Fifty years later: Legendary football coach Benny Pierce reflects on players and successes

September 16, 2016 — by Katherine Sun and Rachel Zhang

Former coach Benny Pierce

Fans watching the SHS football games look up to the scoreboard and probably never give the name they see there — Benny Pierce Field — a second thought.

What they may not realize is that Benny Pierce was nothing short of a legend during his three decades coaching football and teaching at the school — and 22 years after his retirement, he remains an honored part of program.

Pierce came to the school at its start in 1959 as one of the school’s original teachers. As Saratoga’s JV and then head football coach from 1959 to 1994, Pierce brought the Falcons to victory time and time again, leading them to 31 winning seasons, 16 league championships, a county title and four CCS crowns. His coaching record of 270-84-4 is nothing short of astounding.

His 1980 team ended the season undefeated and ranked sixth nationally. At one point, he was the winningest football coach in California.

During Pierce’s last year at Saratoga High, the school held a dinner for his departure, naming the football field the Benny Pierce Field. The field would come to serve as a reminder of the inspiration and success he had brought to hundreds of his players over the years.

“I’m proud to have his name on our field because it represents what is great about high school athletics,” principal Paul Robinson said. “It’s not about winning. It’s about growing to become the best person you can be.”

Pierce, now 82, still lives in Los Gatos and was happy to reminisce about the glory days of Saratoga football. As he reflects on it now, the element of wonder still lingers on his face.

“It was one of those things, where we were fortunate and we came together at the right time,” he said.

 

The example to follow

Coaching was more than a hobby for him.

“Even though I was home at nights, my mind was on football,” Pierce said. “I thought about who to be put here, who to put there.”

His interest in coaching began in the fields of his alma mater, Los Gatos High School. As a four-sport athlete, Pierce devoted his afternoons to practice and took the opportunity to learn from each sport.

It was his baseball coach, a man named Harold Sonntag, who inspired him to pursue a profession in coaching and who “set the example” for him. The two grew closer after Pierce’s father purchased a farm in Missouri and decided to move the family across the country. In order for Pierce to remain in Los Gatos and finish his second semester of senior year, Sonntag offered to take care of him.

“We became closer friends, and he ended up being my best man at my wedding. He had a tremendous influence on my life,” Pierce said.

After finishing his last semester of high school, Pierce went on to play for San Jose State University’s football team as a quarterback and linebacker. When he threw the ball, one of his targets was Bill Walsh, who later led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl wins. At San Jose State, Pierce familiarized himself with strategies while also discovering that some coaches did not get along with their players.

“The coach wasn’t personal,” Pierce said. “And you learn from these negative coaching experiences as well as from positive experiences.”

After graduating, Pierce served three years in the Air Force until March of 1959. The following September, he joined Saratoga High’s first set of staff as the physical education instructor and JV football coach.

 

Victory come true

On the football field, Pierce found success early and credits the team’s many wins to talented players and assistant coaches. Throughout his time at SHS, the team had only one losing season: the first year.

“It was a long year,” Pierce said. “You find out that you don’t really like to lose.”

New to the profession, and quickly transitioning from JV coach to head coach, Pierce was still learning as much as the players in those early years. Having played on both sides of the ball in college, he had a deep understanding of the game that he could impart to players, but it took mistakes for players to learn their roles.

In the 1960s, the Falcons gathered enough momentum to achieve a high level of success. When the team came out victorious, people accepted whatever Pierce had to say; when they had trouble winning, people sometimes questioned what he did.

“In other words, we worked the system, and if the players did what they were supposed to, they could be successful,” Pierce said.

He stressed that each player contributed to the team’s victories. Even in the years with many players on the team, he tried to make each one feel important. Class of 1987 alumnus Steve Leonard vividly remembers Pierce repeating that it took even practice squad players to gain each victory.

“Pierce’s teams were always great, no matter if they had superstars or not,” Leonard said. “He always made them work.”

For Pierce, it is not the victories compiled but rather the players he coached that he remembers most vividly.

“I never thought about accomplishment,” Pierce said. “It was always [about] being able to help young people become good people. I tried to make them better football players, a better team and maybe better men.”

 

Sizing up the opposition

To Pierce, football was not a mere sport, but rather a way of life. He instilled into his players this sense of dedication and love for the sport through endless hours of practice and drills.

Pierce also weaved in humor, telling his players, “I’ve seen better hands on a clock,” or “All State’s got better hands than you do,” whenever they dropped the football.

His light-hearted presence was at times replaced with strict discipline. But even after these moments, he let players know his criticism wasn’t personal and ended practice with the encouragement that “tomorrow is going to be a better one.”

When it came time for games, the team had a home field disadvantage — games were primarily held at Los Gatos High because Saratoga did not have a turf field or lights for night games. The team made up for this disadvantage with hours practicing and air-tight game plans that he taught his players to execute.

