Walker Vick didn’t know quite what to expect when he came to Manteca in 1959 for his first teaching job at Manteca High School.
The Oroville native – who finished his schooling at Chico State in 1958 – was young, inexperienced, and wet-behind-the-ears when it came to the history and the dynamics of a small town that wasn’t all that different than the one he knew intimately in Northern California.
And while he’s remembered for being a legendary coach at the city’s namesake high school – spending more than four decades as a member of the faculty, and immortalized forever in name on the side of the football stadium’s fieldhouse – his first year on campus didn’t involve the thing that he would most be remembered for during his career.
He taught driver’s education.
“There weren’t a whole lot of jobs in physical education at the time, and my first year I spent five hours doing behind-the-wheel drivers training with one class inside of the Bell Tower,” Vick said with a laugh. “I had taken all of the classes in driver’s education and training, and while I was around the football team a little bit I wasn’t involved with them at all.”
But that would be short-lived.
The next year Vick became a member of the Manteca High School football family. He would spend the first eight years helping to establish continuity between multiple levels – starting out as a freshman assistant before moving on to join Ed Williams as an assistant at the sophomore level. Vick would eventually become the varsity baseball coach in 1964, five years before he took over the Manteca High School football program and began the daunting task of maintaining competitiveness in a Valley Oak League that included Oakdale, Sonora, St. Mary’s, Lincoln and Tracy.
His earliest successes weren’t actually on the gridiron, but the diamond.
And the way that things were done then – with only a single diamond on campus for the multiple teams to utilize – was starkly different than the way they are done today.
“We had four league championships during that time that I coached the baseball program, and we had some really good kids that were dedicated to the sport,” Vick said. “We only had one baseball diamond, for when Tracy would come and play they would bring all of their players on one bus and would drop off the varsity at our place, and then the lower levels – both teams – would ride the same bus out to Lathrop where they would play.
“And it worked out great because that’s the way it was.”
Lots of other things were starkly different during Vick’s tenure as well.
While the school didn’t have a formal booster’s club to help fund athletic endeavors, being the school’s only high school, Vick said, meant that individuals and businesses often stepped up to foot the bill for anything that the school may have needed at the time that exceeded the operating budget.
In a time when games were filmed in actual film – either on 8 mm or Super 8 mm cameras – Manteca High would end up with two complete rolls of 16 mm film that would be taken to a special processor after the game was over so that Vick could begin breaking down the team’s performance early the following morning.
Analyzing game footage, and even going so far as to grade each position on every play, is now standard in high school football. But at the time, the idea of putting that sort of detailed work into determining performance was a new concept.
“We always knew that when we exchanged film we were never going to get back what we gave to our opponents as they weren’t doing the same kinds of things that were at the time,” Vick said. “And when we got that back, early the next morning, I would be there going over every single play with the coaches to see how well we performed and where we could improve.
“Not very many people were doing that at the time so it was a way to have an edge in a competitive league.”
Even the way that athletic teams were broken down was different from the system that most people remember from today. When Vick first began coaching, teams weren’t broken up by grade level, but through the “exponent system” which used a player’s age, weight and height to determine their placement. A short and skinny senior might have only qualified under those rules to play on the C or D team, while a big sophomore – who was at least 15 years of age – could easily be a varsity player.
Girl’s sports didn’t exist in any capacity either, and the playoff system that has become such a revenue generator for the California Interscholastic Federation didn’t exist when he arrived at Manteca High School. Even during his playing days at Oroville – where he would travel to Susanville to play league games – once the five games on the schedule had passed, it was on to either basketball or wrestling.
The changes that would come on the horizon for high school athletics, however, gave Vick a chance to be innovative not only in his coaching style, but in the role that he would eventually step into as an on-site administrator and then a staff member at the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Office where he spent more than a decade helping to model and manage the emerging sports landscape.
“When I started coaching the Section office was only a small room ran by one person and a secretary, and that has changed significantly to what we have today,” he said. “It was great to play a part in helping to see the way things have changed in athletics, and while I don’t do very much of that today anymore, it was a great experience.”
And there’s a sense of pride, Vick said, in seeing the school that he spent his entire career working for succeeding in athletics even after he had long walked away from the campus. That feeling, he said, extended to other high schools in the area as well that have enjoyed recent success.
But things weren’t always that way.
One of the things that Vick remembers vividly was the fracture of the community when East Union High School opened its doors, and how it split loyalties, and in some respects, families, based on which side of town the family happened to live in.
It also drastically shrank the boundaries of Manteca High School – sending students from Lathrop, French Camp and New Haven to East Union when they had historically always been Buffaloes.
“There are only so many windows downtown that you can paint for homecoming,” Vick said. “I think that loyalty is a natural thing, and those loyalties were tested at that point and there were definitely some hard feelings on both sides.
“I don’t think it’s that way today, which is good, but there was definitely a period there where that wasn’t the case.”
A coaching legacy
that lives on
If you talk to the men who coached with Vick during his tenure at Manteca High School – people like Art Mathis or Mick Founts – you’ll hear nothing but the utmost in respect and reverence.
And you’ll also hear them talk about the connections between local high school coaches today, and how they all trace back to Vick and his time at Manteca High School.
Current Manteca High head coach Eric Reis a product of that system. Sierra head coach Jeff Harbison went there as well, as did longtime East Union assistant Dan Triglia and more recently Lathrop Head Coach Joey Pirillo and Weston Ranch head coach Seth Davis.
The generations may be different, but the legacy is something that’s very much still intact.
And maintaining a connection to those roots is something that Reis has gone to great lengths to achieve – bringing back coaches of yesteryear during the season to motivate players and remind them that they’re part of something larger than themselves, a legacy that goes back generations.
“Manteca has always had outstanding coaches and that’s something that continues to this day,” Vick said. “You look at somebody like Jack Miller who started his career in 1981 and has coached every single year that he has been on campus – including this season.
“That sort of dedication keeps that legacy alive and it it’s a way to make sure that those traditions stay alive. I just missed Jack Miller by one year, but that continuity is still there today.”
A different kind of coach
The year that Vick stepped away from coaching football, he didn’t let the void in his life go unfilled for very long.
While most of his teaching colleagues were enjoying their summers back in Manteca and taking occasional trips, Vick headed up to Yosemite National Park in the summer of 1981 to begin another tradition that spanned three decades of working for the concessionaire that outfitted packers heading up to high country and worked as an assistant manager of Tuolumne Meadows.
Every year until he retired from education he would have to come back earlier that he wanted to – finding himself at home among some of the picturesque views in the world. All of that would change when we hung up his whistle and his long-running position as Manteca High School’s athletic director until he retired from that job in 2014 to focus on spending time with his children and his grandchildren.
While he still spends time outdoors, and he still travels to watch baseball and football games – coming to Manteca from Escalon to watch his son Todd coach at Sierra High School – he rarely makes the long treks to places like Sacramento and Folsom that he did in the decade-plus working for the section office.
While he might not lay his head in Manteca anymore, it’ll always be a place that’s close to his heart.
“Manteca is a city with quality people – it’s a good place with people who care about the kids and support them,” Vick said. “I had some chances to go elsewhere during my career, especially early on, and I always turned them down because the interest wasn’t there for me.
“I was happy in Manteca.”
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.