1959: “Birt, Are You Crazy?”

Birt Slater’s sanity was in question.

Why would the handsome, charismatic Slater take the head coaching job at Kearny (three winning years in 15 seasons,  all-time record,  45-66-7), when he could have had the San Diego High  job when Duane Maley retired?

The answer wasn’t nearly as simple, but Slater eventually created his own powerhouse at this different and much less attractive venue.

Go back to 1953.

Slater that year replaced Bill Burrows as Maley’s chief assistant after one year at Southwest Junior High near the Mexico border and two years removed as a starting end on San Diego State’s 1951, 10-0-1  Pineapple Bowl squad.

Slater (left) and Maley, on sideline in 1954, guided San Diego High to 23-1 City Prep League record.

Slater (left) and Maley, on sideline in 1954, guided San Diego High to 26-1 City Prep League record.

Maley and Slater became a formidable tandem.

Birt coached defense and Maley coached offense.  The Cavers were 7-3 in ’53, 9-2 in ’54, 11-0-1 in ’55,  7-2 in ’56, and 11-1 in ’57.

The 45-8-1 record included a 26-1 run against City Prep League competition, 30-1 versus San Diego County teams, and 15-7-1 against schools outside the County.


Mary McMullen, the founding principal when Lincoln opened as a junior high in 1949, was leaving at the end of the 1956-57 school year to open Will Crawford High, named for the former San Diego City Schools  superintendent.

Mary Mac, as she was known to the faculty at Lincoln, wanted Walt Harvey to follow her to Crawford.

Harvey had just completed a three-year, start-up program as Lincoln went from junior to senior high and his 1956 team posted a 5-2-1 record with lots of players returning for ’57.

Saying no to McMullen was not easy.  She was a respected administrator and she was persuasive.

Another start-up and a few seasons of taking lumps wasn’t particularly appetizing, but Harvey said yes.  He got a pay raise and the new school was closer to Harvey’s home in the college area.  His two sons would be attending Crawford.

Harvey and basketball coach Don Smith, at McMullen’s behest, approached Slater at a San Diego basketball game the winter of 1956-57 and offered the Lincoln job. Slater did not commit.  Smith and Harvey sensed that Slater was turning them down.

Other factors were in motion.

Duane Maley urged Slater to stick around for another year.  Maley was going to retire and go into administration.


Shan Deniston moved from La Jolla and took over at Lincoln  and Harry West replaced Deniston at La Jolla.

“We had a good year in ‘fifty-seven,” said Slater.  “Ezell Singleton had developed as a quarterback and things looked good for ‘fifty-eight.  Duane told me, “’I can’t give it up now; we’ve got too good a team coming back.’”

Slater did not coach football in 1958 but remained as track coach through the 1959 season. He had been a championship half-miler at Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1940s.

(Slater’s track squads posted a 38-6-1 record in dual meets from 1955-59. His band of four, including Roscoe Cook, Bobby Staten, Willie Jordan, and Charles (Sugar Jet) Davis, scored 20 points and won the Southern California team championship in 1957).


Charlie Popa took Slater’s place on the football staff in 1958.  Maley again eschewed  retirement and returned for 1959, which would be his final season.

Popa had become the heir apparent as Slater had decided to move on.

Western League player of the year Joe Eggert got a heads-up from Kearny coach Birt Slater..

1959 Western League player of the year Joe Eggert got a heads-up from Kearny coach Birt Slater..

Slater accepted the job at Kearny in 1959 and won the Western League championship in his first season.  He had a team of no names but it scrapped every week against bigger, more talented foes. His arrival on the campus hard by U.S. 395 on Linda Vista Road began a 18-season run of success.

Slater had one losing year and his teams posted an overall record of 134-41-9 (.753) with 15 playoff appearances, 5 trips to the San Diego Section finals, and 3 championships.

After being at San Diego during some of its greatest years, Slater built a program at Kearny that rivaled the Cavers’.


The 1963 team which starred Jim (Yazoo) Smith, Steve Reina, Larry Shepard, Charlie Buchanan, John Erquiaga, Steve Jones,Robert Odom, Dennis Santiago, Bill Carroll, Charles Wilker, Dan Fulkerson, Ernie Oyama, John Levi, and a few more, was 11-1 and often described as equal to almost any San Diego team of the postwar era.

“I always thought of Birt as a father figure,” said Shepard, who recalled a key moment in his life after Shepard had returned home from his freshman year at UCLA.

“I was playing over the line at South Mission Beach and Birt happened by on the boardwalk.”

“What are you doing?”  the fiery Slater wondered.  “I’m playing over the line,” the equally fiery Shepard responded.

“No, what are doing with your life?” demanded Slater.  “I’m thinking about going back to school,” said Shepard.  “Come to the high school Monday morning,” said Slater.

Slater met his ex-player at Kearny and drove Shepard to the City Schools’ office that Monday and announced  he was hiring the former quarterback for the position of  “campus security.”

After a few ohs, ahs, and we-can’t-do-thats, Shepard was hired.  He went to work at Kearny and coached JV football with Brad Griffith and Don Wadsworth.

Eventually Slater helped Larry get an assistant’s job under Joe DiTomaso at St. Augustine. When DiTomaso moved to Santana, Shepard  became head coach of the Saints and graduated and earned his teaching credential at San Diego State.  He later was head coach at Monte Vista and retired after a long career in the Grossmont School District.


Slater retired at the relatively young age of 52 after the 1976 campaign, but was not long out of football.

Chargers coach Tommy Prothro hired Slater as an assistant to his coaching staff in 1977. Slater broke down and evaluated film of opponents.

Don Coryell was appointed head coach in 1978 and retained Slater on the coaching staff.

Birt retired from the Chargers after the 1983 season.



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2 Responses to 1959: “Birt, Are You Crazy?”

  1. Charlie Davis says:

    I just today found out that Coach Slater had passed. I was a member of the first Slater coached Kearny team. I think I was the first of the score’s of Komets who went on to Major College scholarships (UCLA for me). I went on to coach at a number of colleges and finished up coaching in the NFL. Retired now but some of my greatest memories go back to Coach Slater motivating us to succeed. He took a bunch of Linda Vista rags and got us to come TOGETHER to win and build the foundation of a great H.S. program. All of us were so lucky to have had him in our lives

    • Rick says:

      Charlie, a wonderful tribute to the coach. You would have enjoyed hooking up with some of your Kearny guys at Birt’s memorial, which was very nice and very well attended, by athletes and many others. I was a young prep writer when you were a top player on the 1960 team….Billy Cesena, Mike Parker, Charlie Cowart, et al. A couple of your City College teammates, Ron Cota and John Nettles, said to say hello. I think I was the Chargers’ PR guy about the time you coached with the Cleveland Browns.

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