Donnie Arax: Bringing the Bullard Knights Back
Jun 28, 2014 02:50PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine
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Donnie Arax: Bringing the Bullard Knights Back
by Nick Papagni
Donnie Arax is a born coach. He knew when he was 17 that he wanted to coach football. Deep inside, it was the Bullard Knights he wanted to lead, because nobody bleeds Bullard Blue like Arax.
His older brother Mark, who wrote the book, “In My Father’s Name,” says, “Our dad Ara coached Little League by day and ran his nightclub in Fresno at night. Our dad was a great coach and he loved it. Donnie was only 7 years old when our father was murdered in 1972, but that love of coaching had been passed down.”
The Arax brothers’ Uncle Navo says that Donnie looks like his father when he’s walking the sidelines on Friday nights.
By 1999, the Bullard High School football program was at a crossroads. Bullard had a rich winning tradition from 1958 to1981 and was not used to mediocrity. Many people had lost interest in the program because it had no real leader. To make matters worse, the northeast was growing. Clovis West High School was becoming a powerhouse, nipping at the heels of Clovis High. The Cougars were still the dominant football program in the Valley, though. Tim Simons and his long-time coaching staff had built a dynasty.
With the head football coach position open at Bullard, alumni were adamant and vocal about whom they wanted for the job. Arax was the overwhelming favorite. In spring 1999, Arax was named the new Bullard Knights football coach. After coaching in Kerman and Reedley, Arax was finally back in the same northwest Fresno neighborhood where he grew up.
Most Bullard football fans consider Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, to be the most significant date in the Knights’ history. That rainy night at McLane Stadium, Bullard overcame 54 years of frustration and defeated Centennial High School by a 42-31 score. Bullard won its first valley championship in school history.
Arax points to another game as being the most important in Bullard history. Reflecting on his coaching career at Bullard, Arax said, “The 2000 victory over Clovis may be our biggest win. Without that win, and that team, 2009 never happens.”
The Bullard Knights were playing Clovis at Lamonica Stadium, home of the Cougars, on Sept. 15, 2000. It was a warm fall night and Clovis had beaten Bullard every year since 1981. In those years, Lamonica Stadium was an intimidating place for opposing teams. Clovis was the premier program in the Valley. The Knights had not been relevant in almost two decades, back when Arax was a standout lineman on the Bullard team that beat Clovis in 1981. Arax’s senior year was star-studded and the team was one of the best in school history, finishing 10-2. Arax’s teammates that year included quarterback Kevin Sweeney and wide receiver Pete Sartini, both state record-holders; former Chicago Bear Votie Patterson; ex-Fresno State lineman John Turner; and hard-hitting linebacker Karl DeKlotz.
Jason Huss, quarterback on that 2000 team, has fond memories of that season and the match that kick-started the Bullard program. “I remember that week, game, like it was yesterday,” Huss said. “To show you where the football program was during that time, we got kicked off our own field during practice so that the band could use the field. I'll never forget how upset Donnie got that day. It even carried over into the pre-game speech by him smashing a guitar in front of us to fire us up.”
I met with Arax to discuss Bullard’s past and present and his thoughts about the future of Knights football.
Pag Meter: Looking back, when you started in spring 1999, did you honestly think you could walk into Lamonica Stadium with the fire trucks, the Cougars’ cannons firing, and win?
Donnie Arax: To be honest, Nick, no. We were coming off a season-opening loss to Central where we were physically dominated. We did, however, have a great practice the Wednesday night before the game. On their own, the kids made “doubter cards” that they placed in their socks, jocks, helmets, wherever. The doubters were names of people who had doubted them in the days leading up to the game. I remember a secretary at school mocking our kids about the loss to Central. I'm sure her name was on plenty of the kids’ cards. After we won the game the student body poured out of the stands and joined parents and alumni in a mass celebration. I saw grown men crying. It’s one of those moments that never leaves you.
PM: After that game was it easier for the parents and administration to buy into the Donnie Arax System?
DA: No question about it. I was working those kids so hard we might have lost that entire team had we not done something special that game. I may be overstating a bit, but I may not have made it through the first couple years without that Clovis win. It got me instant credibility. The principal never liked what I was doing and he didn't want to hire me in the first place and he certainly did not want a Northwest rebel causing problems. It took about five or six years to change the culture of our parents and kids. I used to hear constant feedback that we were overworking the kids and burning them out. I rarely hear that now.
