Candidates from the Bay Area to the Sacramento region were in the running for Manteca High’s head football coaching position, but the Buffaloes believe that familiarity breeds success.
And with that in mind, principal Frank Gonzales and athletic director Bill Slikker chose to promote offensive coordinator Mark Varnum to follow in the massive footsteps left by Eric Reis, the school’s all-time winningest coach.
It was one of two major announcements made by Slikker on Friday, as Manteca’s athletic program has agreed to an all-sports deal with Nike.
Slikker said that seven finalists emerged out of 20-25 applicants — four of them current head coaches at other schools, two coordinators and another on-campus aspirant.
Varnum, 38, teaches physical education and sports medicine at Manteca and called the shots for the program’s high-octane attack this past fall. He replaced longtime offensive coordinator Neil MacDnanald (2001-2016), who was part of five section championships to go with two others as the Buffaloes’ baseball coach.
“With the on-the-job training he had this year, how do you not pick the guy?” Slikker said. “As far as bringing in somebody from the outside and changing it, why do we want to change? I would understand if we had a 0-10 or 1-9 season and would want to make a drastic change, but we don’t need to make a drastic change.
“We needed to get somebody who has been a part of this program, understands what we’re about and keep it rolling. At the end of the day, it was kind of a slam dunk.”
Reis retired with a sparkling 150-42-2 record over 16 years, which also include 14 postseason berths, five Valley Oak League championships, five SJS banners and three CIF State Northern California Regional Bowl Game appearances.
“Obviously, when you’re coming in for a legend like coach Reis there’s a lot of pressure — the expectations are high,” Varnum said. “It was nice this last year taking over for coach Mac, who has more rings than fingers with the amount of success he’s had. It was a nice segue into taking the head spot over.
“We are going to continue what (Reis) built here with coach (Joe) Miller before him. We just want to keep moving forward. No backward steps here.”
A native of Washington state, where he was an All-Northwest Conference team selection in 2000 and 2001 at left guard for Puget Sound, Varnum’s climb to the top was six years in the making. He previously coached in the lower levels and co-headed the 2016 sophomore coach Josh Farris while leading the school’s wrestling team before his elevation to the varsity football ranks.
“This is something Mr. Gonzales and I have talked about since I got hired here,” Varnum said. “I knew it was definitely a goal of mind. I (used) the last five or six years getting myself ready for that. Time flies and now it’s here, and I’m excited for the opportunity.”
His impact was immediate for the varsity squad, which went 12-3 with Northern Arizona-bound quarterback Gino Campiotti shattering the program’s single-season passing records. Manteca toppled VOL rival Oakdale 34-17 for the SJS Division III crown and lost to eventual CIF State Division II-A champion St. Francis of Mountain View 28-23 in the NorCal Bowl.
Varnum aims for the Buffs to three-peat as section champs (they captured the Division IV banner in 2016) and get over the “NorCal hump.” Manteca is 0-3 in the state playoffs.
He’ll have some help in that quest with several members of Reis’ staff expected to stay on board. Among them, Varnum noted, is defensive coordinator Rick James, line coaches Dan Eavenson and Ken Menasco, and receivers coach Jason Dukes.
“We’re going to continue to do what we do,” Varnum said. “A lot of the staff is returning, which is great. That continuity has been a big part of coach Reis’ success.
“I still have to make some phone calls this weekend,” he added. “My No. 1 goal is to hold onto every single person if I could. That’ll play out over the next couple of weeks.”
With James back to lead the defense for a 17th straight season, Varnum plans to resume the team’s chameleon-like approach to offense, catering its schemes to the personnel and making necessary changes based on matchups.
Now in his 12th year as a “California boy,” as he called himself, Varnum is a proud Buffalo.
“My best friends are on this campus right now,” he said. “It’s a great place to work. The camaraderie between the entire staff from sport to sport and department to department is pretty tight. I’m just excited to be a part of that.”
Manteca’s football team sported Under Armour gear this past season, while most other programs at the school has gone with Nike.
That will soon change.
The Buffaloes have landed an all-sports deal with Nike, joining an exclusive club that includes national powerhouse De La Salle of Concord. Kevin Kelly, senior sales representative for East Bay team sales, was on campus Friday to discuss the details with Slikker and local media.
“We’ve been talking about it with Kevin for some time,” Slikker said. “The majority of sports on campus has been Nike, but the only one that was not Nike was football. Obviously, that’s the flagship of our school and any other school. We wanted to take it to the next level and be one of those types of schools.”
By teaming with Nike, Manteca athletes will receive discounted prices for new gear and the school will receive financial compensation.
Kelly has had Manteca in mind for a while. He already had developed a strong relationship with boys basketball coach Brett Lewis, who guided the team to the CIF State Division III championship two years ago.
“I have done quite a few of these in the past and we’re always looking for the great programs,” Kelly said. “We like to align ourselves with sports programs that are very successful. Manteca is a top-tier sports program, and football has always been awesome and I’m sure that tradition is going to continue. Basketball winning a state title a couple of years ago and other sports have had great success. We are very proud and very happy, both at East Bay and Nike, to be affiliated with the school.”