Merrit Gilbert is a prime example of a young man who listened, worked hard at whatever job he had, and became one of the most successful coaches in Central California history. Gilbert was born in Fresno, but lived with his grandparents in Los Angeles for a time while his father worked on the Hoover Dam.
Visalia was home when it came time for high school and Gilbert went to Visalia High School (now Mt. Whitney High) where he came under the wing of the late P.E. "Polly" Wilhelmsen. "I learned a lot about sports and a lot about life from Polly," Gilbert said. "He was a great coach who expected 110% from you at all times. He worked you hard, but was like a father-figure to me and many others." Gilbert played under Wilhelmsen for two years at Visalia High and one year at Visalia Junior College (now College of the Sequoias) after he was discharged from the Navy. In 1945, Visalia High was 11-0 in basketball during his senior year. He also lettered in football and track.
After a year at COS, he received a football scholarship to Fresno State. He played three seasons as an end and defensive back for Bulldog coaches Kenny Gleason and Pix Pierson. After graduation, he was hired to coach football, baseball, basketball. and track at Riverdale High School in 1951. "In addition to the coaching, I also drove the bus; all for a salary of $3,200,"Gilbert laughed. He was at Riverdale for three years and, in 1953, his basketball team won the North Sierra League title and finished 17-3. Gilbert was then hired by Sierra High School in Auberry where he coached basketball for the next seventeen years.
His Chieftains won ten North Sequoia League championships. Sierra won thirty-three consecutive games from 1960 to 1962. His 1962 team was 22-0. At that time, NYL teams did not advance to the state championships. Gilbert's overall twenty year basketball record when he retired from coaching to go into administration was a Central Section best 304-101. "I was fortunate to have some great players," Gilbert said. "There were a lot of Indian athletes such as Fred Shoshone and Morrie Lec. There were big, strong kids such as Lonnie Hughey, Darryl Patterson and Kenny Long."
Gilbert was in a near fatal automobile accident in Fresno in 1979. He suffered an injury which caused him to walk with a permanent limp. He was the Sierra High athletic director, Sierra Superintendent of Schools for ten years and, in 1984, became CIF Commissioner of all football and basketball athletics in the Central Section. In addition to his regular jobs, Gilbert managed to squeeze in eighteen years of being a sports official. Today. he and his wife live in Cayucos where he is a member of the Morro Bay Golf Club and plays his favorite pastime several times a week.
Boyd Grant was almost as excited about the Fresno State baseball team winning the 2008 College World Series as he was when his Bulldog basketball team won the National Invitational Basketball title in 1983. That's because Grant as a player, graduate, and former assistant coach at Colorado State, cherishes his years and the people of Fresno who jammed Selland Arena -"Grant's Tomb"- for the nine seasons that he coached at Fresno State. He is a true Bulldog. "In all my coaching experience, when my junior college [College of Southern Idaho] won the National JC Championship, [being] assistant in charge of recruiting at Kentucky, and the things I did and learned at Colorado State, I have to tell you the greatest experience for me and my family was Fresno State, without a doubt, no exceptions." It was quite obvious that the feeling was mutual when Boyd returned to Fresno and Selland Arena with a number of his players in 2003 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the momentous NIT victory. Grant stood at mid-court, arms raised, while a crowd of 10,000 mostly red-clad fans gave him a standing ovation. In a voice choked with emotion, Grant said, "I love the Red Wave."
In nine seasons with the Bulldogs, nationally recognized for their tenacious defense, Grant had a 194-74 and his 1981-1982 team set a school record of 27-3. Grant's Fresno State athletic director, Gene Bourdet, knew Grant while he was the athletic director at Montana State when Boyd was serving as interim head coach at Colorado State while beloved head coach Jim Williams was ill. "We beat Montana State pretty bad and that's when I first met Gene. He kept track of me and the fact we made the NCAA that year," Grant said. "When I came to Fresno to interview for the job, Gene told me, “you know, Boyd, I've had my eye on you all the way. I remember the job you did when Coach Williams was sick and I've followed you since. So Gene gave me my chance to be a major college coach."
When Boyd was introduced to the local media in Fresno, they knew little or nothing about him other than he had a eye-popping 93- 6 record in three years at Southern Idaho. The biggest endorsement that day came from Jim Thrash, who was hired as an assistant and would be in charge of recruiting. He gave up a job as a high school coach in Albuquerque, New Mexico and turned down offers from other four year schools to join Grant. "Boyd is a great person and a great coach," Thrash said. "For me, it is a dream of a lifetime. I think it will be very easy to recruit first class players for him because he is such a first-class person." During the press conference Grant referred to Thrash as one "*of the finest young coaches in the country. I always thought I had the best coaching staff possible," Grant said. "I had Thrash for recruiting, Ron Adams for defense, and Fred Litzenberger.
