GARY NELSON: WALTRIP’S WRENCH-TURNING WIZARD

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

For most of his 3 ½ years with 1981 NASCAR Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip, chief mechanic Gary Nelson had met one challenge after another.

And the 26-year-old former Redlands mechanic can look back on over 20 years of experience working with engines as his credentials for time spent with the circuit’s hottest driver.

436px-GaryNelsonNASCAR1985
NASCAR crew chief Gary Nelson wasn’t born in Redlands, but the eventual wrench-turning wizard spent plenty of time there as he got his racing career started (photo by Wikipidia Commons).

“I like to think I can look at a car and say ‘this area’s weak’ and then spend more time with that,” Nelson told me a couple days before the 1981 Winston Western 500 at the old Riverside International Raceway.

“This race,” he said, “is one of the toughest for mechanics because of the course.”

It’s a course that would cause any race team headaches.

Riverside’s 7-turn course each lap would depend on mechanics’ ability to maintain the clutch and brake systems.

“On a super speedway,” said Nelson, referring to the likes of Talladega or Martinsville or Bristol, “you don’t even use them. That is, until you come to a pit stop.”

Cars that pull into pit area at Riverside, well, it resembles organized mayhem. All that stopping, turning and rotating around that course.

Nelson was well-known around Redlands by all those race-lovers. I was urged by plenty, including newspaper advertising manager Jim Mundy, to produce a story for the locals as the Winston Western 500 beckoned. In fact, we rode out to Riverside Raceway together.

Nelson, born in Illinois before Arnold and Mildred Nelson moved to Redlands, started with engines when he turned five.

Arnold Nelson started teaching his son via motorbikes and race carts.

“My dad’s a real good mechanic,” said Nelson, who eventually got into racing with local legend Ivan Baldwin — “Ivan The Terrible.” When he was in his mid-teens, Nelson started sweeping the floors before working his way in as Baldwin’s lead mechanic.

Said Mildred: “He’s just like his dad. When Gary was 16, his dad gave him the family van. The first thing he did with it was take the engine out and put a bigger one in.”

She said Gary had always been interested in anything with wheels.

“I always worried about him, but I knew he was very careful. He wasn’t a wild driver.”

His early racing experience was local.

ORANGE SHOW SPEEDWAY SPECIAL

NASCAR had to be special, especially since the Ontario Motor Speedway and the Riverside raceway were so close to Redlands. To get there, however, required the paying of dues.

It was Saturday at Orange Show Speedway. Arguably, Baldwin might be the most successful driver that ever came out of OSS. Said Nelson: “We had a lot of fun.”

Baldwin, Nelson at 605 Raceway
At left, West Coast driving megastar Ivan Baldwin, while Gary Nelson checks the engine at Speedway 605 in the San Gabriel Valley (photo by legendsofnascar.com).

A connection to Baldwin was worth plenty in those years. Baldwin, later killed in a 1996 traffic accident, raced all over California’s racing circuit. That Nelson was part of his crew shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Racing was cheap in those days,” Nelson said. “And it wasn’t hard to do. But nowadays with the price of engines and tires, it’s hard to get into.”

All of which is why events led him into NASCAR. “I wouldn’t want to race unless I could go first class,” he said.

Waltrip and Nelson hard went after wins. At a race in College Station, Texas one week, a young driver named Dale Earnhardt., Sr. had a one-lap lead with 20 remaining. Nelson saved 10 seconds by replacing just two tires instead of four on the pit stop.

It saved the day. Waltrip won, leaving the driver praising his crew chief – typical comments. “Gary made the decision to change those tires. Goddammit, the kid is so good.”

Nelson countered by saying it had been a joint decision – crew, driver and chief mechanic each involved.

“We have a good crew,” said Nelson, noting future Hall of Famers Buddy Parrott and Robert Yates, plus Butch Stevens in the pits.

“Over the last three years,” said Waltrip, who won 13 races that season with Nelson as crew chief for DiGard Racing, “we’ve been successful because the good mechanics have stayed and the bad ones have left.”

Nelson’s teams won at Daytona and Riverside, Richmond and Bristol, Darlington and Michigan, Pocono and Martinsville, Wilkesboro and Charlotte, Richmond and Dover Downs – pretty much all the major stops on NASCAR’s fabled schedule.

WALTRIP CALAMITY NEARLY OVERCOME

In the 95-lap Winston Western 500, Waltrip crashed at the sixth turn on lap 65. The car limped into the pits. In 15 seconds, the crew changed two damaged tires and hammered out the dented body so Waltrip could drive his now-disfigured car back into contention.

Two days before that race, Nelson said Bobby Allison and Richard Petty would be the “toughest competition.”

He wasn’t necessarily ignoring the likes of Cale Yarbrough, Joe Millikan, Earnhardt or Benny Parsons.

Wasn’t it ironic that Allison took the race and Petty, with substitute driver Jimmy Insolo, finishing third?

