Art Mathis knew that they played good football in Manteca.
It was the late 1960s, and as the head coach of a series of small schools in Northern California early during his career, Mathis established a relationship with Walker Vick after the two met at a coaching convention – learning early on about the Valley Oak League and the kind of hardscrabble, tough-nosed players that came out of it.
So when Vick told him that he had an opening on his staff, Mathis was intrigued to learn about how they do things differently in the valley as opposed to the rural mountain towns he had been affiliated with in the past.
He came down to be a part of something that Vick had started at the city’s namesake high school the same year that East Union opened its doors for new students, and has been a part of the community ever since.
“It was a small community where at the time there was only one game on Friday night and everybody was there,” Mathis said of what drew him to Manteca. “Coming from other small towns like that in Northern California I was familiar with that, but there was something different about the Valley Oak League and the teams that played in it.
“At that time it was Tracy that was Manteca’s biggest rival, and then there was St. Mary’s and Lincoln from Stockton and Oakdale and Sonora. Things were much different then.”
And while he might not have been a Manteca native like some of the men that he coached with, to say that Mathis bleeds Green and White today would be an understatement.
All four of his sons went through the program. Two of his grandsons were standouts under head coach Eric Reis. And since Reis – who played for Mathis during his nearly four-decade long stint as a teacher and coach – took over the program more than a decade ago to become the winningest coach in school history, Mathis has been back to talk to the players and maintain the tradition that he helped build along with one of the most storied coaches in Manteca history.
While things may have changed significantly since he first put on the green polo shirt and prowled the sidelines of Guss Schmiedt Field, Mathis still maintains that the legacy of Buffalo football permeates even the schools who are sworn enemies.
Sierra High School head coach Jeff Harbison went to Manteca High School. As did Weston Ranch head coach Seth Davis and Lathrop head coach Joey Pirillo. While East Union head coach Willie Herrera went to St. Mary’s – who at one time played in the VOL – longtime assistant Dan Triglia was a Manteca High School graduate.
Those little facts makes Mathis smile even years removed from walking onto the nearly 100-year-old campus every day and educating students right in the heart of the community he loves so much.
From a historical perspective, he said, getting to see the Manteca and East Union rivalry develop almost instantly is something that he thinks is lost on students today who don’t realize how tense things were when the city’s new high school opened.
“When I arrived at Manteca High School we still had the East Union kids at our campus,” he said. “And when that school opened, it was like a fractured town – cousins went there and people who were friends went there and the lines were clearly drawn.
“I don’t want to say that you knew who your enemy was, but things were tense and that spirit of rivalry in sports was very much alive at that time.”
And when Mathis talks of the men he coached with, it’s a who’s who of Manteca’s historic coaching ranks that spanned out across the district.
When he was hired, after an internal shake-up, his varsity spot disappeared and he ended up as the sophomore head coach – looking to find men that could complete a staff. He ended up tapping a Golden West elementary school teacher named Jim Brown, who would become a legend in his own right with the Lancers, to work with him, along with Butch Linn. He was there when Mick Founts joined the program straight out of college, and coached with Greg Leland and Jack Thomsen before they went on to Sierra High School along with Walker Vick’s son Todd – who played football with Mathis’ son at Manteca High – and also coached with Bob Lee and Joe Jacobs and Joe Miller.
That coaching tree, he said, is a source of pride for him to this day and he’s proud that he’s involved with a legacy that has touched so many lives.
“When I got here this was a one-stoplight town and things have changed so much since then and not all of it for the better,” Mathis said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to that feeling where there was one game going on in town on a Friday night – which was always the biggest night of the week during the fall.
“But they still play good football in Manteca, and that won’t change.”
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.