By Stephen Ramirez
Tony Zane in 2009 while coaching at Bassett High School in August 26, 2009. (SGVN/Correspondent photo by William Hallstrom/SGCITY)
Tony Zane, who won two CIF Southern Section football titles at Baldwin Park, coached two CIF-SS players of the year and is considered one of the top offensive minds in area history, passed away Friday.
Zane was hospitalized for nearly three months with a respiratory problem before succumbing. He was 76, and is survived by his wife, Shirley, and daughter, Tatiana.
There will be a memorial service at 11 a.m. on Friday at Christ’s Church of the Valley, which is at 1404 W. Covina Boulevard in San Dimas.
Zane, along with friend and former Baldwin Park head coach Ty Pagone, put the Braves on the area football map. They came to the area school, with Pagone as head coach and Zane as offensive coordinator, in the 1970s. Baldwin Park soon rode the ladder to success. The duo helped the Braves to the Desert-Mountain Conference title in 1980, with Zane, who succeeded Pagone when the latter retired before the 1990 season, leading the Braves to the 1991 Division IV title.
Overall, Zane coached 31 years at Baldwin Park, the final 13 as head coach. He won 47 playoff games and 16 league titles. He retired in 2002, but did resurface for a few years, becoming Bassett’s offensive coordinator in 2009 for then Olympians coach Leon Ward.
“He was a good friend. We went to high school together and coached together for 30 years or so,” Pagone said. “He was a good friend and brilliant football coach. He was good with people, good to kids.
“He was an innovator. We were doing things that so many are doing now, even what you see with Green Bay (with the spread offense). He was doing stuff like that 20 years ago. Nobody before did stuff like that. That all came from Tony’s mind.”
And Baldwin Park was the beneficiary.
The Braves, with Zane calling the shots, became a tough team to defend, and opposing defensive coordinators stayed up nights trying to figure a way to stop Zane’s high-powered attack.
“He and Ty Pagone, they were the earliest throwers in the Valley,” said Maranatha coach Steve Bogan, who won four CIF-SS crowns at South Hills and was also one of the area’s best defense backs during the 1970s, playing for Edgewood. “I can remember being defensive coordinator against him. One game, we had our cornerback out. We were (hoping) that Tony (wouldn’t) find (the backup), because he will find him and when he does find him, everything changes. We won, but they threw three touchdown passes in a quarter and half once Tony figured it out, going at him, at him and at him.
“Tony had as good an eye (for the game) as anyone ever had. He and Ty Pagone where the pioneers of chuck and duck.”
The beneficiaries of Zane’s schemes were quarterbacks Mike, Norm and Greg Santiago; Michael Johnson, Marc Ruiz and Richard Robles to name a few. All were proficient passers under Zane, with Johnson (1984) and Ruiz (1991) earning CIF-SS Player of the Year in Division III and IV, respectively.
“I am extremely heartbroken,” Johnson, who has coached at the FBS level and in the NFL, wrote on his Facebook page. “We lost a great man yesterday. My high school coach, my mentor and my number one supporter after my father passed away. He was there for me every step of my journey as a player, coach, husband and father. Tony Zane was truly loved and will be missed by many. He is leaving something we all should strive for, a legacy of greatness.”
Mike Ryan, who coached with Zane at Baldwin Park and later with Bogan at South Hills, said Zane was always on the cutting edge of football strategy. He was a guru in the truest sense of the word.
“We were one of the very first teams in (Valley) to (use) computers to scout opponents in 1990,” Ryan said. “We were running programs to look at offensive tendencies and more in 1990, back in the floppy disk era. We were a four wide, motion and multiple formation, pick you apart like New England but throw the ball deep on a post-corner type of team like the old Raiders before all those were popular, trendy, or common place.”
Said former Baldwin Park athletic director Mike Zimmerman: “Tony started the West Coast Offense before Bill Walsh. He was an offensive genius.”
But Zane was not all Xs and Os. There was another side that only those in his inner-circle saw.
“Tony was a real good person and a real good friend,” said Zimmerman who now lives in Florida. “We were a family. Back in the mid-1980s, 90s all us coaches were all together on the same page. We’d sit and have lunch together and Tony would be the king. He’d tell stories and jokes. We’d look forward to brunch and lunch, because that’s when we’d all get together and listen to what Tony had to say. It was times that we’ll never forget.”
Said Ryan: “He was just so much fun to be around. He was hilarious. He kept you in stitches, and he would see something and set it all into laughs that would have people crying.”
Zane was also extremely loyal to his friends, former coaches he worked with and his players. His loyalty to Lawrence Phillips, the late former star who had legal problems most of his adult life before dying in prison last year, is well-documented. But there were other former players he helped through the years.
One is Duarte’s James Heggins. The Baldwin Park alum, who completed his first season at Duarte last fall, has won league titles for Baldwin Park and Duarte. Heggins was on Baldwin Park’s 1991 CIF-SS title team.
“(He) supported them after they left, and took care of players long after they graduated,” Ryan said. “Such an incredible heart.”
Ryan didn’t play for Zane, but he said he became a better coach and person for knowing him.
“He was a great guy.” Ryan said. “He was the first person who really befriended me when I came to California and Baldwin Park in 1989. His sense of humor, quick wit, engaging smile, and intense football mind impressed me and helped me be a better coach and friend.
“Our coin flips after games, our lunch meetings, and all the tears from laughing so hard will always be part of me. It’s hard for me to be sad. I mean, he’s gone, but he was such a fun person, lively and living life, that I just don’t see him wanting anyone to be sad.”