DARRELL_WALTRIP_IMAGE
Darrell Waltrip was a stock car driving legend. Part of that success came with Redlands’ Gary Nelson running the team (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Waltrip, his crew having made the quick-handed changes after the crash, took second.

Six laps were left. Waltrip was down 45 seconds. Crew member Don Sewell, another Redlands-based pit man, said, “It’s too much.”

Only an Allison mishap would cost him the race.

Allison knocked down his fourth win of that season.

Waltrip’s familiar green “88” car sped by some 32.9 seconds later. He was nearly out of gas.

“A few years ago,” said Nelson, “I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be where I am today. It’s hard, but I rely on a lot of luck.”

If that doesn’t leave you chuckling, consider that he was worried that a rebuilt transmission on Friday wouldn’t hold in Sunday’s race.

Tim Williamson, the driver who won the Hodgdon 200 just prior to the Winston Western 500, stood alongside Nelson. It was Nelson who said, “I was worried he’d run out of gas.”

Nelson didn’t last long with Waltrip, who left one year later for Junior Johnson’s racing team.

A portion of Nelson’s resume:

  • Crew chief for Allison, who joined DiGard when Waltrip left.
  • Turned up as Kyle Petty’s crew chief, 1989.
  • In 1988, Nelson was a part-timer with ESPN.
  • A West Coast Stock Car Racing Hall of Famer.
  • Worked for NASCAR in 1991 as its Winston Cup director. During that time, Nelson was credited with safety innovations – particularly after Earnhardt’s driving death.

Since April 2001, when he took on the safety portion of NASCAR, no life-threatening accidents have taken place at any of its speedways.

One final point: Isn’t it interesting that Nelson’s most prized racers, Allison and Waltrip, were tied for fourth place on NASCAR’s all-time victory list at 84?

All that wrench-turning started as a Redlands Connection.

 

CAZZIE RUSSELL: FORMER NO. 1 NBA PICK BROUGHT SCAD TO REDLANDS

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: None other than Cazzie Russell.

Truth is, there aren’t many NBA No. 1 draft choices that pass through Redlands.

Not just a No. 1 draft pick. We’re talking No. 1 overall.

Truth be told, Shaquille O’Neal showed up at the University of Redlands to film a commercial. Model Cindy Crawford was on that scene, too. It had been written up in the local press — nothing much to it.

Cazzie Russell comes to mind.

The Chicago native was a three-time All-American at Michigan in the mid-1960s.

At 54 years of age, Russell was coaching Savannah (Ga.) College of Arts & Design (SCAD).

In December 1998, SCAD came out west for a three-game trip to play Westmont College (near Santa Barbara), Univ. La Verne and Univ. Redlands.

“This school was founded in 1979 with 71 students, said Russell, “and a credit card.”

By 1998, it had grown to a campus of 4,000 students.

At the time of his hiring, SCAD’s Chairman of the Board was none other than Dr. Bernie Casey, who had been an NFL All-Pro receiver. Onetime major league pitching hero Luis Tiant was the school’s baseball coach.

As for Russell, hoops fans might recall that 6-foot-5 pure shooter who helped lead the Wolverines to the 1964 and 1965 Final Four, losing in the 1966 Regionals to eventual finalist Kentucky. A short time later, the New York Knicks made Russell the No. 1 pick.

Cazzie Russell

Cazzie Russell, a No. 1 overall draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966, coached a small college team from the visitor’s bench in 1998 at the University of Redlands (photo by Savannah College of Art & Design).

Thirty years later, including an NBA title in 1970 — Knicks over the Lakers — Russell was sitting in an Ontario hotel, the midway point between La Verne and Redlands.

“I love coaching here,” he says. “Nobody expects anything from us. We’re a bunch of cartoonists, graphic designers, architects. We come into another school’s gym and they’re thinking they’ve got us.

“When the get us on the court, we fool ‘em.”

Someone else could write the connections between Russell had with a variety of NBA legends, including teammates though plenty of opponents that included Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, Nate Thurmond and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek.

“I just saw Oscar two or three weeks ago,” said Russell. “I remember when he came to my high school and tried to get me to go to Cincinnati, his old school.”

Russell was traded by the Knicks to the San Francisco Warriors for legendary rebounder Jerry Lucas in 1971.

Three decades later at SCAD, Russell laid the groundwork for recruiting, basketball, getting his team a chance for an education at an NCAA Division 3 institution.

No one sees us at practice, he says. “We’re working on defense, shooting, fundamentals … just like everyone else, I suppose.”

At SCAD, Russell’s recruits are playing for a former No. 1 draft pick, a onetime NBA champion who played against the best basketball players in the world.

“A lot of kids are in awe of the fact that I was drafted No. 1,” he said.

Teaching those fundamentals at practice, he said, “is like trying to introduce them to a new cereal.”

That list of overall number one picks — O’Neal, Kareem, Robertson, Baylor, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes or Bill Walton — does NOT include Michael Jordan or Chamberlain, Russell or Karl Malone.

Russell’s in rare company.

Joked Russell: “I don’t want to get into the difference in the amount of money we made then and what they make now.”

