an assistant in the press box. He made key adjustments from ground level, which many coaches found astonishing.

Another point that perhaps bears repeating is how often Markham caused agitation among opposing coaches and fans when his teams won by a lot of points. Which happened fairly often. He had a team in 2005 that scored 108. His teams scored 80-plus points several times. Angry opponents often would cite the adage: “What goes around comes around.” But for Markham, it rarely did.

And looking back at all this information, I see I fail to note just how good Markham’s teams were at misdirection. His playbook was very thin, but he always had a typically devastating reverse out of the double-wing, and his quarterbacks had to be good at faking handoffs, typically freezing the defense as a wingback went wide or as the fullback surged past the defensive line. Also, on those rare occasions when Markham called a pass play, the receiver was almost always open. Running alone. Because who looks for a pass against the double-wing?

Also? The double-wing was the great equalizer in high school football. Maybe it still is. It tends to be most dramatically used by schools that have been beaten down for a year or 10. All the double-wing requires is a few fast kids and a couple of big tackles, and then a lot of practice on not very many plays to get things so they worked just right. The double-wing produces first downs which produce confidence and make the game shorter.

That works for downtrodden programs. Markham’s systems probably turned more schools into winning football programs than any single thing over the past 40 years.

Oh, and getting personal for a moment: It took me 10 years, but I finally figured out that in 1970 I played against Don Markham’s first team — Los Angeles Baptist. In Markham’s prep debut.

L.A. Baptist had been reliably beatable for several years, and my team, Los Angeles Lutheran, went over to Markham’s field for the optional preseason scrimmage.

My team thought we would have an easy time of it. L.A. Baptist was no good; we knew that.

But they came out with a lot of big guys in a strange formation and they trampled us. Overwhelmed us. And I was in the middle of it, playing 15 or 20 plays at defensive tackle where Markham’s well-drilled players were pounding the ball — right at me.

I remember how down our team was. “We must be awful,” the coaches had to be thinking.

No, we were actually pretty good, about to go 5-4 and finish second in our league.

We were just the first to run into a Don Markham team, his first at the high school level.

He will be missed, but not soon forgotten.

(Note: I wrote reams of copy on Markham and Markham teams. It is difficult to find online, given that my newspaper back then, The Sun, is essentially gone. However, anyone who subscribes to newspapers.com can find the site of the San Bernardino Sun and search “Markham” and “Oberjuerge” and get hits enough to cover several days of reading. Good luck!)

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Roger Grotewold // May 15, 2018 at 10:29 am

    Paul, I think I read practically every article you wrote in The Sun Telegram. Coach Markham was pretty much just as you described him in your articles. One of a kind and a coach that we will always remember as one of the very best in the Inland Empire. By the way, you were a sports journalist that also was also one of a kind and your coverage of inland sports was always the best,. Thanks.

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