By Fred J. Robledo, SGVN, email@example.com
Mal Eaton, the first football coach in West Covina High school history and one of the all-time San Gabriel Valley coaching legends, passed away on Saturday at the West Covina home he lived in for more than 50 years, and just days after celebrating his 88th birthday.
Eaton, one of the most respected and adored coaches of his generation, was hired by West Covina principal Maurice Wooden, the brother of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, in 1956, and quickly built the Spartans into a CIF-Southern Section power over the next 14 years.
During an era when only league champions qualified for the playoffs and when there were far fewer champions to crown, Eaton’s West Covina teams won 10 league titles from 1956-70.
Eaton led the Spartans to its first CIF-SS title in 1965, beating Crespi 7-0 for the Division 3A crown.
A graduate of UC Santa Barbara and USC, Eaton started his coaching career at Bonita High before arriving at West Covina.
His coaching career spanned more than 36 years with 256 wins. In addition to earning a number of area coach of the year awards, he was selected the area coach of the decade for the 1960s.
Eaton, who often spoke with John Wooden and USC football coaching legend John McKay, was just as successful at his craft.
Eaton never had a losing season at West Covina, compiling a remarkable 115-23-6 overall record and later was inducted into the California Coaches Association State Hall of Fame in 1993 and the West Covina Hall of Fame at Big League Dreams Park in West Covina.
Eaton left West Covina to become the head football coach at Mt. San Antonio College from 1970 to 1987, winning South Coast Conference titles in 1980 and ’82.
Eaton is survived by his wife Linda, daughters Stacey Lerch, Malorie Shipp and seven grandchildren. His first wife Barbara, died in 1984. His funeral services are pending.
Stacey Lerch said the Blue Ford Mustang that Mal Eaton purchased in 1966 is restored and still in his garage. He bought a blue Ford because that was West Covina’s colors at the time.
“It was an absolute honor to have him as our father, even today we still called him daddy,” Stacey Lerch said.
“He had two daughters and considered his players his boys. As the only girls, we had to do things that boys had to do, like yard work, check the oil or the tires.
“But what I remember the most is no matter how big he got or how big his career got, whenever
we would call he would stop whatever he was doing and talk to us.
“He would never say he was too busy, he always had time for his kids and his family.” (To continue reading click thread).
When Eaton left West Covina in 1970 to go to Mt. SAC, Tim Brancheau took over as head coach. Brancheau was also Eaton’s assistant for nine years.
“He (Eaton) was a damn-good coach, one of the premiere coaches in Southern California, there is no question about that,” Brancheau said. “He was a hard worker. I respected and loved him, he did an incredible job.”
West Covina’s current football coach Mike Maggiore played for Eaton during Eaton’s final years at Mt. SAC.
Maggiore, who as coach of West Covina has won three CIF titles including back-to-back titles in 2010 and ’11, played at Mt. SAC in 1986 and ’87 where he earned a scholarship to Oregon State.
Maggiore’s encounters with Eaton were much more than coach and player.
“My father passed away after my freshman year of football and he (Eaton) really reached out and helped me,” Maggiore said. “I remember much more of what he did for me as a young person than probably coaching, though he was a great, great coach and motivator.
“But what I remember most is that he was there for me during a very difficult time. That says more to me about the type of man he was than anything else.”
Rowland High School football coach Craig Snyder was a junior during Eaton’s final year at West Covina in 1970, a team that advanced to the Southern Section semifinals.
“Everyone knew Mal Eaton when I was a kid,” Snyder said. “My dad had an old Ford and use to pack all the kids in and we would go to West Covina games when I was in fifth, sixth, seventh grade and so forth.
“We watched West Covina win its first title (’65) and it was quite an experience being able to play for him.”
Snyder’s sure Eaton didn’t coin the phrase “tough-love,” but that’s how he would describe him.
“He motivated you out of fear, but in a good way,” Snyder said. “He was that little junk-yard dog. If you weren’t doing it right, he would let you know about it.
“It was a sign of the times I guess, but the bottom line is he had the kids’ best interest at heart. He was a fiery-type of coach that got the best out of his players, and everyone respected him.”
Lou Farrar, the area’s longest tenured football coach, began at Royal Oak in 1970 before becoming Charter Oak’s head coach.
After graduating at Cal State Los Angeles, Farrar’s student-teaching assignment was at West Covina, where he was introduced to Eaton.
“For a guy just getting out of college and looking to get into coaching, Mal was the first example of a high school football coach I had seen,” Farrar recalled.
“He had this great big smile. He was small in stature but carried a big stick.
“I just thought he was a genius. I admired him for his football knowledge and for being an
all-around great guy.”
Farrar still has a paperback book that Eaton had published.
“It was this book of all his favorite sayings, something he used as motivation,” Farrar said.
“There is not a season that goes by that I don’t go back and read it.”
Damien football coach Greg Gano graduated at West Covina but played for Eaton at Mt. SAC in 1975 and ’76.
“He was the first legendary coach in the Valley who put West Covina on the map,” Gano said. “He was something to see. When I went to West Covina games as a kid the coaches wore top hats, suits and ties. You looked up to them and (Eaton) was the best.
“He is someone I always admired and kept in touch with. We spoke on the phone and talked football for about an hour and a half about two months ago.
“He was special. When I became the athletic director at Los Altos, Mal helped me all the way through it. He was just an incredible, incredible person and was there whenever you needed him or just wanted to talk.”