Thrash lived up to his billing by bringing Rod Higgins- among others-from Chicago and producing a steady stream of top performers in ensuing years. It took Grant just four games to ignite the program and fans when the Bulldogs beat the University of California with a score of 60-55 before a packed Selland Arena. "That was the game that turned the program around, no doubt," Grant said. "I don't think people thought we had a team capable of playing with a Pac 10 team. We were behind with only a few minutes to play and Kenny Barnes stole the ball twice and we made all our free throws." Like the baseball team, Grant's 1983 NIT was pretty improbable.
After a single home game against UTEP won by Fresno, 71-64, the Bulldogs were on the road at Michigan State, 72- 58. They continued a successful road trip to beat Oregon State and moved on to Madison Square Garden where they toppled favored Wake Forest, 86-62. Few were not surprised when the Dogs knocked off tournament favorite, DePaul, 69-60. It was in New York that a Fresno Bee writer coined the phrase “Red Wave" when describing the 2,000 plus fans who made the trip to New York. Days after the team arrived home from the Big Apple to the applause of a parade crowd of ten thousand fans, athletic director Russ Sloan told Boyd that Pepsi had offered $20 million to build an on-campus arena that would seat 15,500 to 16,000 fans. Pepsi wanted exclusive rights to sell their product and they wanted the roof to be a giant Pepsi bottle cap.
Unlike today, Fresno State officials turned down the offer because the school frowned on having a company finance something like that. "Pepsi would have done it and it should have been done," Grant said. "I knew in order for us to maintain our program at a top level, we needed an on-campus arena. If we were to recruit the best players and go to the NCAA every year an arena was essential." In Boyd's first season, the Bulldogs were unbeaten at home in "Grant's Tomb. Boyd Grant's legacy remains unmatched in Bulldog hoops history.
The community of Sanger has always given great support to the Sanger High Apaches athletic programs, especially in football. The Sanger fans have been rewarded for that support, many times over by the school's long list of great teams, coaches, and players. Foremost among the coaches who have achieved recognition after cutting their playing or coaching teeth at Sanger High School are Tom Flores, J.R. Boone, Clare Slaughter, and Ray Newman, while Jim Merlo and Tom Flores head the large corps of players who have gone on to win acclaim at higher levels on other football fields. Jim Merlo was an outstanding multiple sport athlete at Sanger High. In 1969, Jim's senior year, he was named the school's Athlete of the Year after winning the most valuable player awards in both football and basketball. He then played linebacker and center for Clare Slaughter at Fresno City College during the 1969 and 1970 seasons. In 1969, he was an All-American center for the Rams and, in 1970, he was named to the JC All-American team, both on offense as a center, and on the defense as a linebacker.
Later, Jim was inducted into the California Community College Football Hall of Fame.After his time with the Rams, Jim again was offered many scholarship opportunities to play at four-year schools and he chose Stanford University. That decision worked out well for both school and player as Jim led Stanford to the Rose Bowl, while achieving third team All-American honors from the Associated Press. In 1972, Jim was named Stanford's MVP on a very special and certainly memorable Indian team. The team won the PAC 8 (now the PAC 10) Conference with a 6-1 record during the 1971 season which gave them a berth in the 1972 Rose Bowl against undefeated and top-ranked Michigan. In a thriller of a game, Stanford came up with a 13-12 victory that cost the Wolverines a national championship. A fitting climax to the hard-working Merlo's collegiate career occurred when he played in four post-season, all-star games. He was a co-MVP with fellow All-American Greg Pruit of the University of Oklahoma in the 1973 Hula Bowl. Jim also was selected to play for the East-West Shrine game, the Coaches All-American game, and was invited to play in the College All-Star Game, a contest in which the best of the recently graduated college crop takes on the current NFL champions.
That year, the opponents were the Miami Dolphins. The game at Chicago's Soldier Field was close with the college team having a shot at victory, but the Dolphins scored late and won 14-3. It was a little unnerving at first," remembers Jim, going, we said, Hey we can play with these guys.' That was the year the Dolphins had Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Mercury Morris, Bob Greise, and a bunch of other legends."Jim Merlo was picked in the fourth round of the 1973 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. During his seven years as a linebacker with the Saints (1973-1979), he played in eighty-eight games, made eight interceptions, including three for touchdowns, and recovered eleven fumbles. Merlo held two“interception for touchdown" records as a linebacker during the 1976 season; one an eighty-three yarder against the Atlanta Falcons, the other for forty-five yards against the Green Bay Packers. In 1977, Jim returned another interception for a TD, this time a fifty-seven yarder to beat the Chicago Bears.