“It’s like playing a chess game. You try to out-maneuver the other person,” Pierce said. “It’s always about how you can outsmart their defense, and have your defense stop what they are doing.”

Because the team was often outmanned physically, they lined their players up at an angle to avoid one-on-one blocking. When they gathered during halftime, they discussed these strategies and listened to Pierce’s energetic pep talks.

“His halftime inspirational and motivational speeches always pumped the entire team up,” Leonard said. “We would always come out of halftime ready to play in the second half.”

These speeches were almost always followed by victories. Bus rides back to school were never complete without the song players had created for winning occasions. Even the custodian, who would be waiting back at school, joined the singing and celebration.

When the team did leave in defeat, Pierce used it as a motivator to work harder the next week.

“It’s not like I couldn’t stand losing, but I always wanted to win,” Pierce said. “If it doesn’t bother you when you lose a game, there is something wrong.”

When it comes to today’s SHS teams, which have had difficulty finding the same success as Pierce’s teams, Pierce sees numbers as the major problem. He believes that SHS has talented players, but not enough team members and not enough raw size. During Pierce’s coaching career, his team averaged around 40 players, larger than today’s teams.

“You don’t have the size we used to have,” he said. “You need size for football and you don’t have that right now. Sometimes you are just outmanned.”

During the 2015 season, Pierce came to give the team a pre-game talk, huddling up the players in the locker room. Coach Tim Lugo put up his hands when Pierce asked how many players thought they would win that night.

“That’s good,” Pierce told them. “Because you are the only guys that think you can win tonight. If you don’t think you are going to win, you will never win. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”

 

The magic of believing

Pierce’s relationship with his players brought lasting memories and seasons. Take, for instance, 1987, the year the Falcons tied for third in the league and eked into CCS after winning a coin flip

The team defeated Monterey and marched off the field as the most unlikely of CCS champions.

“I always call them the Cinderella team because it came from nowhere,” Pierce said.

It was seasons like the miracle ‘87 team that still bring a smile to Pierce’s face. Some of his fondest memories, however, came from the support of his family and community.

His wife Mignon, who passed away in 2015, was one of his staunchest supporters. Rather than tell him criticisms she had heard while sitting in the stands, she instead always asked him why he had run a certain play.

“[My wife] was good, and she didn’t want me to know who said what,” Pierce said. “For college coaches or professional coaches, their families sitting at the stands take a lot of abuse. It’s very tough on the family.”

Pierce himself received many college coaching opportunities, from being an assistant coach at San Jose State University to being the head coach at De Anza College, but he chose to stay at Saratoga High out of “loyalty” and love for his players.

“I was spoiled coaching for Saratoga, to be honest,” he said. “There were always challenges, but I loved the school and loved the kids and loved the area. It’s hard to pass up.”

 

Staying in the game

With so many fond memories and his deep love for the school, it was difficult for Pierce to finally retire. But in 1991, after Pierce had suffered from a heart attack and had bypass surgery, the superintendent offered him and a small group of teachers the chance to retire under attractive terms. Pierce surprised himself by saying, “Yes.”

“I had not contemplated retirement at that age. You never know what’s going to happen in your life,” Pierce said. “Over the years as a football coach, people would think you have extra time. You really don’t.”

Luckily, Pierce could still coach football, which he continued to do as an assistant coach and then on and off before leaving the high school scene for good in 1994.

“My heart was that I wanted to teach and I wanted to coach, so that’s kind of what I was fortunate to do,” he said. “It’s a great profession, being able to direct lives. I was very blessed.”

It’s been more than two decades years since he stepped away from the field. Pierce has attended football games and kept in contact with his past players.

In all the years he was coaching, Pierce said he never expected to become a local legend. But as he looks back on his legacy, he thinks not of his wins but rather of the players who still come back to visit, telling him that playing football here changed their lives. For Pierce, coaching was a blessing.

“As a coach, I never got up a day in my life thinking, ‘I do not want to go to work today,’” he said. “It’s not that everything is easy, but I enjoyed what I did and enjoyed the people I worked with.”

Comments

I consider myself very fortunate to spend timd with you and Mignon. Beautiful tributes to you. All the best

Even though this was the first year of football for all but one or two guys and it was coaches first year we did manage to win 5 games. We lost to Los Gatos the first time we played them but we did win the second game. I believe the score was 21-13. That was cool because nobody thought we could do such a thing! What a great feeling that was.

Thank you for a great in-depth article! I was the Quarterback on the 1980 CCS Championship team. I would love to get in contact with Coach Pierce somehow via a cell # or email. If you could respond to me I would really appreciate it. At the very least please share my email/cell with him. Greatly Appreciated, Rick Worman (***) ***-**** *********@gmail.com

When Benny played college football, it was at San Jose State College, not San Jose State University. He was always a good man.

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