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H. LORREN AU JR., THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Mater Dei basketball coach Gary McKnight recently became the winningest prep basketball coach in California history. Many of his players are awarded major college scholarships.

Courting success

Gary McKnight recently added another major achievement to his long list of accomplishments at Mater Dei.

OCVARSITY.COM

Gary McKnight's life is understood by taking a look around his office at Mater Dei High School, his home away from his home in Mission Viejo.

Across the brightly painted red walls are photographs, highlights of his 27 years as the Monarchs' boys' basketball coach. He's a pictures guy, but he vividly remembers the stories that are associated with each photo.

There is also one that he is extremely proud of.

It shows several of his former players (Reggie Geary, Tom Lewis, Miles Simon, Jamal Sampson) dressed as Supreme Court justices.

At Mater Dei, Gary McKnight, 57, has won seven CIF state titles, 11 Southern California Regional titles, 19 CIF titles, 26 league titles (21 consecutive) and has had five players move on to the NBA (LeRon Ellis, Reggie Geary, Jamal Sampson, Cedric Bozeman and DJ Strawberry).

And he reached the pinnacle of high school coaching Jan. 18 when he recorded his 844th career coaching victory, moving into first place all-time in the state of California.

He passed Mike Phelps, who coached at St. Joseph of Alameda and Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland.

"I feel very good about it (the record)," he said. "I'd be lying to you if I didn't say I'm a very competitive person and I'm very proud of the record for myself, my family and the coaches and the players who have been with me."

Despite the success, he is fully aware of all of the detractors he has gained over the years.

"In the early days there was a lot of negativity because we were successful," he said.

"When you have success, you have your critics. It comes with the territory, but if people want to be critical ... I think we've done a pretty good job."

The rumors have circulated around the Mater Dei basketball program about possible recruiting violations, and he has weathered controversies involving an assistant coach and McKnight's relationship with travel-team coaches.

However, Thom Simmons, the CIF Southern Section's director of communications, said that McKnight and the Monarchs never have been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

McKnight's athletic path started on the baseball field and not the basketball court.

Not bad for a coach who never played the game and grew up as a baseball player.

"Coaching is the only thing I ever wanted to do," McKnight said.

A family affair

Basketball and sports are woven deeply into the lives of the McKnight family.

His sons, Clay, 33; Bryan, 30; Geoff, 27; Matt, 25; and Taylor, 19, all played sports for the Mater Dei.

Clay McKnight played on the 1990 basketball team that won the CIF and California State Championship. Bryan McKnight played offensive guard for the Monarchs football team.

"Mater Dei is a part of the McKnight family," Gary McKnight said. "It has been a long run for us."

Sports are also a part of his wife, Judy's, life.

"She is definitely the rock of our family," Clay McKnight said of his mother. "She's the classic coach's wife."

Judy and Gary McKnight have been married for 33 years after dating for 5 1/2 years.

He credits her for helping get him to the level he's at now.

"I couldn't have done this without her (Judy)," Gary McKnight said. "Without her support, this would be impossible."

Although his coaching certainly took some of his time from his family, Gary McKnight said family is a reason he has lasted so long at Mater Dei and didn't move.

"I had expectations, when I was younger, that I would parlay this job into a college job," he said. "Then my kids started coming here and I liked being around my sons.

"As the years went on, I thought there is no place I would rather be than here."

The early days of his coaching career were as busy for Judy McKnight as they were for him.

"She'd keep score, help me run the snack stand," Gary McKnight said. "She loved sports and loved watching her boys play. She's joined in with everything we do. She doesn't miss a game and for a long time (early) she was pregnant."

"I'm lucky to have him as my dad and mentor," Clay McKnight said.

Clay McKnight tried to fight the urge of becoming a high school coach, but finally jumped into the coaching ranks this season when he was hired at Fairmont Preparatory Academy.

"I saw the huge impact that he has had working with kids, the player-coach relationship that he has had all these years," Clay McKnight said. "He loves what he does and he really loves it when guys come back and say thank you.

"I would love to have that feeling four years from now when a player comes back and thanks me."

Early success

Is it possible to imagine Mater Dei without McKnight as coach?

It could have happened.

His coaching career started in the early 1970s at San Clemente High. He also coached for two years under Bill Mulligan at Saddleback College and four years as an assistant at Ocean View.

Gary McKnight was hired by the Monarchs in 1983, after a 2 1/2-month process that saw 72 candidates apply for the opening.

Gary McKnight, who was teaching at Mater Dei but still coaching the junior varsity team at Ocean View, was hired.

"I think I was very lucky," he said. "I think being here at the school (Mater Dei) helped and my record at Ocean View as a lower level coach, but they (Mater Dei) were still taking a chance (on me)."

It paid off. Gary McKnight, then 29, led the Monarchs to the CIF title in his first year.

"I inherited a pretty good team," Gary McKnight said.

The 1983 team was bolstered by the arrival of transfers Mike Mitchell (Gahr) and Tom Lewis (Capistrano Valley).

Mater Dei has benefitted from several transfers since, and that likely will continue.

This year's team is ranked No. 1 in the county, No. 2 in the state and No. 10 in the nation, thanks in large part to transfers.

"We've definitely had our share of transfers leaving and coming," Gary McKnight said. "Sometimes, I look down the ranks of different schools around and many of those schools have transfers. They changed the rules many years ago with open enrollment where a kid can go almost any school he wanted to."

Gary McKnight said the attention his program receives from potential transfers isn't a surprise.

"If you move into the area and your son is a good basketball player, you're going to consider Mater Dei," he said.

Tom Danley, a longtime coach at Katella High School, said he doesn't believe that McKnight has broken CIF rules and should be commended for his work. But he said that parochial schools have a greater advantage over their public school counterparts.

"Public schools are limited to boundary lines," Danley said. "There are no boundary lines for parochial schools."

Danley said that leads to the kind of talent Mater Dei has had.

Turning point

The Gary McKnight the public sees now is not the same one who took over the Mater Dei job in 1983.

Those around Gary McKnight say he has mellowed, despite being ejected from Mater Dei's Jan. 22 game against Santa Margarita.

The words "disciplinarian" and "militaristic" were thrown around by those close to him.

"He's evolved as the players have evolved," Mater Dei assistant coach Jason Quinn said. "Back when I was playing, he was the disciplinarian. There was only one way to do things and that was his way."

Gary McKnight himself points to a lengthy battle with cancer that helped him transform his style.

He is also battling diabetes.

"I was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1996-97. It was about an eight to 10 percent survival rate. I battled that for five years and I lost 21/2 ribs and for five years every three months, I had to be tested to see if it came back," Gary McKnight said.

"That really made me appreciate that every day is a good day and I really tried my best to enjoy the kids."

Gary McKnight isn't ready to retire yet, saying he would like to coach 10 more years.

"This is his retirement," Clay McKnight said. "He's not a golfer, he's not going to start reading novels and hanging out by the pool. This is him.

"He loves Mater Dei and he loves what Mater Dei has done for him. It is home."


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