During his post-playing career, Russell coached at every level — high school, CBA, assistant in the NBA, collegiately in both NAIA and NCAA — before settling in at SCAD.

In its three-game swing out west in 1998, the Bees swept Westmont, La Verne and Redlands.

It seemed strange to see Russell seated on the bench as SCAD warmup up to play the Bulldogs inside Currier Gymnasium on that December 16, 1998 night.

It was a far cry from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum when, playing for the Warriors, the smooth-shooting Russell was swishing shots in a rare win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Averaging 15 points a game over a 10-year career, Russell not only played in the New York and Golden State, but also the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. When the Lakers signed him away from the Warriors, according to the rules of the day, Russell’s former team received draft compensation.

That pick turned out to be Robert Parrish, the 7-foot center later traded by the Warriors to the Boston Celtics.

As for SCAD basketball, Russell’s coaching career in Savannah lasted 13 seasons. The school cancelled the sport in 2009.

Russell was as well-versed in spiritual necessities as he was setting up a jump shot. He seemed to make as much joy in reporting that God was a huge factor in his life.

“If God is first in your life,” he told me, “then you’re going to be successful. I’m not talking about making money. I’m talking about faith in everything you do.

You can run from God, he said, “but you can’t hide. When I decided I was going to be obedient in 1989, it was the best thing I ever did.”

“I’ve got no plans to leave.”

 

 

GOING FROM A REV LADY WILDCAT TO AN ARIZONA LADY ’CAT

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

In honor of the NCAA College Softball World Series, which are unfolding …

Those telephone calls to the sports desk from Pam Martin, softball coach at Redlands East Valley High School when that campus opened in 1997, were quite a ritual. There was often cheer in her voice.

In all cases, she had something newsworthy to report.

One of Martin’s top players, Allyson Von Liechtenstein, probably played in as many big games as any Redlands-based product at the collegiate level during her post-REV years.

It’s simple. Von Liechtenstein, the twin sister of Elizabeth (Lizzie) and younger sister of Sarah, was part of a trio of Highland-based players who were raised under the softball thumb of their dad, Dave.

Ally Von L, a left-handed, slap-hitting, fleet-footed outfielder played four sensational seasons at REV. It was nothing for Martin to report a 3-hit game for Ally Von L. Or maybe a couple of stolen bases to go along with her two singles and, maybe, a triple. At the time, she patrolled center field.

Von Liechtenstein
Ally Von L, a Redlands East Valley product who played big-time NCAA softball at powerhouse University of Arizona (Photo by UA).

It should’ve been no surprise, then, that she committed to play collegiately at the University of Arizona from 2002-2005. She was a 5-foot-5-inch slash hitter heading off to Tucson.

Arizona’s Lady Wildcats’ softball program should be considered among the finest in the land. Ally Von L found herself playing four straight seasons at the College World Series.

Mike Candrea, coach, might’ve been USA’s best go-getter for UA. He went and “got” Ally Von L.

Ally Von L was a nice catch for her new Wildcats’ team. At that time, anyone caught playing for UA should’ve been considered quite a player.

Candrea, who led Team USA to the 2004 Olympic gold medal, was a fun interview. Make that a professional interview. He knew how to take control. He knew the questions before I’d even launched them at him.

At least when you could get hold of him. Schools this big have Sports Information Directors. Got to get through them to get to guys like Candrea. The man’s got coaching to do.

By the 2018 season, incredibly, Candrea was within a couple hundred wins away from 2,000.

Mike Candrea
Univ. Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea is closing fast on 2,000 victories – 211 of which came when he coached Ally Von Liechtenstein from 2002-2005 (Photo credit, University of Arizona).

This is the guy who landed Ally Von L. Not to mention Jennie Finch. Not to mention Alicia Hollowell. And Caitlin Lowe. And Autumn Champion. And Kristie Fox. Each of whom were teammates with Ally Von L.

Lowe hit .510 one year, swiping 27 out of 30 bases. Hollowell won 40 games in a single season. Finch went 32-0 in another. Lovie Jung hit .481 one season, stroking 25 bombs. Champion hit .489 with 26 steals one season. That same year, 2004, Lowe hit .437 with 46 steals.

These were the players Candrea landed.

On Ally Von L, he said, “Listen … (pausing for a few seconds to collect some thoughts) this is a kid with speed. She can hit. She’ll run the bases. She can catch anything hit out there. She’ll help us here.”

Remember, he was taking a player right out of the area from UCLA should’ve been grabbing from (USC doesn’t have intercollegiate softball). At Arizona, Ally Von L had a solid career – .321, .381, .384 and .265 as a senior.

She started 105 games, playing in 172. Often used as a pinch-runner. Swiped 28-of-35 bases over four seasons. Ninety-four hits, 283 at-bats. Scored a batch of runs.

Said Candrea: “There was a time when if UCLA wanted a kid, they got the kid. We got a few breaks. We got some key kids.”

ALLY VON L AGAINST THE GREATS

Along the way, there were remarkable games played against the likes of Cat Osterman.

