Season in seclusion, part 1: East High football coach Brandon Matich tries to bind diverse team together

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 9:15 a.m. MST

There he sculpted his signature triple-option scheme and polished his credentials enough to receive an offer to fill the head coaching vacancy at Oakville Hill High. But, once again, life had other ideas. This time: kids.

“We thought it would be good to come back (to Utah) around family and have kids, which didn’t happen for quite a few years later.”

Five years passed while Matich anchored his first program at Park City. It was 2010, and the Miners were fresh off an 11-2 season. The couple was happily content.

Then East called.

Emblazoned posters scatter Pueblo-motif decorated hallways. Students assemble in the cafeteria cluttered with national flags for school-provided breakfast. Today: Cocoa Puffs. Players acknowledge one another with rounds of handshakes and head nods.

Matich arrives, keys in one hand and coffee in the other. Sunglasses perch on his head as the early-morning fog slowly dissipates from his eyes. It’s Friday. He ushers students into changing areas resembling evidence stations barricaded with chain-linked fences and padlocks. As traffic continues to funnel he notices the sister of a former player.

A sincere smile initiates conversation. The fog is fully lifted now. “Is he staying out of gang life?” Matich asks.

“He drinks kava with them,” she replies.

“But he’s not banging?”

She shakes her head, “No.”

“When you see him, tell him I want to take him to dinner.”

Matich encourages her to enjoy the day as the two separate. He veers toward his office. “He’s involved in the gang life as much as anyone I’ve coached,” he says of her brother. “ ... This isn’t Park City anymore.”

East’s demographics have fragmented throughout the course of 100 years, analogous to crocodile cracks in the pavement. The school first opened its doors in 1914, and housed the preppy middle- to upper-class population on the banks of the romanticized east side. Students boarded two passenger railcars nicknamed the “dinky” in the 1940s, symbolizing the sophisticated, elegant lifestyle.

Diversity was nonexistent. The student body consisted of one race: white. “I never saw a black person until the '70s,” said Nancy Wunderli, a 1945 East graduate. In the Eastonia yearbook, students resembled the Campbell’s Soup aisle at the local grocery store — pages upon pages of identically labeled aluminum cans. Girls complemented pressed sweaters and skirts with glistening white pearls, and accompanied saddle shoes with ankle socks. Boys slicked their well-manicured, Cary Grant-inspired hair in buttoned-down shirts and slacks with chestnut-colored shoes.

It was “Grease” without Danny and Sandy for nearly 75 years.

The school’s identity soon evolved into football prominence. In 1919, it captured its first of five straight state championships after outscoring nine opponents, 552-0. Its 79-0 win over Payson still remains the largest margin of victory in a state title game.

Up until 1975, the program won more than 70 percent of its games and didn’t record a single losing season from 1932-68. Then it was gone. As if a wildfire seared the ecosystem, East endured 20 years of futility before winning its 15th state championship in 1996. Despite a brief stretch of semifinal appearances in the mid-2000s, the program eddied in mediocrity.

Lost and searching to re-establish its identity, East’s pristine image changed forever with South High’s closing in 1988.

“It was a huge adjustment for East. The teachers, the community — for just all the reasons you can imagine,” explained Sagers, who taught at South for five years.

East inherited Glendale’s underprivileged, transient population across the western train tracks, and its diversity presented unique challenges.