Santa Rita High School wide receiver J.J. Holliday, in helmet and shoulder pads, left the team’s football practice on a Tuesday afternoon earlier this fall and sprinted toward a car leaving the school’s East Side campus, turning onto Pantano Road.
Other Santa Rita football players – from 275-pound lineman Jacquari Kountz to 155-pound kicker Chris Mayer – didn’t think twice about stopping their drills and dispersing around the school grounds desperately looking for Julian, head coach Jeff Scurran’s 6-year-old grandson.
“He comes out to practice with us a bunch and in the middle of whatever we were doing someone asked, ‘Where’s Julian?’ ” said Holliday, a senior who will play his final high school game in Saturday’s Class 4A Division II state championship game in Tempe’s Sun Devil Stadium against defending champion Scottsdale Notre Dame.
“At that very instant,” Scurran remembers, “the entire team scattered all over Santa Rita High School. J.J. sprinted to Pantano. There were four or five kids in the parking lot stopping every single car, kids looking under the bleachers without me even saying anything. Of course I was scared to death and a few minutes later, out comes Julian trotting next to the equipment manager.”
The temporary scare wasn’t fun for the 61-year-old coach or the team, which took a 15-minute break to regain their composure before resuming practice. The incident did, however, tell Scurran all he needs to know about why he’s been able to improve a winless program – the Eagles were 0-10 in 2006 before he was hired – into one that is 23-3 in two seasons under his supervision and is playing in its first football title game Saturday.
“Its very typical of what we’re trying to do here – the relationship the team has with Julian,” Scurran said. “Yeah, we’re trying to win football games, but we’re trying to do a couple of other things here too.”
Results are undeniable
Scurran has turned every football program he’s touched into a winner.
Before moving to Arizona, Scurran took a two-year winless team in The Dalles, Ore., to the state playoffs in one season. He has a 17-year Arizona high school coaching record of 172-39-1 with stints at Canyon del Oro, Sabino and Santa Rita.
In 1988, he took over a 2-win Sabino team and turned the Sabercats into a three-time state champion (1990, 1992 and 1998) and led the team to the final four or better in nine of his 12 seasons while posting a 127-26-1 record.
He started, from scratch, the Pima Community College football program and led the then-Storm to a brief period of national prominence.
Since taking over Santa Rita, the program has elevated itself to one of the best in Tucson, if not the state.
“You look at all the great coaches growing up in Arizona being around high school football, you remember all the great names – (Karl) Keifer, (Pat) Farrell, (Jesse) Parker, (Jim) Rattay and Scurran,” said Scott Bemis, the Notre Dame coach opposing Scurran in Saturday’s state championship. “He came up and won three state championships and they don’t happen by accident.”
Love him or hate him?
For all his football successes, Scurran seems to have as many critics as he does supporters.
“I think there are people in town who don’t want to work as hard as he does and that brings things out,” said Joan Scurran, Jeff’s wife of 38 years. “He works his tail off. Sometimes I think it’s hard for people that don’t have as much success . . . and he also speaks his mind about what he believes and that rubs people wrong sometimes.”
Although he’s never been found guilty of any such violation by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, Scurran’s name has long been synonymous with recruiting accusations, even before the eruption of anonymous Internet bloggers. Scarce is the news article posted online mentioning his name that isn’t followed with at least a few reader comments taking shots at Scurran.
Comments often range from calling him arrogant to claiming he cheats to win by recruiting top talent away from other schools. Last year’s Santa Rita team went 11-2 and advanced the the 4A-II semifinals largely due to the exploits of star running back AuBura Taylor, who attended Cholla the season before. This year’s team is led by junior safety/quarterback Ian Garlets, who two years ago transferred from Sabino.
“I think it’s the highest compliment that can be paid that a family is willing to pick up and move to an apartment in your district so their kid can play for you,” Scurran said. “And it’s perfectly legal, as long as you didn’t initiate it, and I can assure you I have never initiated anything like that.”
Scurran certainly isn’t oblivious to the cries of foul from those around the high school sports world. He simply doesn’t allow it to take away from his focus.