PM: You had some success in those early years. Bullard got to the Valley Championship, but lost to Bakersfield. That 2005 team was pretty special. Did you see that team coming?
DA: That 2005 team was the most talented team we've had. I looked back a couple months ago at those films and I couldn't believe the size and speed on that team. A guy like Anthony McCoy [McCoy is currently a tight end for the Seattle Seahawks] is a once-in-a-lifetime player. But we had a ton of guys on that team who were men. We put 50 years of frustration on the backs of those kids.
PM: On that epic night in 2009, the Bullard Knights won the first Valley. What did you do differently from the 2005 experience?
DA: Well, game preparation we did completely different. No speeches, no alumni, but the key is we were much better defensively in 2009. Our linebackers that year were special – Caleb Justice, Daniel Snelling and Kyle Staples. I have to imagine that was the best core of linebackers in school history. My defensive coordinator Brandon Gilbert did a great job that year and Kevin Coughlon was, by that time, the best OC in the Valley.
PM: People tell me that you have built up this reputation of being Mr. Northwest Fresno. You are always talking about CUSD. What do you have against Clovis Unified?
DA: Actually, when I started, we modeled our program after what CUSD was doing. I'm a guy with a chip on his shoulder from the beginning. I wanted the kids to play with a chip on their shoulder. The two seasons prior to me taking over at Bullard, Clovis outscored us by about 90 points. Our kids were afraid to play Clovis schools. I used community pride as the focal point for my program. Every day in the weight room and on the field, it was about beating Clovis schools. To me the fight was so appealing because they had every advantage over us – better facilities, district support, more coaches – all those things make a successful program. What’s so special about what we have been able to do is we've done it through sweat equity. It’s like any great rival, you hate them, but at the same time you respect them. You think Woody Hayes didn't hate everything about Michigan football?
PM: Speaking of Clovis, they beat you from 1982 to 1999. They beat you 75-0 to 2006 then Bullard wins three in a row and they cancelled the series. Are you upset that they ended the series?
DA: What ticks me off is Bullard played that game for 18 consecutive years and got thumped each time, and still we continue to schedule the game. I'm pretty sure the cancellation has to do with the fact that in consecutive years, two prominent Clovis kids transferred to Bullard. It seems to me that CUSD is fine when our neighborhood kids jump across Herndon to go to their schools, but when the roles are reversed, they flip. I’ll never forget during my third year at Bullard I was jogging down Van Ness, deep in the heart of Bullard area, and I see the Clovis West Golden Eagle pump-up tunnel in someone’s front yard. They are having a fundraiser right in our backyard. Can you imagine if we did the same thing on Cole? Now, Rich Hammond has a done a great job at Clovis High, so there's little chance that a kid would leave there. Bottom line, that game needs to be scheduled. The Bullard-Clovis game dates back to 1959, it’s a no-brainer.
PM: Where do you see Bullard in the next 10 years? Does it hurt Bullard playing in the CMAC?
DA: We have a great mix of kids – very high numbers and a good, young coaching staff. I don't know where these numbers of kids came from. The Valley team had under 40 players; right now we have close to 70 guys on our varsity roster. On the league issue my desire is to be in a football-only conference with the Clovis schools, Central and Edison. Bullard and Edison are getting the short end of the stick. We have three division teams in our league. I know section commissioner, Jim Crichlow, would tell you that the league representatives cast the final vote on league placement and league organization, but as the leader of the section he has to step up and do what’s right for kids.
PM: I hear your dad wanted to be a coach. Did that influence you to enter the profession?
DA: Maybe in some subconscious way. The great tragedy of my dad’s life was that he had to leave the USC football team to return home to help the family. I still have people from his Little League and Pop Warner teams come up to me and say how much of an influence he was on their lives. I guess you could say I am living out his dream. I still love coming to work each day, and enjoy serving my community even if it’s in a small way. In the scheme of things, high school football is not such a big deal. But it has provided me with a great life. The fact that my son, Ara, hangs out with me at school every day and interacts with my players and coaches – it’s priceless.
Arax is now in his 15th year at Bullard and has won 105 games. In 1999, Bullard hired the right person to bring Bullard back. It took a while, but parents now understand what it is all about. And maybe Arax’s dad is looking down and is very proud of his son because ... Bullard’s back!