Tennessee’s Monica Abbott.

Michigan’s Jennie Ritter.

UCLA’s Keira Goerl.

Louisiana’s Brooke Mitchell.

Fresno State’s Jamie Southern was named to the ESPN Rise All-Decade team in 2009.

LSU’s Kristin Schmidt.

Georgia Tech’s Jessica Sallinger.

Alabama’s Stephanie VanBrakle.

These were the kids Ally Von L was playing against – the USA’s most decorated pitchers.

Von Liechtenstein hit against most of them. As close to being a starting player without actually starting every game, Ally Von L was part of a team that included All-Americans almost everywhere on the diamond during her four-year stint from 2002-2005.

On Saturday, June 5, 2005: It was a Von Liechtenstein single in the 12th inning at the NCAA Women’s College World Series that knocked home the winning run in a 3-2 win over Cal-Berkeley – a game played in Oklahoma City.

Ally Von L’s heroics were only short-lived.

One day later, the fabulous Texas southpaw, Osterman, knocked off the Lady Wildcats, 1-0, to leave Arizona without a 50-win season for the first time in years. Arizona ended its season with a record of 45-12, having reached its 17th Women’s College World Series over an 18-year span.

Ally Von L and I connected a few times on articles about her collegiate experiences, which were vast. She wasn’t hamming it up, probably preferring to lay low. After all, this kid was one of REV’s finest athletes.

You always got the feeling she was battling. Aggressive. Not in awe of her surroundings, but highly respectful.

In 2005, the Lady Wildcats were co-Pacific-10 Champions. Playing against the likes of UCLA, Stanford, Cal, you name it, UA was a force in NCAA softball.

Wouldn’t you know it: Von Liechtenstein became a group of four Lady Wildcat players to play all four seasons without a national championship since 1987. It was quite a streak, especially when Von Liechtenstein had played behind such stalwart pitchers as Hollowell and the sensational Finch.

Jennie_Finch_vs._China
Jennie Finch was a University of Arizona teammate of Ally Von Liechtenstein during a prime time of Lady Wildcats’ softball in Tucson (Photo by Team USA).

Finch was a senior during Von Liechtenstein’s freshman season.

A year after Ally Von L’s departure, Arizona – which had copped five NCAA titles over a seven-year span in the 1990s – won the NCAA World Series title again.

Who knows? Maybe it set the stage for a future NCAA Division 1 softball great. About a decade after Ally Von L, Sahvanna Jaquish, also from Highland, showed up at REV. Off she went to Louisiana State University, where she became an All-American.

 

JOHNSON’S SPEED LED HIM INTO NFL, NOT AMONG WORLD TRACK ELITE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

It was June 1, 1995. The place was Knoxville, Tenn.

Patrick Johnson, born in Georgia, moved to Redlands, took a football scholarship at the University of Oregon, eventually winding up playing professionally in Baltimore. All evidence pointed to a possible world-class career on the track. Here he was in Tennessee. World class speed seemed to be everywhere.

Johnson, an Oregon freshman, was competing against the likes of Ato Boldon, Obadele Thompson, Donovan Powell and Tim Harden, among others. A month earlier, Johnson had beaten Olympic legend Carl Lewis in nearby Des Moines, Iowa.

On hand was the NCAA Division 1 championships, hosted by the University of Tennessee between May 31-June 3.

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson, an electrifying speedster who found his way from world class track into the NFL (photo by ProAthletes Celebrity).

As a world-class speedster, Johnson never hid from the fact that his first interest in athletics was football. I’ll never forget that moment, either.

“All I wanted to do,” Johnson told me during his senior year at Redlands High in 1994, “was play football. That was my goal. Man, I loved track. But football was something different. It was special.”

It was one of a few chats with, perhaps, one of Redlands’ most accomplished athletes.

Here he was, the reigning track & field star at Redlands in 1994 – the eventual state 100- and 200- meter champion. His times were outrageously quick – a 10.43 to win the 1994 State 100 title, while a 10.61 was quick enough to win the Southern Section Division 1 championship.

Don’t forget the 200, where he turned it on three times to win titles, starting in 1993 with a 21.40 to win the Division 1 championship.

One season later, he not only re-captured the Division 1 title in 21.25, but he beat all comers at the State finals in 21.01.

He was no marginal athlete in either sport. Compared to football, where his skills could’ve been used in a variety of positions on the field, Johnson single-mindedly trained for football – even during spring track season.

That’s the groundwork for Johnson’s upcoming track career. Right?

Even the most casual observer might agree that Johnson’s future seemed to be on that oval that usually surrounds any football field.

As a freshman at Oregon, Johnson beat all comers in the Pacific-10 400-meter finals – 45.38 seconds. He made the NCAA Championships in Knoxville, Tenn. that year, unable to qualify in either the 100 or the 200.

His competition was off the charts.

Guys like Bolden, of UCLA, was winning the 200 in 20.24. Johnson’s prelims time was 20.82 – ninth place, one spot out of a place in the finals.

