Many know the name John Wooden; fewer can name the coach who succeeded him.
West Ranch football coach Chris Varner looked it up and found it was Gene Bartow. After Wooden retired in 1975 with 10 national college basketball titles at UCLA, Bartow stepped in for two seasons and guided the Bruins to a 52-9 record and an NCAA Final Four appearance (Wooden was 54-7 in his last two seasons).
As a former Bruin said in a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, “Any college in America would give its teeth to have a coach that would take them 52-9 in two years. That wasn’t good enough at UCLA.”
Varner can relate: He replaced Harry Welch at Canyon High. Maybe people don’t know who Welch was, but once upon a time, Welch did more than anyone to put the area on the map. He coached the Cowboys to five sectional titles in two stints, including an upset of mighty Concord De La Salle to win a state title. The stadium at Canyon is named for him. He even has his own Wikipedia page.
Four years after taking over, Varner stepped down to spend more time with his family. It would be five years before he coached again.
“The thing I loved most at 21, I hated most at 31,” he said. “I didn’t think I would ever coach again.”
Obviously, he returned, and West Ranch is better for it. The Wildcats are 8-0 with two games to play, their best start ever. One more win will set the school record for most Foothill League wins in a season. With wins Friday at Hart and next week against Valencia, the Wildcats would win their first Foothill League title. West Ranch has beaten Hart once; it never has beaten Valencia.
“Obviously, we’re satisfied on what we’ve done so far, but we’ve got more to do,” Varner said. “It feels good to win.”
When it comes to winning in football, very few locally were as successful as Welch. Well known for getting the most out of his players, Welch guided the Cowboys to three Southern Section titles (1983-85), and a then-record 46-game winning streak in his first stint, which lasted 12 seasons. He returned to Canyon in 2001 and won two more section titles, culminating in the state title in 2006.
Varner, who played at Buena High in Ventura before coaching the freshmen there for three seasons, had wanted to be a head coach by the time he was 30. With no prospects in Ventura or Oxnard, he looked elsewhere.
While taking classes at The Master’s College (now University), a professor knew Varner was a coach. “Next thing I knew, I got an email from someone I didn’t know,” Varner said.
That someone was Welch, who was looking to fill a vacancy. Varner did some research and learned about the win streak but also about a 1989 incident in which Welch, after his team lost in the playoffs at Santa Barbara, broke a glass trophy case in a postgame tirade after believing Santa Barbara received an additional down after time had expired with Canyon ahead 21-14 (the Cowboys lost 28-27 in overtime; the Los Angeles Times also reported that two doors, a blackboard and a drinking fountain had been broken or dismantled, but Welch admitted to breaking the trophy case).
Varner also asked his coach at Buena, Rick Scott, who coached at Hart at the same time Welch started at Canyon, about Welch. “He said, ‘Harry is a winning coach, but some people don’t like working for him,’ ” Varner explained.
Varner took the job in time for the 2003 season. He thought he was going to be on the varsity staff, but instead coached the freshman team defense after Welch asked him to. He did that for two seasons, which coincided with the Class of 2007 entering Canyon – the same group that later won state.
Along the way, Varner heard stories about Welch. His program was accused of running an illegal after-school practice, causing the Southern Section commissioner to suspend him for a year, resulting in Welch suing and winning a case by claiming his due process had been denied. Varner heard about run-ins with parents and boosters. But other than asking Welch about the trophy-case incident – and hearing Welch regret it – he kept his head down and did his job, becoming the junior varsity coach and helping where he could for the eventual state champs.
“As much as I admired him, I didn’t grow up here,” Varner said. “I had been in the Army. I had done things. I was not a blind follower. I was not drinking the Kool-Aid.”
That win against De La Salle was the last game Welch ever coached at Canyon. He resigned to take a job at St. Margaret’s in San Juan Capistrano, where he won 30 in a row, three more section titles and a state title in three seasons. From there, he went to Santa Margarita for three seasons and won another section and state crown.
Welch announced his resignation from Canyon on April 27, 2007 at age 61, causing the school to scramble to find a replacement in time for spring football. Varner was the only on-staff person to apply for the job.
He was 29. “I was following a legend much older than myself,” he said.
Almost immediately, Varner discovered that the program might have been his, but he couldn’t do what he wanted. Despite 18 starters being gone for the 2007 season and retaining most of Welch’s staff, the prevailing opinion was, “We won state. Why would we want to do it differently?”
Asked why he didn’t insist on his way, he said, “It was a lack of confidence in myself. I wasn’t ready for the job. It was trial and error, trial by fire.”
He also quickly learned that being a JV coach, where he was accessible, was different than heading the varsity, where accessibility could be interpreted as weakness, and what was praise before could quickly turn to criticism.
Canyon went 4-6 that first year, 5-5 the next year and 2-9 the year after that. But it wasn’t just the losing records that got to Varner. It was the fan reaction.
His house got egged. He had to change his cell-phone number because of the harassing calls.
