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Tom Hoak: A Great Coach Leaves the Stage

June 17th, 2008 · 11 Comments · Sports Journalism, The Sun

It was my privilege — for 25 years — to cover high school football teams coached by Tom Hoak.

Hoak was a sports throwback. A coach the way coaches used to be. He reminded me of the men I played for in high school, of the legends from decades past. A leader. An exemplar. A role model.

Tom Hoak was principled, ethical and honest. Tough, for sure, but fair. A man with an active conscience at a time in high school sports history when “conscience” was becoming a rare commodity.

He was a man who approached prep sports the way they should be approached — playing the right way, with kids who came across the transom. Who held his players to high standards, who put teamwork and rules above individual talent.

And won — without taking shortcuts.

Hoak recently told John Murphy of The San Bernardino Sun that he is retiring, and that story can be read here.

It is a loss for San Bernardino County sports. For high school sports everywhere. Of all the outstanding coaches I dealt with, I put him on the top tier. He is a guy you would want your kids to play for.  A man who impacted hundreds and hundreds of teenagers in ways that certainly made them better people and better citizens.

Hoak will be remembered best for his 1993 Rialto Eisenhower football team. That Eagles team went 14-0 and obliterated parochial power Mater Dei 56-3 in the championship game at Anaheim Stadium.

But that team was just the exclamation mark at the end of a four-year stretch when Hoak’s teams played as well as any football program in San Bernardino County history, and as well as any top-division public school program in CIF-Southern Section history.

From 1990-93, Hoak’s Eisenhower teams went 48-4-1. Sure, he had talent on those teams; Eisenhower was a big school, and alone in the city of Rialto for most of that period. But it’s not as if he just rolled the footballs out there.

Rialto was in a transitional period, and so was Hoak. His teams were predominately African American at a time when the Hip-hop Age was changing the culture.

Hoak came up in the yes, sir/no, sir mid-1960s and played for no-nonsense coaches. He had been one himself, at Pacific High School in San Bernardino from 1978-82, and in his early years at Eisenhower, beginning with the 1983 season.

But he adjusted to kids who needed a looser approach … and did it without abandoning his core principles. Which demonstrated equal parts intelligence and flexibility.

Most of his career, his teams were the gutty little underdogs. He did five seasons at Pacific when the school had no business being in the tough Citrus Belt League, but he practically willed those teams to competence, highlighted by a 13-12 upset of Redlands in 1979 — the year Redlands got to the CIF title game.

After getting the Eisenhower program under control, Hoak began to get a batch of talent coming through. And he and his staff (which included brothers Don and Tim) knew what to do with it.

Ike teams were great fun to watch. On offense, it wasn’t always clear what they were up to; I’m not sure I could tell you what sort of offense he ran, any given year. He loved the middle screen, which nobody runs anymore. He liked tosses to the weak side. Split backs, a lot of running, not much passing … but he could identify his big-play athletes and find ways to get them the ball in space.

Defensively, his teams played a four-man front and just ran all over the place. His defenses often were undersized, but they always could move. It was almost impossible to break a big play against him. I remember Dick Bruich, then the coach at arch-rival Fontana, telling me of those great Ike teams … that his Fohi players could execute their assignments perfectly, but that the one unblocked Ike guy would run all the way across the field and make the play.

By 1990, the Ike program was a serious force, and Hoak was entering his glory years. That team was unbeaten before losing to Mater Dei in the second round of the playoffs.

In 1991, Eisenhower had good-to-great high school athletes at nearly every position and won its first 13 games, and was ranked No. 1 in various national prep football polls. But in the title game, Mater Dei lured Hoak & Co. into throwing the ball — what the Eagles were least accomplished at — and Mater Dei won 35-14. Ike’s quarterback was a nice kid, but he was a converted linebacker, and when Hoak ordered up 16 passes in the first half … well, that was not playing to his team’s strength.

The defeat was a crushing blow, and it fed a common perception that the Brothers Hoak — led by Tom, of course — weren’t quite up to running a big-time program. They weren’t smart enough, they weren’t slick enough. They weren’t forward thinking enough, and their backgrounds weren’t sophisticated enough. (And maybe they didn’t recruit enough or bend the rules enough, either.)

It was an albatross around their necks. The whole “anyone can win with that talent” thing, and it rankled Tom Hoak. It ate at him, I believe. It was always in the back of his mind. He had never won the big one. Just gotten close and failed.

In 1992, Eisenhower went 10-2-1 and might have won a CIF title had not quarterback Glenn Thompkins suffered a broken leg late in the regular season.

Then came 1993, and Eisenhower went wire to wire, finishing No. 2 in the national polls to Cleveland Ignatius.

I may have been as pleased about that final victory, the blowout of Mater Dei, as I was over any contest I covered involving San Bernardino County teams– and I covered a lot of them, in 31 years. Because it was the ultimate validation of Tom Hoak and everything he stood for.