“Jealousy is a funny thing,” Scurran said. “It’s taken me a long time to resolve that in my mind. I was raised with very solid Midwest values. And one of the things you learn is you’ve got that group of people who care around you and the other people on the outside. It’s not that you’re rude, but they’re just not a factor. . . Every school I’ve ever been at, I take care of my kids. That’s my job. The rest is just unimportant.”
More than football
Win or lose Saturday, Scurran will be put to work Sunday. “He has to start planning what we’re doing together this spring,” Joan Scurran said.
In addition to being consumed by football much of the year, Jeff Scurran is also the family’s decorator and travel agent, among other titles. The Scurrans, who have two grown children and two grandchildren, enjoy decorating, designing and remodeling homes and usually take at least one long vacation a year.
This offseason, Scurran will, for the second year, coach a team of United States high school all-star football players in an exhibition game against a team in Kawasaki, Japan. He also will continue his work as a motivational speaker, where he has talked to groups in every state in the country and also in Europe.
Scurran has a journalism degree from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in counseling and psychology from the University of Arizona. “In a word, I’d say he is complex,” Joan said.
The couple met while working at, of all places, the Double J Dude Ranch in Rothbury, Mich. Joan, a 19-year old waitress, and Jeff, a 21-year-old bass guitar player, hit it off immediately.
“It’s been a wild ride ever since,” said Joan, who retired two years ago from her job as an elementary school teacher in the Catalina Foothills School District.
Scurran’s musical background came into play at a homecoming pep rally earlier this season.
Unbeknownst to the team, Scurran grabbed a pair of drumsticks and sat in with the school’s band, playing every note of the Eagles fight song, repeating the feat after that week’s game while wearing one musician’s band hat.
Scurran’s coaching staff consists of coaches that are no strangers to him.
Kevin Amidan (offensive/defensive line) and Santos Olague (running backs) have been with Scurran since their freshman seasons at Sabino in the 1990s.
Both played for and later coached with Scurran at Pima and were more than happy to be a part of the Santa Rita staff when Scurran was hired last year.
“Playing for him, you always know you have a shot at being part of a team that has a chance to play for a state championship,” said Amidan, who has head coaching aspirations.
“Who better for me to learn from? A lot of people don’t see the hours upon hours he spends working to help his team. He’s always there, always coaching. He was born to coach.”
Much of Scurran’s staff has been with him for years. Scurran demands the same workload of his assistants and players that he does of himself.
“I remember getting home my senior year at Sabino after practices at 8:30, 9 o’clock and being dead tired and still having homework to do,” said former Sabino, Southern California and NFL player Cole Ford. “Looking back, it was all worth it. Those are still some of my best days ever.”
Ford and his parents are one of several families with former Sabino players who have become regulars in Santa Rita stands this season.
“I hope these parents know what they have,” said Cole’s father, Rodger Ford, the CEO of Tucson-based Syncardia Systems, Inc., founder of AlphaGraphics and former Arizona Small Business Association Entrepreneur of the year. “I hope they understand they have a guy there who is molding their kids. And it doesn’t matter whether they win or lose on Saturday, they’ve already won.”
Rodger Ford, who was part of the committee that hired Scurran at Sabino in 1988, said Scurran would be successful in any field because of the way he goes about building teamwork and bringing the best out of people.
“He may yell at them,” said Joan Scurran, “but they know he loves them and that makes them do amazing things for him.”
While he admits he never thought Santa Rita would be playing for a state title game so soon, he also says it doesn’t surprise him.
“People say I’m arrogant, but certainly not anyone who knows me,” Scurran said. “Those that know me will tell you I truly believe I’m the luckiest person on the planet.”
For more on high school sports, check out the Grammer School sports blog.
> Canyon del Oro (1984-86): 22-10
> Sabino (1988-99): 127-26-1*
> Santa Rita (2007-present): 23-3
> Arizona HS coaching victories (17 seasons): 172-39-1
*Three state championships while at Sabino (1990, 1992, 1998)
WHO: No. 1 Scottsdale Notre Dame vs. No. 6 Santa Rita
WHEN: Saturday, 11:07 a.m.
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe
TV: Cox Channel 7
WHO: No. 1 Peoria Centennial vs. No. 4 Ironwood Ridge
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Chandler High