O._Thompson_Sydney_medal
Obadele Thompson once beat Carl Lewis at the Drake Relays, a 100-meter race in which Redlands’ Patrick Johnson finished second (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

At least Johnson made the 100-finals. But his 10.32 clocking was eighth, and last, in a field headed by Kentucky’s Harden (10.05). In that race was the Jamaican, Powell, whose brother, Asafa Powell, once held the world record (9.74) in the 100.

Harden was part of the Olympic silver medal 4 x 100 relay at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Ato_Boldon_Sydney_2000
Ato Boldon, of UCLA, was a chief rival of Patrick Johnson, the onetime State prep champion from Redlands who took off for the University of Oregon. Boldon celebrated an Olympic medal in this photo at the 2000 Sydney Games (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Boldon, an eventual four-time Olympic medal winner, had false-started in that 1995 100 semifinals, eliminating him from a possible sprint double – a controversial result, in fact.

Carl Lewis
Carl Lewis, a 9-time Olympic champion, took on Redlands’ Patrick Johnson at the 1995 Drake Relays (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

A month, or so, before that year’s NCAAs, Johnson prepped at the Drake (Iowa) Relays – on April 29, 1995. It was there that Johnson beat nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis across the line in the 100-meters. Few recall, however, the Lewis’ career was coming to an end. Or that Johnson didn’t even win that race.

Thomson, a sophomore at Texas-El Paso, won in 10.19. Johnson, an Oregon freshman, was next at 10.26. Lewis, the Olympic hero, was third in 10.32.

SPEED KILLS ON A FOOTBALL FIELD

Johnson’s speed was a rampant weapon on any football field.

In football at Redlands, Johnson never seemed to have that huge, stunning, break-out game that observers would recall in years to come. That never kept him from swaying from his dream.

“Ever since I was little,” said Johnson, “I’ve thought about football.”

His Redlands track records will likely stand the test of time – 10.39 in the 100, 20.79 in the 200, 43.79 in the 400 and anchoring a 4 x 400 relay (3:18.79) are numbers that just don’t point a young man away from track & field.

The tipoff should have been easy to spot.

Upon Johnson’s transfer to Redlands as a junior in 1992, he was declared ineligible because he did not have enough units toward graduation. In Terrier coach Jim Walker’s first season, Johnson was a practice squad player from weeks one through 10. Under those conditions, it would have been easy to find something else to do.

“I remember coaching the defensive backs that season,” said onetime Redlands assistant Dick Shelbourne, “the season Pat missed playing in the games because he was ineligible. He only missed two practices the whole season.”

It was a sure sign to Terrier coaches that Johnson was serious about football. When the playoffs rolled around, Walker and Shelbourne worked him into their games against Capistrano Valley and Loyola – in the secondary.

That was Redlands’ introduction to Johnson, who was eligible to run track later that spring. By his senior year, Walker contemplated Johnson at any one of three different offensive positions – receiver, running back or an option quarterback.

Settling on running back, Johnson’s season was uneventful – 583 yards rushing, another 257 receiving, and the Terriers failed to reach the post-season.

His speed on the track lured interested parties because he played football, too. Johnson opted for the University of Oregon, where he played wide receiver.

Years later when Ducks’ football coach Rich Brooks spoke about Johnson, he chuckled when we chatted. “That speed of his,” he said, “could’ve taken him anywhere – football or track.”

Let’s not forget, either, that Oregon is home to Hayward Field, which is the nation’s top site for track & field. It would be impossible not to feel that emotional tug. He seemed offended if anyone suggested track over football.

He’d shake his head. Mind was made up.

FOOTBALL NUMBERS VERSUS TRACK TIMES

At Oregon from 1994-97, Johnson snagged 143 passes mostly from the likes of Ducks’ QBs Tony Graziani and Akili Smith. His final collegiate game, against Air Force in the Las Vegas Bowl, Johnson took advantage of his blazing speed. Catching five passes for 169 yards, he caught two TD passes from Smith for 69 and 78 yards.

On the other hand, he remains on Oregon’s all-time records list – eighth best in the 100 (that 10.26 at The Drake Relays), tied for second best in the 200 (20.39) and sixth best in the 400 (45.38) – with all electrifying marks.

Remember, this is a historic collegiate program. Ranking among the best at that school is overwhelming.

Though uniquely qualified to take on the world’s best sprinters of the day – Lewis, Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene, among others, Johnson’s chosen field was professional football.

The Ravens made him the 42nd selection in the draft, taken in the second round of the 1998 NFL draft.

Johnson, a two-time NCAA All-American in the 100 and 200 in his only full season of collegiate competition, was expected to win the 400 NCAA championship in 1996.

Plus, he was a staunch favorite to make the USA Olympic team that year.

Remember, The Games were scheduled for Atlanta, Ga., Johnson’s home state.

It’s possible Johnson might have over-trained early that season – trying too hard, perhaps. He was, apparently, in no condition to compete at the NCAAs.