Jim is in the real estate business and lives in Fresno with his wife, Rhonda, and their daughter, Brooke, and sons, Jace and Drew. "I am so grateful to have played competitive sports for as long as I did. It taught me that hard work pays off not only in sport, but in life." Jim says.
Dean Philpott was the prototype fullback-the kind that John Madden liked to talk about while commentating games. Philpott had a bull-like neck, big shoulders, and a raw-boned build with sharp elbows that hurt any player he ran over. He was highly recruited out of Anaheim High School and almost went to the University of Oregon, but Fresno State had the vocational teaching program that he craved, so he accepted Bob Burgess offer to be a Bulldog. "I never regretted my decision," Philpott said. "I didn't just come to school to play football, I definitely had my mind made up to teach auto and metal shop and that's what I did for thirty years at Sanger High School.
I tried the NFL for one year with the Chicago Cardinals and another season with the Oakland Raiders in the old AFL. Both times, I made the team and, both times, I got hurt. I missed my second season with the Cardinals due to a six-month stay in the Army, first at Fort Ord and then Fort Sill, Oklahoma. That's when I signed with Oakland, made the team, but after five games, I hurt my knee and decided to come home and start my teaching career."
Philpott attracted a lot of attention at Anaheim High under Coach Van Horbeck. The team went to the CIF playoffs twice and Philpott played in the All-Star game in San Diego and the Shrine High school game in the Los Angeles Coliseum. He was the youngest back on Clark Van Galder's 1954 team at Fresno State, but it was difficult to keep him out of the lineup. His nickname was the "Anaheim Assassin." Philpott had good hands and could catch passes. He had a nose for the end zone and was a hard-tackling linebacker on defense. Philpott piled up yards, touchdowns, and extra points for four years and, when his collegiate career ended. He had set school records of 2,533 yards gained, twenty-nine rushing touchdowns, thirty-five total touchdowns, and 230 records. "I never paid much attention to those sorts of things," Philpott said. "I was a team man. I was totally shocked in 1993 when they said my total yards record was broken. I wasn't aware I still had it.
Then Anthony Daigle, the same year, broke my career touchdown record." By the time that Philpott graduated from high school, Bob Padilla and John Steinborn finished eligibility at Orange Coast College. All three came to Fresno State and roomed with Philpott. "Great guys, I couldn't have had better," Philpott said. "At one time, we had six in the house. We did a lot of fishing and hunting together. Our other big back, George Van Zant took us fishing every chance he got. That was another lure to Fresno, the closeness of the mountains and lakes and I was even close enough to home, so if my mom needed me I could get there quickly." Philpott began his teaching career at San Joaquin Memorial and then was hired at Sanger High. He taught metal and auto shop and was an assistant football, baseball, basketball, and track coach for eight years. After failing to get the head football job, he staved in the classroom where he had the satisfaction of seeing several of his students become mechanics or metal workers. Philpott said many of his Bulldog teammates stayed in the Fresno area and either became teachers or peace officers. Into his seventies, Philpott continued to farm his ten acres of oranges and also was his daughter's volunteer coach at CentervilleElementary School.
John Toomasian was born in Roachdale, Massachusetts. His father passed away when he was very young and when his mother, Genevieve, remarried, the family moved to Waukegan, Illinois, where John met a youngster by the name of Vic Graham. John and Vic liked to play baseball, basketball, and football when they weren't in school. Vic Graham had a brother, Otto Graham, who went on to become a football, basketball, and baseball player at Northwestern University, and later, an NFL AlI-Pro and Hall of Fame quarterback. "Otto was my idol growing up, and in my eyes, he was at least as good in basketball and baseball as he was in football," remembers John, "He was three years older than Vic and me, and he was a wonderful influence on both of us. He helped us in learning how to play." John was an original "gym rat' in his high school and post-high school years.
He didn't start to grow into his 6' 1", 185-pound frame until he was a sophomore at sixteen. As he grew, he was recognized as an athlete who had size, strength, and moxie. After high school, John enrolled at the University of Illinois and went out for basketball.. "with 235 other kids!" “I was the last man on the third team," says John, "It was really competitive." He enjoyed the team and was working his way up the minutes per game ladder when the war broke out. Like so many others, he put his studies and basketball playing on hold and joined the U.S. Army. During his time in the service, one of the places that John was stationed was Pinedale, just outside of Fresno. While there, he played on a service basketball team and it turned out to be a great experience for him. "We played a lot of college teams like Stanford, San Jose State, and UCLA, winding up with a 34-0 record. I became a better shooter and was more aggressive around the ball. I loved the team and I fell in love with Fresno, too," says John. "Fresno was rural in those days, Fresno High was on the outskirts. Fresno seems so much smaller now, back then, there was sure a lot of wide open spaces." As the war was winding down, John decided that Fresno was where he wanted to be. He continued his schooling at Fresno State and it was a dream come true for Toomasian, who got his degree in history and political science with a minor in physical education while playing for the Bulldogs on the hardwoods.
