by Larry Ham
Mark Gritton is a man who has been to a lot of places, so it’s interesting to find a man of his caliber at a far away place like Coalinga. Mark is the Athletic Director and former head football coach at West Hills College. He’s someone I’ve known and admired from a distance for a long time. (As the saying goes, Coalinga isn’t at the edge of the world, but you can see it from there!). Reedley College and West Hills College are once again in the same football conference, so we’ll be seeing Mark on a regular basis again. I recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his life and his passion–Junior College athletics.
Larry: First, tell us where you grew up and the path that took you to West Hills College.
Mark: I grew up on a military base in the Mojave Desert (China Lake, Naval Weapons Testing Center). I attended Orange Coast College (Costa Mesa), then transferred to Humboldt State. I coached for four years as HSU as a student assistant, and graduate assistant. In 1986, I spent the summer in Finland, where I was able to coordinate the defense and play middle linebacker. In 1988, I was fortunate enough to get hired at College of the Sequoias and coached football for two seasons (combined record 19-3), and I was the Men’s Swim Coach for one season. In January of 1990, I became the Defensive Coordinator at Wayne State College, in Wayne, Nebraska. After a six year “tour” in the Midwest, I applied and was named the HFC at West Hills College (12 seasons). In January of 2008, I got out of coaching, and became the AD. In the Fall of 2011, I became the Associate Dean of Student Services/Director of Athletics, Health and PE.
Larry: What was your original motivation to get into coaching?
Mark: I really enjoyed my experience as a player. Several of the coaches I played for and have worked with are in the California Community Coaches Football Hall of Fame. They had a wonderful impact on my life, and I respected them as people. I thought it would be “cool” to have an opportunity to impact the lives of young people in the same way my coaches impacted my life.
Larry: Winning, of course, is a great benefit for any coach, but what are some of the other positives you took out of your coaching years?
Mark: I really enjoyed watching people grow and mature. I always thought it was more important to “create winners”, rather than just “win games”. Further, I always had my guys participate in some sort of Community Outreach. My goal was to have my student athletes “melt” into the community rather than to “stand out”. On a regular basis, we would visit the local skilled nursing facility, sell newspapers on “Kid’s Day”, read to elementary school kids, take players to the Pop Warner practices, host youth football camps, etc.
Larry: What’s the most difficult thing about coaching?
Mark: The most difficult thing about coaching is trying to find a way to get your athletes to play together as a “TEAM”. Not only is this the most difficult thing to achieve, it is also the most rewarding when it occurs.
Larry: One of the biggest challenges you face in putting a football team together is recruiting kids to come to an out of the way locale like Coalinga. How did you approach that challenge?
Mark: When I first took over as the head coach, we had an “out of state” recruiting waiver. I was able to make “first contact” with prospective student athletes from out of the area. I emphasized small classroom size, mandatory study as a part of our academic success program, on campus housing. My number one priority was building a “program”, rather than just building a “team”!
Larry: What are some of your favorite memories from your years as the Falcons Football coach?
Mark: Winning my first game versus Los Medanos College in ’96. Going to my first Bowl Game (Graffiti Bowl-’98 vs., Shasta College)—Winning the Conference Championship (’99). We had a 6 years span (98-2003) when we went to 4 bowl games (we won 2 of the four and a Conference Championship). The memories still continue as I receive phone calls from former players and get caught up with their lives.
Larry: When you were offered the chance to become Athletic Director, did you jump at the chance or did you think about coaching a while longer?
Mark: I really thought hard about it! I always thought I would retire as a “coach”. I was encouraged by a few of my colleagues and administrators to “take a look at becoming an administrator”. I really don’t miss coaching but I miss being around the students.
Larry: What are your duties as Athletic Director?
Mark: Perhaps my largest responsibility is to work with our coaches to make their jobs easier , which is a large mountain to climb given the fiscal challenges we all are facing. I certify eligibility, monitor the academic progress of our athletes, assist with budget development, scheduling, game day management at home contests. I also serve as the Associate Dean of Student Services. I and the administrator that oversees the Residence Halls, Cafeteria, Campus Safety and Student Discipline.
Larry: Being competitive is an important part of being a successful coach. Are you competitive as an AD as well?
Mark: As a competitive coach, I never worried what the opponent did. I was more concerned with how our team was going to react. As an AD, I view my “opponent” as the everyday issues that land on my desk. You really can’t control those…I concern myself more with “how to handle” those issues. But as an administrator, I find it more important to deal with those particular issue with a calm demeanor.
Larry: I know you’re passionate about Junior College sports. What do you see as the future for JC athletics?
Mark: The landscape is changing with JC athletics! No longer are we going to be judged by wins and losses! From now on, we will be judged by our retention rates, academic success rates, transfer rates to four year schools and graduation rates! There are several ways to measure success. The most important way for us (now) is to make sure when our athletes move on to the four year level, they are equipped with tools necessary to, not only play at that level, but to graduate from that level as well.
Larry: Any chance you’ll return to coaching at some point?
Mark: Not really! My grandson just turned six. I Wouldn’t mind coaching the linebackers for the “Mighty Mites”
Mark Gritton has earned a well deserved reputation as a coach and administrator who does things the right way. A man who knows him well is Reedley College President Michael White, who faced off against Mark for many years as Reedley College head football coach. He says Mark Gritton has earned everything he has by hard work. “Mark is a workhorse! He took a program that had not seen many good days and made them competitive. He is good for the game of community college football! In fact, although he no longer coaches, I know that he serves on the Football Coaches Association Executive Board. Mark was always cordial as an opposing coach and as a colleague when dealing with All Conference selections and the like. He never let his own ego get in the way of honest comments and evaluations”.
My thanks to Mark Gritton for generously lending me his time for this article. As he mentioned, the landscape for junior college athletics is ever changing, and the fiscal realities are always a challenge, but as long as Mark Gritton remains at West Hills College, they’ll be in good hands.