By John Murphy
BLOOMINGTON – Don Markham, then 54, elicited more muffled laughter than awe when he first met the 1994 Bloomington High football team.
“He was a straight-up guy and he wasn’t trying to be funny, but I thought he was funny,” said two-way lineman Alex Lora, of Rialto, who now remodels businesses. “He was pointing out guys and saying ‘OK, you need to run more and you need to lift more.’ I thought ‘Oh my God, who is this old man?’ But that was just his persona.”
Soon Markham, with a personality and an offense as subtle as a punch in the gut, would take the prep football world by storm.
Bloomington — 1-9 in 1993 before Markham — flattened host Big Bear 86-8 in the opener and then felled nine more regular-season foes as easily as Paul Bunyan whacking Christmas trees. By the time the playoffs were done, the Bruins (14-0) had won their first section title, earned a mythical Division 3 state title and scored a then-national record 880 points.
The point total is still a state record and one of the Inland area’s 10 most unbreakable records. Albemarle (N.C.) High broke Bloomington’s national record in 2001 with 903 points, but it took the Bulldogs two more games.
When former Bloomington standout running back Cheyane Caldwell was asked recently if any Inland team could break the Bruins’ state record, he didn’t hesitate.
“They can try,” chuckled Caldwell, now a captain in the Los Angeles City Fire Department.
Added Caldwell: “This man named Don Markham came in and he believed in us. Our demeanor changed and we could see there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light for opponents was like a freight train bearing down.
Against Big Bear, the ’94 De Anza League champion, the Bruins scored 62 first-half points en route to an 86-8 victory and the highest point total for a Southern Section team since 1921. The Bruins scored 20 points on two-point conversions alone.
“It was outrageous how many points we scored,” said offensive lineman Hilario “Project” Lopez, now a carpenter in Las Vegas. “We had the same talent as the season before or maybe even less, but we had a coach who believed in us. He put the right talent in the right spots. We were just rolling over people. It was surreal.”
After every touchdown the cheerleaders raced to the end zone, which was good for the fitness level of the Bloomington girls. Said quarterback Jason Buell in 2004: “Some of (the cheerleaders) were kind of fat at the start of the season, but by the end of the season they were looking pretty good.”
Bloomington averaged 408.3 yards per game on the ground. In the section title game against host La Mirada, the Bruins rushed for 581 yards in a 48-32 Bruins victory.
Caldwell, Greg Oliver, Adam Rodriguez and David Smith gained the yards, with Oliver and Caldwell combining for more than 3,000 yards for the season.
The offensive line of Lora, Lopez, Henry Viramontes, Mike Abril and Ricky Salazar bored holes in opposing defenses, with the help of tight ends Frank Martinez and Antonio Muro. Even quarterback Buell aided the blocking effort, sticking his head into the fray on Bloom-ington’s vaunted off-tackle pitch.
Markham created the play while coaching the Pop Warner Northridge Knights beginning in 1966. He used it while running the stack-I formation at LA Baptist, Colton and La Puente Bishop Amat and then adapted it to the double-wing at Riverside Ramona.
“Eddie Robinson (Grambling University) used two tight ends and two wings, but he didn’t run the off-tackle pitch,” Markham said. “We were the first double-wing team to pitch it off tackle.”
Markham has been described as an enigmatic football genius, with a savant’s focus on the X’s and O’s. That expertise has helped produce a total of five section titles, achieved at three high schools; and an overall record of 309-110-1 at eight schools.
In 1969 only a mass murder could break his routine, it seemed.
Then a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, Markham and his partner were the first on the scene of the Manson “family” murders at the Los Angeles home of movie director Roman Polanski and the late actress Sharon Tate.
“We had to help the detectives search the property for weapons,” said Markham, who typically zipped from his police shift to football. “I was upset because it screwed up my coaching.”
The obsession never lifted. During much of the 1994 season, Markham wore sweats from his previous stop, Bandon (Ore.) High, turned inside out because he was too busy to buy coaching gear. That was just the tip of his eccentric iceberg.
The ’94 Bruins had only 20 players and used 12. Markham was the entire coaching staff, save for Jeff Stuckey. The Bruins dressed in foreboding Navy blue and sauntered everywhere they went. Their playbook was as thin as an intern’s resume. And they ignored the kicking game, running for two-pointers and punting just twice during the regular season.
Markham loved the rebel tag and Bloomington embraced the Bruins.
“An End Run Around Obscurity” was the title of a 1994 Los Angeles Times article describing the Bruins’ impact on an unincorporated town searching for an identity.
“Thanks to a ragtag collection of football players at this high school who this season conquered the end zone like an unstoppable army, Bloomington is finally getting respect,” the article said.
The records and opponents tumbled like bowling pins. The Bruins walloped Baldwin Park Sierra Vista 70-0 in their playoff opener, besting the state scoring record of 665 points set by Concord De La Salle a year earlier.
Two games later Bloomington defeated Laguna Hills 34-21 in the semis. Smith’s 18-yard sweep in the third quarter shattered the 19-year-old national scoring record of Big Sandy (Texas) High, whose team scored 827 points and included current Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith.
Finally, Bloomington secured the title against La Mirada. Oliver ran for 255 yards and four touchdowns.
“It’s amazing that we had the same 14 or 15 players as the year before and we were just annihilating teams,” said Oliver, who now lives in Las Vegas and is the outbound operation manager for the Office Max distribution center. “It’s hard to believe.”
Markham described a time and place where everything magically fell into place.
“The kids got their positions in the spring and were happy,” he said. “There was no jealousy. Nobody missed practice. It was a bizarre, fun year. I don’t even know how we did it.”