At Fresno State, John logged a lot of basketball time on the court and concentrated on his studies. He also met two people who would have a profound effect on his life, Karl Falk of Fresno State and Erwin Dann, who was on the Fresno Unified District School Board. "It was Erwin who helped me realize what I wanted to do in life, to teach and coach and he helped guide me along that route." John started coaching at San Joaquin Memorial from 1950-1951, moved to Washington Union from 1952-1953, then transferred to Roosevelt from 1953-1957, and followed up with five years at Edison High from 1957-1961. John was a winner everywhere he went. The philosophy that he taught his players was for life on and off the court like his three A's-academics, athletics, and activities and the three C's-communication, companionship, and compatibility.
John Toomasian was offered a position as assistant coach during the last few years of Joe Kelley's great career at Fresno City College. "My respect for Joe Kelley was so high,"remembers John, "After I got the Rams job, I vowed to myself I would try to keep the Ram spirit Joe had created. He was a phenomenal coach and I learned so much from him." Toomasian would go on to coach basketball at Fresno City College for thirty years, coming away with a record of 407-201. He won Coach of the Year awards at both the high school and junior college levels, while leading his teams to many championships. Serving two stints as the FCC head coach, John led the Rams to nineteen victories or more in ten of his fourteen seasons. John was inducted into the California Junior College Coaches Hall of Fame, and in 1978, he went to New Zealand for two years to serve as the director of the New Zealand Basketball Federation. Toomasian was also an author of the Prep Al-American Basketball Scorebook that is still used all over the world to this day. He then compiled scorebooks for volleyball, baseball, and softball that continue to be popular. As a dedicated teacher, coach, and board of education member, Toomasian never missed a teaching or coaching day from his first assignment in 1950 to his retirement. Like Otto Graham, he was a positive influence to all of the youngsters with whom he interacted.
The elite list of men who became rich and famous because of their association with the subculture of bodybuilding or "pumping iron" is legendary - Jack Lalanne, Joe Gold, Vie Tanny, Armold Schwarzenegger - but this list could not be complete if it didn't include Fresno's own Harold Zinkin.
Zinkin, standing only 5'7", was an acrobat and bodybuilder. Born in San Francisco and reared in Southern California, he was the first "Mr. Califormia" contest winner in 1941. Lalanne from Oakland literally evolved into a "Jack of All Trades" as he and Harold performed eye-popping feats of physical strength and endurance, much to the enjoyment of the crowds. Zinkin would work out at Tanny's Gym and "Muscle Beach" when he was nineteen, and to his complete surprise, he found himself entered by Tanny in the first "Mr. California" bodybuilding and posing contest in 1941. Zinkin at first balked at posturing on stage to show off his physique, but then relented, picking up how-to-pose tips from some of the muscle magazines that were popular at the beach and in the gyms at that time and Harold won. He also was the runner up in the 1945 "Mr. America" contest. Unbelievably strong for his small stature, Zinkin earned many titles in subsequent weight-lifting competitions. But the world of bulking up, looking cut, shredded, buffed and glistening oiled iron pumpers would hear a lot more about the lifetime achievements of the Santa Monica pier-side acrobat, body builder, and national weight lifting champion.
Zinkin instinctively knew the blueprint for successful bodybuilding: developing musculature by the use of a series of progressive resistance exercises. It was a regimen that had evolved from kids who lifted cans and jars filled with sand, bricks, and even car axles in sweaty workouts to their eventual use of machine-crafted dumbbells and barbells. Harold moved to Fresno in 1953 and, by the mid-sixties, had invented the Universal Gym Machine which would make him a multi-millionaire. The revolutionary Universal Gym Machine soon became the standard multi-station gym apparatus throughout the nation; it was so widely accepted that even hard-sell college coaches, who were set in their workout regimes, endorsed its individually beneficial usage. As many as eight people could use the machine simultaneously during workouts that exercised various parts of their anatomies. Zinkin's creation was simple to use and contain several stations that featured easy-to-move, adjustable weight plates.
Zinkin's invention was so successful that he was able to market it worldwide. He also opened a number of gyms and created Zinkin Fitness International, a fitness consulting business. Zinkin sold his Universal Gym Machine Company in 1968 and subsequently devoted his energy to the development and sale of real estate in the Fresno area. A concluding aspect of Zinkin's personality: He and Joe Gold were mentors to Schwarzenegger, guiding him in the obsessive pursuit of bodybuilding. They sometimes performed hand-balancing stunts together on "Muscle Beach." "Harold was a great mentor," Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said when informed of Zinkin's death in 2004 at the age of eighty-two. "I am deeply indebted to him for his friendship and the counsel he gave me."