Johnson took second in the Pac-10’s 400-meter finals in 1996.

Those calamities added up. Johnson never stepped on Hayward Field’s track again to compete.

TOM FLORES’ TIES TO THE OLD AFL DAYS

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: Tom Flores.

I still remember the day when the onetime Oakland Raiders’ legend showed up at the University of Redlands.

Before Tom Flores’ speaking appearance that day, I’d been given an hour to sit with him in an adjoining room inside the school’s chapel. I grew up in Raider Territory, a town called Hayward, some 20 minutes south of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It allowed me a little background for this little chat.

“I’ll bet you,” he said, “that you can’t name the original eight AFL teams.”

“You guys started in Minnesota,” I told him.

Tom FLores (Silver & Black Pride)
Tom Flores, standing in front of his team in preparation for a game, led the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders to Super Bowl victories. In between those triumphs, Flores spoke at the University of Redlands (photo by Black & White pride).

Flores, who’d played collegiately at the College of Pacific in Stockton, smiled. I thought I had him.

Name the other ones, he challenged me.

I almost got them all. Buffalo Bills, Boston Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs. Oh, and the New York Jets.

“Not perfect,” he said.

The Kansas City Chiefs were the Dallas Texans. The Jets were originally the New York Titans.

One of Flores’ memories: “I remember we were being paged over the intercom at the airport. They said, ‘Oklahoma Raiders.’

“They didn’t know if we were truck drivers or pro football players.”

The AFL weren’t exactly household names in those early 1960s. It was, he recalled, all-out war between the AFL and NFL.

After several minutes of taking on Flores’ trivia questions, he was introduced to a couple hundred audience members.

“There’s something about those stained-glass windows,” said Flores, noting the inner décor of the University of Redlands’ ancient chapel. “I had a few off-colored stories I was going to share with you, but I don’t think I’d better do that.”

He was part of pro football history. The part of the old American Football League that merged with the National Football League in 1970.

Flores had played QB for the Raiders. He wound up as an assistant coach to the legendary John Madden.

When Madden stepped aside as Raiders’ coach after the 1978 season, Managing General Partner Al Davis tabbed Flores as his head coach. What lied ahead were two Super Bowl championships, one in Oakland, the other in Los Angeles.

Flores’ visit to Redlands came in between those two titles.

“I don’t mingle in any of that,” Flores told me, referring to the conflict his boss, Davis, was having with the NFL and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle. “It’s hard enough to get a team ready to play.

“Teams don’t need all those other distractions.”

He was totally in Davis’ corner.

“I think he’s right. Six years ago, we had one of the best stadiums in football. Now, we’re one of the worst. Everybody has passed us by.”

That 27-10 Super Bowl win in New Orleans over Philadelphia in 1980 had some errant media coverage, he told that Redlands audience.

“We’re publicized as a team that has no discipline,” he said. “When we went to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, they publicized the fact that everyone on the team was out on Bourbon Street every night. Well, that wasn’t true at all.

“Only half the team was out.”

Audience members had questions.

On football’s best player:

“There are several and I should go position by position. But I think Walter Payton is one of the most complete backs in the NFL. He’d sure fit in with the Raiders.”

On the upcoming NFL draft:

“We’re not limited to a position in the draft. But I think we’ll look for an offensive back or receivers. If there’s one out there we like, we’ll take a dominating defensive player.”

On Davis:

“As long as I win, we get along great.”

 

LITTLE KERI NISHIMOTO TOOK OVER FOR A ‘BEACH’ LEGEND

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Misty May, who became a household name along with Olympic beach volleyball companion Kerri Walsh, was part of a Long Beach State legacy so strong that it defied imagination as to the person that would follow her as the school’s setter.

Imagine Garry Maddox taking over center field from Willie Mays in San Francisco.

Or Gene Bartow replacing John Wooden as UCLA basketball coach.

Can anyone remember Phil Bengston? That was the chap that took over as Green Bay Packers’ football coach when Vince Lombardi stepped aside.

May’s replacement in Long Beach?

Long a major collegiate powerhouse, it was the 49ers’ turn in the limelight back in 1997. What must have been running through coach Brian Gimmillaro’s mind, however, was how to replace Misty in his lineup one season later.

He reached out to Redlands High School product Keri Nishimoto, the backup to May on that 1997 squad.

Keri Nishimoto at The Beach
Redlands’ Keri Nishimoto took over as Long Beach State’s high-profile setter and helped lead the 49ers to an NCAA title matchup against Stanford (photo by Long Beach State).

Say what you want about college sports, whether it’s college football or basketball, the sensational play of baseball and softball players, plus track & field, volleyball may well rest among the most exciting of all women’s sports.

It might get lost in the shuffle throughout the USA.

May, who was considered a catalyst for Beach’s 1998 NCAA championship triumph, captured the Honda-Broderick Cup as well as Collegiate Women Athlete of the Year title. May captured more awards and titles than any other collegiate volleyball player. She wound up a USA Olympian – a much-decorated, multiple gold medal winner on the beach.