He said he suffered chronic insomnia. His goatee turned white (even now, he dyes it). He didn’t eat, stopped exercising and lost 35 pounds, to 175.
“I became a shut-in. I didn’t want to wear Canyon stuff,” he said. “I made a mistake in going on those anonymous message boards and reading the comments. I got anonymous letters.”
But he couldn’t escape the status of being the Canyon football coach, sometimes at close range. To get to the football office, one has to walk off the field and pass the concession stand and restrooms before coming to the gym – plenty of time and space for people to gather and make their feelings known.
Varner got booed. He heard the shouts of “Varner sucks!” People put papers on windshields accusing the program of going backward. Once, somebody hired a plane to fly a banner that attacked then-Principal Bob Messina, “MISS HARRY YET? THANKS BOB.”
Up in the stands, Varner’s wife, Candice, who played soccer at Canyon and was Welch’s teaching assistant for a time, also heard the shouts. One time, she was with their son, Austin, who was 5. She would ask the shouters to stop because their son was here; they responded with F-bombs. Their son cried and asked, “Why is everybody mad at Daddy?”
“It was then I knew I wasn’t long for Canyon,” Varner said.
Despite an 11-20 record after three seasons, Varner didn’t quit, in part because coaching was what he wanted to do, and because he knew his fourth season was going to be better because of the talent.
Sure enough, the Cowboys went 10-2 that season. Boos turned to cheers. As he walked off the field toward the football office, Varner recognized people who had booed him but now were nice and complimentary.
“I didn’t forget. I didn’t want it,” he said. “I needed a break. … I was young. I made mistakes. Had I been head coach at Hueneme and making those mistakes, it wouldn’t have mattered.”
He quit to spend more time with his family, although he maintained his teaching load at Canyon (he taught history). He coached his sons in flag football and baseball. His brother died of bladder cancer in Riverside, and he was there for the family.
“If I was still coaching, I would’ve missed it,” he said.
Despite having two kids, the Varners wanted a third, but Candice had suffered miscarriages. She was in her third trimester when Chris stepped down, but was unable to carry to term again.
At that point, they looked into adopting. After a long process, they found a child who had been rescued from a meth den but who had a younger sister. Not wanting to separate the pair, they adopted both.
All five of the Varner children are Wildcats this year
Then came the miracle: Candice got pregnant and delivered a daughter. In a year, the Varners went from two to five kids.
Although not coaching, he nonetheless stayed in football by doing commentary for SCVTV and Fox Sports West. And he got more involved with psychology when he was asked to teach the Advanced Placement course at Canyon in 2011.
“Since 2010, I did a lot of soul searching, introspection. Why did everything have to go so bad for me? I’m a good guy, a good coach. Why did things have to happen?” he said.
He found a quote often attributed to Tony Robbins but really came from a 2014 commencement speech actor Jim Carrey gave at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa: “Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you.”
There’s also a poster that hangs on a classroom cabinet that mentions an unknown author’s Seven Rules of Life. At least four of these could apply to Varner and what he experienced.
No. 1: Make peace with the past so it doesn’t affect the present.
No. 2: What others think of you is none of your business.
No. 3: Time heals almost everything.
No. 6: You are in charge of your happiness.
These also could apply to the recent struggles that have befallen the family. His son Austin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, and his daughter Audrey has cystic fibrosis.
“You try and push forward and live,” Varner said.
Of course, football and coaching never left him. In 2015, he helped his replacement, Rich Gutierrez, the last half of the season. He said he thinks that if the West Ranch job didn’t open up, he’d still be teaching at Canyon and helping Gutierrez.
But in 2016, the West Ranch job did open up. He was wiser about the fickleness of mankind and decided that if he didn’t like it, he would quit at the end of the season. Still, West Ranch had no football tradition.
“West Ranch was a good place to put Varner’s brand of football. It was a good chance for me,” he said.
He took some of what he learned from Welch. The coach was famous for his attention to detail and the process that went into it. So, Varner knew the team could score a touchdown, but if a player missed a block, there needed to be some examination as to why. “That could cause us to lose games,” he said.
Welch also was excellent at selling the sport and making people think that they were the most important person in the world at that moment. So, Varner went out and got T-shirts for all the teachers.
He also does things differently. Primary is his desire for flexibility. Not all kids can be coached the same way. Some respond to negative reinforcement just fine; others need praise. How he disciplines depends on the situation. He can jump, scream and get in a player’s face; but if he does it too often, it becomes white noise and the players don’t respond. Also, lengths of practice and off-season weight training can vary.
Most of all, everyone should have fun. Unlike at Canyon, kids don’t play football at West Ranch so they can say they play football at West Ranch. “Kids would rather play a different sport or play videogames or hang out by the pool,” Varner said. “You’ve got to get them to believe in themselves.”
The Wildcats are 8-0. Think they believe?
“Everybody fails before they succeed,” Varner said, fully aware of the wisdom behind those words.”