We interrupt our Abu Dhabi travelogue to strap into the Wayback Machine and check in on Don Markham.
For those of you looking for United Arab Emirates material, come back tomorrow. For generic observations about Southern California, same deal. Or maybe the day after.
Today, for one day only, we go back to the Inland Empire and high school football, which I knew entirely too much about for about 30 years.
So, yes. Don Markham. Has he reached the end of the line, at age 70?
If I had the time and energy, I could write 100 inches on Don Markham right this moment. With no reference material. He has been that big a sports personality. Arguably the most brilliant football mind in the history of the IE, if not the CIF-Southern Section.
Don’t worry. I won’t write 100 inches. Maybe not even 50.
First, the recent background:
Markham was hired in mid-January to coach football at Rialto High School. Made sense in a lot of ways, because Markham has won 309 games as a prep coach, because former Markham players hold key positions in the school’s administration and because the only two times Rialto has made the playoffs in its nearly two decades of football … were the two years Markham ran the program, in 2000-01.
Now, not even four months later, Markham has resigned.
As the story notes, reports of friction between Markham and some of his Rialto players were circulating, and that was that, given that he probably was on the shortest of leashes. Did he punch a kid, did he use bad language? Did he look at a kid cross-eyed? Doesn’t take much. But, also, Don Markham, former LAPD cop, never was much for social niceties. Or following rules that got in his way.
Here is what I think, from 11,000 miles away and two years removed from San Bernardino County sports:
Don Markham should just let it go. Give up coaching. Especially kids.
It is hard for him. It is what he loves. It is what he is so good at in so many ways.
But there comes a time when distance between coach and players is too great to overcome. Especially when part of the gap is 50-plus years of age.
Most of Markham’s players from the first 20, 25 years eventually cherished the time they spent playing for him. But the past 10 years … not nearly as much.
Some coaches get mellow with age. Don Markham seemed to get more impatient. He seemed to be looking for his next job even before he settled into the one he had. He seemed to be battling with administrators from Day 1. Situations, rules, guidelines … they got in his way. They bugged him. But he let them, too.
I always liked him. Though it may not sound like it. His teams were good, they played a unique brand of football and he was brutally honest and often controversial. Like when one of his teams scored 108 points in a game in 2005. Or when another of his teams scored 880 points in a season in 1994 — a national record, at the time, since broken.
What made Markham special was his ability to make something big out of very little. All he needed were a few heavy guys who would hit the weights and about four skill players, and he was in business.
He would take about 20-25 kids on the varsity, and coach them intensely. He usually played one-platoon football with just enough other kids on the team to run practices. Usually by himself. He tended not to trust assistants with any important responsibilities because he knew better than they did and he was right.
His offense always was some variety of a blunt object, with maximum force focused at a weak point in the opposition, which led to lots of points and lots and lots of yards. Every down was a running down, including fourth down (he hated to punt, and the 1994 Bloomington team didn’t punt once all season, something of which he was very proud).
Most of his plays were variations on one theme: Toss the ball to your best running back, the offside guard and tackle pull, everybody on the attacking side blocks down, and the quarterback (yes, the QB), and a fullback lead into the hole. A sort of organized form of trampling. Against poorly coached defenses, it was devastating.
When he started, he began with a seven-man front, toe-to-toe, and three backs lined up behind the QB. I called it the stack-I. I’m not sure he ever did. The back directly behind the quarterback, so close to the QB that he was called “the sniffer back,” was essentially a guard who ran a little better than normal. The fullback carried about five times a game, always on a trap on either side of the center, and then the tailback was a kid with speed who could handle 40 carries a game. Marvin Williams, George Hemingway, David Blum. Guys like that.
The zenith of the stack-I probably was the 1981 seasons, when Markham took it to Anaheim Stadium for the large-schools championship game. He was at Colton, and nearly the whole town went to Anaheim to see the game. St. Paul won, however, 31-9. (St. Paul could throw a little, and Markham always played man-to-man, and if his tailbacks weren’t also great cornerbacks …)
Later on, he moved toward the double-wing offense that he used from 1994 forward. Backs next to the tight ends, a bit behind, and angled toward center … one fullback behind the quarterback. One wingback would go in motion, and he often got the ball on a toss — and ran behind the same blocking scheme Markham used at Colton in the middle 1970s.
It required two good backs, which he didn’t always have, but when he did, it split up the load and spread the defense. He ran a reverse off it that was devastating, and still used the fullback trap. And the occasional pass to a kid who was never covered because defenses had 11 guys within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
It looked crude. It wasn’t. Those who thought it was Neanderthal football often ended up getting crushed. You needed lots of athletes or really good coaching to stop him. Sometimes both.
Another thing about Markham: He thought through the entire football experience. From uniforms (dark and drab; no glitter on his teams’ helmets; he thought it was an intimidating look) to his players movements (always walking, except after the ball was snapped) to the kicking game (ignore it) to the PAT (always go for two; always) to pre-game music (Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra — also known as the music from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as his team came on the field). He thought about all of it, and he had an opinion on everything. Usually a strong opinion.
The word “genius” sometimes was used in reference to his coaching, and at times it was warranted. If Markham hadn’t invented a new way to run power football, he certainly had brought back some very old-school sets and refined them in ways perhaps never before considered. Thing was, Don Markham may have let the “genius” thing get too deeply rooted in his mind. Which can be corrosive.
I once asked a disciple of his if Don Markham were a genius. I thought the guy would say, “Oh, for sure.” But he didn’t. He suggested Don Markham was a regular guy who had unique aptitude in two or three facets of life. Investments were one; football was another.
He won five CIF titles, and he came close to several more.
But he always was a prickly personality. Who tended to see the team as an extension of his personality. He tended to talk in the first person, after a game, as if everything that had just happened was about him. “I could have done … I should have done … I could have beaten those guys …” It was a bit jarring considering that he hadn’t played a down.
And it got more pronounced as he went along. Not less. This was a man who sought perfection on the football field, the perfect play, perfectly executed, over and over. Reducing the game to its basics and polishing them to a high gloss, and his impatience with those who kept him from achieving that seemed to grow by the year.
For all the face time his players got, he never was their friend. He never seemed close to them. I still remember an exchange with a key lineman from the 1994 Bloomington team, after the football banquet at the end of that remarkable, 14-0 season. The kid brought up his father so he could introduce him to Coach Markham. And Markham told the kid’s father that he was proud of the kid, that he knew he would make a great citizen and was a fine son. And the kid seemed almost shocked. He said something like: “He never said that before. All he ever did was yell at me.”
I’m pretty sure you can’t coach like that anymore. Not at the prep level. It’s time for “kinder, gentler and politically correct at all times.”
It’s past Don Markham’s time. I recommend he let it go. Pop in some tape from any one of those 35 or so seasons, and watch The Machine run. You earned it, coach, you got the kids to do it, and when they did it right, it was as awesome as watching an avalanche coming down a mountain.
You don’t need the aggravation anymore. And neither does anyone else.