A regular guy and his regular-guy coaches could win The Big One.

They could do it without recruiting other people’s players. Without verbally abusing kids, without showering them with obscenities. Without being so cutthroat and slippery that you wondered about the legality of everything they did. Without the suffocating pretensions “big time” coaches often affect.

By holding players to standards, and sticking with them. By playing homegrown public-school kids, and winning it all.

Hoak had some other very good teams. His 2000 team comes to mind, the one that might have won another CIF title had not quarterback Idris Moss been suspended for the semifinal game against L.A. Loyola for two questionable personal-foul penalties in the epic quarterfinal victory over Matt Leinart and Mater Dei.

After the 2001 season, Hoak gave up the football team and became Ike’s athletic director. Even though the man looks years younger than he is, and even though he clearly is in great physical condition, he hinted that he was reaching burnout. The long hours on the field during the blistering heat of Inland Empire summers, the 14-hour days during the season, the year after year of playing into December. It was wearing him down.

In recent years, he was an assistant principal at Eisenhower. And now he is leaving, at age 59.

I wish him well. If anyone deserves a long and rewarding retirement, it’s Tom Hoak.

I never met a better coach. I never met a better man.

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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dave Gaytan // Jun 18, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    In addition to you never having met a better coach or a better man, you never met a better example of what high school coaching can and should be all about.

    It’s too bad that this lesson seems to be lost on the majority of his peers. But then, no one is writing about them in glowing terms.

  • 2 Randy CLyde // Apr 14, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Not only was he a great coach, but he was a great teacher and friend. He cared a lot for his students and players. One of the best memories I have of him was when I was in his Geometry class. He was talking with a female basketball player about her low grade. The student told him that if her grade was not inporved that she would not be able to play. Then the Coach said “Then you can’t play”. Coach Hoak was principled and believed in more than just sports, he recognized the importance of education.

  • 3 Ex Student // Oct 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    I had Tom as a teacher one year, and I still carry the emotional scars. He’s got nothing but a jock mentality – he cared nothing about the emotional health of his students.

    He should have retired – 25 years sooner!

  • 4 Ex Student #2 // Mar 26, 2013 at 1:46 am

    Mr. Hoak isn’t your parent and should not give a rat’s ass about your emotions, he was there to teach, and should you have chosen to listen, you actually might have learned something, possibly even more than just math. Mr. Hoak was a class act and the whole reason society has gone to hell in a handbasket is because his parents’ generation didn’t make enough of Mr. Hoaks.

  • 5 Robert Brownlee // Jun 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Coach Hoak was “tough” guy but a very good man. He just demanded the best and would not tolerate quitting or mediocre effort. I played for him years ago at Pacific, and saw him years later when I taught as a sub at Ike. His brother Don was a very cool cat, too, and always had an encouraging word. Rob Brownlee

  • 6 Jim Sauceda // Aug 23, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    I played for coach Hoak at Pacific HIgh School from 1978-1981 and he had a great impact in my life. I always say wine of the many things he did so well was he got the most out of each and every athlete. To this day if I were to see him I would STILL call him “Coach Hoak”

    Jim Sauceda

  • 7 Mark Collins // Aug 25, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    I really cannot put into words what Tom Hoak has meant to my life. Thank you for believing in me. PHS 1979-82

  • 8 Wendy marroquin // Feb 9, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Every memory I have of him is of him carrying himself with respect. I had his geometry class and even though i always had a hard time with math I did just fine in his class. He was always fair and as long as he saw effort in my part he helped me. It doesn’t surprise me that someone would have the audacity to blame her emotional scars on him since hardly anyone takes responsibilities for their actions. I wish him the best. He impacted my life in a positive way. At times when men have let me down, he always came to mind and I would think, there are good men out there. Thank you sir if you are reading this. From class of 93.

  • 9 Germaine Gray // Apr 1, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    I had the honor of playing football at Ike from 1990-1992 under Yom Hoak and his brothers. I have done many things in my life since then but had no better memories than playing for such a class act and great man as Coach Hoak. I am very proud to say I am an Eagle largely in part to the experiences Coach brought to my life. Thank you, Coach Hoak.

  • 10 Kyle Erby // Dec 6, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    I played for a lot of coaches from pewee through college. Coach Hoak was the best. He was a winner, He inspired us to work hard. Rather you liked him or not, you respected him. Thanks for the article, Mr Oberjuerge. I used to read your writings all the time growing up.

  • 11 Brett Johnson // Jul 5, 2017 at 7:55 am

    I played for Coach Hoak at Pacific High School from 81-82. Coach Hoak taught me a lot about life and football. Many of his teaching I took with me into my 30 year coaching career. He was fair, consistent, honest and creative. You always knew where you stood with him. Thank you Coach Hoak for all you have done.

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