Longtime Nogales baseball coach John Romano has known Eaton most of his life. As a young kid he spent a a few weekends water skiing at Eaton’s Big Bear cabin.
“He was my inspiration into becoming a coach,” Romano said. “As a young adult growing up, I
couldn’t of asked for a better friend. He was always there to answer every question whether it was silly or important. He was like that to me for 40 years.”
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Here is a 2008 Q&A with Eaton and longtime staffer Jim McConnel, the man we call, “The King” around the office. Eaton was explaining everything that entails being a football coach.
What does it take to coach a high school football team? Who better to answer that question than Mal Eaton, one of the Valley’s all-time great coaches.
“Well, I can tell you right now, you can’t be successful without support from the administration,” Eaton said. “When I came to West Covina High in 1955 to start up the football program, my principal was Maurice `Cat’ Wooden, John Wooden’s older brother. And Maurice had the same background, he had been an All-American basketball player at Indiana. He was both academically and athletically inclined and a great guy to work for.
“He was an enabler, in a good sense. He allowed me to operate the program, gave me full support. So that was a big key to the success we had at West Covina.
“It was the same way at Los Altos in the 1970s. Pat Mauch, the principal, and Dwayne DeSpain, the coach, worked together great, and the school had an incredible run of winning teams. You have to have the backing from your administration.”
To continue reading, click thread.
Eaton also pointed out the need to be receptive to new ideas.
“You can’t get stuck in the past,” Eaton said. “You need to expose yourself to new ideas. Two of the best I came across early on at West Covina I got from the Anaheim High program, which was one of the premier programs of the 1950s.
“At Anaheim, they were using weightlifting and bodybuilding techniques long before most schools, and I liked the idea so I got a guy from Universal Gyms on campus and installed a weight room. I believe we were the first school in the Valley to have one.
“Another thing they were doing at Anaheim was a booster program. Again, I liked the concept so I brought it on board at West Covina. Now, I didn’t use it as a fundraiser. I used it to give anyone who was interested in the team a chance to learn more about it and to have the chance to ask me questions. That helped build a fan base for us.
“You have to be receptive to new ideas. You can learn if you listen to those who are the best. I picked up a lot of information going to talks by guys like Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian and John McKay.”
Eaton, perhaps surprisingly, does not believe you need to be a genius with X’s and O’s to be a successful high school football coach.
“It is a game of fundamentals,” Eaton said. “It all starts with blocking and tackling. You can teach anything else you like, but if you can’t get your kids to block and tackle correctly nothing else is going to work for you.
“Blocking and tackling and proper conditioning. A team that excels in those areas is going to win, pure and simple.
“After that, it really helps to have a plan and a goal. Coaches make plans, the players set the goals. For us, our goal every year was to win league. Not to win every game, or to win a CIF title. To win league. It worked for us, because we won 11 consecutive league titles. A goal should be something that the players can achieve, but difficult enough that they will need to excel to do so.”
Eaton also stressed the importance of gaining the support of the student body.
“I always wanted to involve as many people as possible in our program,” Eaton said. “Some coaches may feel otherwise, but I always felt I needed the support of the students. To me, our pep rallies were very important. I wanted the students to identify with the team. It built support and also gave our players a real lift. Don’t forget your fan base.
“At West Covina, we started with a field and nothing else. Everything we eventually had, the lights, the bleachers, the scoreboard, came about due to community support. It takes a total community effort to build a successful program.
“I admit, it may have been easier to gain that support back in the 1950s. West Covina High was the only high school in town, so we had that going for us. It was the same way at Pomona, where the city only had one high school back then. Same way at Covina. Same way at Alhambra. One high school. People identified more with the high school team back then.
“But that’s not to say you can’t build that kind of support today. I think it’s a real plus that the current West Covina High coach, Mike Maggiore, is a hometown boy who played for Edgewood High and later on played for me at Mt. SAC. Same thing at South Hills, where coach (Steve) Bogan grew up here in West Covina and played at Edgewood.
“In fact, Bogan played for Kenny Wells at Edgewood, and Kenny played for me when I coached at Bonita High, so there is a continuity there. It’s not necessarily that Bogan coaches exactly like me, but you see him using things he learned from Kenny that Kenny learned from me. For a coach, that is very gratifying.”
So, for someone who coached football in our area for nearly 40 years, are there any facets of Mal Eaton sports fans might not know about?
“You know, there are a couple things I don’t think I have ever talked much about publicly,” Eaton said. “My greatest fear wasn’t losing, it was having one of my players suffer a catastrophic injury. I feared that more than anything else. We always screened and prepared our players so that they were strong enough and properly conditioned to be able to avoid serious injuries.
“And, I am pleased to say, not once did one of my players suffer a catastrophic injury. But I am quick to acknowledge there is an element of luck in that sort of thing, and I was lucky – or blessed, however you want to look at it.
“The other thing people might not know, I always had my West Covina High teams say a prayer just prior to the game. We didn’t do this out on the field, we would go back to the lockerroom. But we always prayed. My first team decided on the Lord’s Prayer for our pre-game prayer, and we stuck with that. I never forced players to pray, they could refrain, but I can’t remember that happening.
“I suppose if we did that nowadays I would be fired. But something about the Lord’s Prayer just seemed to work. It is a universal prayer. We weren’t praying for victory or even to play well. We were praying for protection and for guidance and for good sportsmanship.
“For me, I feel blessed to have been able to touch so many lives in a positive manner. I am a rich person because of that, not in terms of dollars but in terms of well-being and great memories.”