The Greatest Football Coach
If you are going to be a student athlete, the coach said, there are only two things you can do: Be a student and an athlete.
You won’t have time for anything else, he said, if you want to excel at both.
That, as I recall, was the first lesson Gil Haskell imparted to the 1975 St. Ignatius football team when we met to discuss offseason workouts.
Haskell understood what high school football was about. The immediate goal was winning on the field, but the ultimate goal was winning in life.
One of the first steps we took toward these goals was showing up at the school every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening in June, July and early August.
St. Ignatius sits in San Francisco’s Sunset District, just a few blocks down from Golden Gate Park and a few blocks up from Ocean Beach.
From the sand dunes adjacent to our practice field you could see the coast of West Marin curving past Stinson Beach toward Point Reyes — until the evening fog rolled in.
That fog, obscuring so many alluring things, was symbolic of the strict binary focus Haskell had given us. In a city unrivaled for scenic and cultural diversions, he somehow persuaded a team of teenage boys that summer evenings were made for running and lifting weights.
In my year, one man won every running contest. His name was Kevin Ryan, our halfback and one of the fastest high school athletes anywhere.
When double sessions ended that year, we traveled a few blocks to scrimmage Lincoln High, Mike Holmgren’s alma mater.
We were running the Houston Veer. But not long into that scrimmage our season took a veer. Ryan broke his collarbone.
Over the next month, we lost our starting center and a tackle to knee injuries, and Dennis Murphy, our junior quarterback, to a dislocated thumb. We went 2-2 in nonleague games, and then dropped our West Catholic Athletic League opener to Archbishop Mitty — still running the Veer and fumbling eight times.
It was then that Coach Haskell taught us another lesson in life and football.
He told us we were changing our offense. The Veer was gone. The Power I was in. We had a bye coming up, which gave us an extra week to learn the new blocking and running schemes.
You have to adapt your offense to fit the skills of your players, he told us. He believed we had the athletes to run the I. He was right.
Two weeks later under Friday night lights at Kezar Stadium, we took on St. Francis. We lost again. This time in the I.
We were now 2-4 and set to play Halloween night in Kezar against Riordan, our cross-town rival.
They were 6-0.
But Ryan had returned against Mitty as a flanker and then played tailback in the I against St. Francis, rushing for 125 yards.
Our team, which had worked months to play in a game like the Riordan contest, had no intention of losing.
And we didn’t. We beat the undefeated 27-0. Propelled out of the Power I, Ryan rushed for 195 yards.
Teammate Gene Clancy, who played tackle, sent me the clipping of a story Tim Gartner of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote the next week. It was headlined: “How SI Turned It Around.”
“I always knew we had the players,” Gartner quoted Haskell as saying. “And I knew they would never give up. Our season is almost over and the enthusiasm at practice is like it’s early in the season.”
Coach Haskell never gave up on us, and we never gave up on ourselves.
After routing Riordan, Haskell’s 1975 St. Ignatius Wildcats finished the season with wins over Sacred Heart, Serra and league champion Bellarmine. Kevin Ryan won the league rushing title despite playing running back in only 5 of 6 games.
Haskell went on to serve in coaching positions in the NFL, going to two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and one with the Seattle Seahawks.
He has now been nominated for the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame.
My son recently found SI’s 1976 yearbook online and texted me a fragment of the football team photo. I told him the young man to the side of Haskell, a linebacker named Greg Suhr, went on to become San Francisco’s chief of police.
The whole photo would have included, among others, Kevin Ryan, who became U.S. attorney for San Francisco; Dennis Murphy, who commanded an attack submarine; Jim Shannon, who became an admiral; and Paul Tonelli, a Bay Area radio personality.
Looking back over more than 40 years, I am still grateful for the privilege of having played for such a coach and grateful for the lessons he taught me.
Gil Haskell is a Hall of Famer if there ever was one.
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