The Beach’s heir apparent to May, originally, was Brittany Hochevar. They tried to replicate their May experiment with Hochevar. It didn’t seem to go right.

THE ULTIMATE TEAM PLAY

Nishimoto, summoned from Redlands High on a full-ride academic scholarship – she turned down Beach’s offer of an athletic scholarship – was the catalyst in leading Redlands High to a Southern Section Division 3 volleyball title.

In her high school setting, Redlands knocked off area powerhouse Rim of the World from mountainous Lake Arrowhead. The finals were played at Cypress College on a Saturday, which wasn’t all that far from Beach.

Except for Rim of the World, there had been very little prep volleyball success from the so-called Inland Empire area.

Nishimoto, surrounded by college-level talent like Lindsey O’Reilly (Brigham Young University), Gretchen Levander (Hofstra), plus a few other significant cogs in the lineup, namely middle blocker Janiece Memmott and outside hitter Jackie Ostler in addition to a strong defender, Jamie Hackleman.

That lineup turned volleyball around in the I.E. Nishimoto had long since been noticed, but more at the club-playing level than while wearing Lady Terrier colors.

The CIF-Southern Section Division 3 Player of the Year at Redlands, it was Nishimoto who quarterbacked the Lady Terriers to an unforgettable championship performance over powerhouse Rim of the World at Cypress College in 1995.

One year earlier, Nishimoto actually split time with another player. Redlands coach Gene Melcher had co-setters at Redlands.

At The Beach, Nishimoto’s on-court performance seemed to add chemistry. She was small, but dangerous. Mostly a bench-warmer and defensive specialist during the May era, Nishimoto eventually emerged as Beach setter.

Nishimoto already contributed to Beach’s chemistry. Taking that academic scholarship instead of an athletic one allowed Gimmillaro to use that additional athletic stipend to stockpile even more talent. It was, perhaps, the ultimate team play.

In 1999, Nishimoto set a record for assists (14.58), having moved back to a defensive position in 2000 for the Hochevar experiment. Once “little Keri” was moved back to the setter role, the 16th-ranked Lady 49ers began rolling even more.

Over a period of time, there were six All-American setters at Beach.

PART OF A BEACH ARRAY OF SETTERS

The year after Nishimoto’s career concluded, Hochevar shined in 2002 – part of the school’s six All-American setters, which includes Nishimoto in 2001, May in 1997 and ’98, Joy McKienzie in 1993, Sabrina Hernandez in 1991 and ’92, plus Sheri Sanders in 1989.

Misty May
Misty May, a multiple Olympic gold medal beach volleyball champion, preceded Redlands’ Keri Nishimoto as Long Beach State setter in the late 1990s (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

May was selected as the AVCA Player of the Year for Division I in 1997 and 1998, becoming the first player in NCAA and AVCA history to win the award outright in back-to-back campaigns.

Sanders and McKienzie both quarterbacked the 49ers to national championships. Hernandez took The Beach to back-to-back Final Fours (1991-1992).

May led the 49ers to the 1997 Final Four and captained the 1998 squad to a perfect 36-0 mark and a NCAA national championship. Nishimoto mostly rode the bench was celebrating the team title.

Along the way, the list of teams that Nishimoto and The Beach had been beating were among the nation’s richest and glowing programs – Brigham Young, Pittsburgh, UCLA, Arizona, you name it. She totaled 53 assists, 15 digs and three blocks against BYU to lead The Beach to an undefeated regular season record.

v8n48-nishimoto
In action: Long Beach State’s Keri Nishimoto ran the 49ers’ attack on a 33-match winning streak into the 2001 finals against Stanford (photo by Long Beach State).

Nishimoto, a national player of the week in Nov. 2001, was named second-team All-American in 2001. The Beach went 33-1 and reached the NCAA title match – losing only in the championship to Stanford.

On December 15, 2001 in San Diego, Stanford All-American and USA Olympian Logan Tom led the Cardinal to a three-game sweep.

Check out these scores from Cox Arena in San Diego: 31-29, 30-28, 30-25. A Beach team led by Nishimoto’s 34 assists and a team-high nine digs fell after winning 33 straight.

It was Nishimoto’s final collegiate match.

 

IT WAS TOUGH FOR DAVIDSMEIER TRYING TO GET INTO MILWAUKEE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Danny Davidsmeier joked about a pair of Redlands East Valley High School area products, Tyler Chatwood and Matt Andriese, who are current major league players.

Chatwood, who now pitches for the Chicago Cubs, had been drafted by the Angels and traded to Colorado.

Andriese was an original draft pick by the San Diego Padres, eventually traded to the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I’m a hitting coach,” said Davidsmeier, “and they made it to the majors as pitchers.”

If he could list the entire roster of youth-level players that he’s instructed,  that entire collection might be able to fill a full high school league of all-star level talent.

Matt Davidson also comes to mind. A current major league slugger, who was a high school MVP as a freshman at Yucaipa, got drafted by Arizona and traded to the White Sox. Davidsmeier started coaching Davidson at age 11.

It’s Davidsmeier, perhaps, who bridges the gap with a growing number of ballplayers who have taken paid hitting instruction from him for nearly two decades. And why not?

His background is insanely interesting.

Imagine being an All-State player at San Bernardino Valley College in the mid-1970s. It came just before his days as an All-American shortstop at USC.

ddavidsmeier
Danny Davidsmeier, a highly popular batting instructor around Redlands, Yucaipa, Highland, San Bernardino, Colton and beyond, displays his USC medallion. Davidsmeier, a career baseball player for 22 years, was an All-American shortstop for legendary Trojans’ coach Rod Dedeaux (photo by USC).

The Yucaipa High product, who came out of the Thunderbirds’ program one year before Jeff Stout began an unprecedented 42-year run as their coach, was taken in the draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Mention names like Robin Yount and Paul Molitor to Davidsmeier. He laughs.

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear him say it. “Those guys,” he might say, “kept me out of the major leagues.”

Both Yount, a shortstop, and Molitor, a second baseman who later moved to third base, are Hall of Famers. In the early 1980s, the two — along with second baseman Jim Gantner — all but blocked Davidsmeier’s promising pathway to the major leagues.

In those days, they were known as Harvey’s Wall Bangers, a reference to Brewers’ manager Harvey Kuenn, who was quite a hitter in his day.

Imagine hitting .371 with 16 HRs as a USC senior in 1981. It was there Davidsmeier played for legendary coach Rod Dedeaux, a former shortstop in his own playing days.

USC? All-American? That got Milwaukee’s attention — third round selection in 1981, No. 72 overall. That’s the same draft, incidentally, in which first-rounders like Joe Carter, Matt Williams and Ron Darling were selected.

Tony Gwynn was taken in that same third round, too, just 14 picks before Davidsmeier.

As for Davidsmeier, he spent his best years playing minor league baseball, rising to Triple A Vancouver just two years after being drafted.

CRACKING THE BREWERS’ LINEUP

While Yount-Molitor-Gantner were thriving in Milwaukee, Davidsmeier’s hopes might’ve been curtailed by their all-star level play.

Davidsmeier’s most productive season might’ve been in 1982 when he hit .272 with 10 HR as a 22-year-old shortstop.

Led by the MVP season of Yount, the Brewers reached the 1982 World Series, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even playing behind such a talented crop of major leaguers might’ve inspired other organizations to seek out Milwaukee’s prized minor leaguers — like Davidsmeier.

Milwaukee, in those years, was loaded. Besides Molitor and Yount, there were players like first baseman Cecil Cooper (.298, 241 career HR), Gorman Thomas (268 HR), Ben Oglivie (.275, 235 HR), plus catcher Ted Simmons (.285, 245 HR) while Gantner (.274) was as sure-handed an infielder as anyone.

Throw in Hall of Fame numbers from Yount (3,142 hits, 583 doubles, 126 triples, 251 HR, .285) and Molitor (3,319 hits, 605 doubles, 234 HR, 504 stolen bases, .306).

That’s the lineup Davidsmeier was trying to crack.

Doug DeCinces had a hard time becoming Baltimore’s third baseman with Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson playing ahead of him in the early 1970s.

In that same era, center fielder Garry Maddox would’ve rotted away in San Francisco if the Giants hadn’t traded Willie Mays to the Mets.

Thank goodness Wally Pipp had a headache one day in New York. Lou Gehrig might’ve never gotten a chance.

Yes, Davidsmeier spent plenty of Arizona-based spring training sessions with the Gantner-Young-Molitor trio ahead of him on the Brewers’ depth chart.

Gantner was considered good enough to drive Molitor from second base to third base.

Davidsmeier, too, had played all three spots.

In 1982, he was hitting .272 with 10 HR with Class AA El Paso.

By age 28, Davidsmeier was ready to head elsewhere — Italy, Mexico, Taiwan, Canada, Czechoslavakia, Korea, Japan and Columbia, to name a few stops.

ROAD TRIP COMES TO AN END

Twenty-two years on the international road led Davidsmeier back home — Yucaipa, Loma Linda, Redlands, Highland, the entire area. He became a growingly popular private hitting instructor.

Main base for Davidsmeier these days is Loma Linda. The batting cages there went from Hitter’s Choice Batting Cages to its new name, IE Performance Center & Batting Cages. The re-opening was scheduled for June 2-3.

Davidsmeier says he likes the new layout. The husband-wife ownership of Dr. Alan Herford and Kirilina Herford liked the atmosphere. They took over the place, signing a 14-month lease. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that Davidsmeier’s part of that atmosphere.

If you’re in the cage with Davidsmeier, it’ll be a productive moment.

Name a productive hitter from the area. Chances are decent that Davidsmeier has worked with them in the practice cages.

Current major leaguers Davidson, Chatwood and Andriese come quickly to mind.

Cracked Davidsmeier: “Matt and Tyler lived down the street from each other in Yucaipa. They got a lot of experience just working out with each other.”