Coach Feather, in memoriam: Legendary El Camino football coach John Featherstone left a legacy on and off the field
There are no words that can describe what Coach Feather has done for athletics in the South Bay.” — Keith Ellison, former Sea Hawk, Warrior and Buffalo Bill player and current Sea Hawk defensive coordinator
by Randy Angel
Editor’s note: Manhattan Beach native, former El Camino College football coach and beach volleyball coach John Featherstone passed away Saturday morning, at age 71, after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. The following story appeared in Easy Reader in December 2015, upon his retirement from El Camino, where he coached for over three decades.
Coach Feather felt odd standing on the sidelines last month, watching Redondo battle West Torrance for the CIF-Southern Section Western Division playoffs. He was not accustomed to surveying the action on the field simply as a fan and not as a scout for future El Camino College players.
The former gridiron star and coach had recently announced his retirement, after 31 years as head coach of El Camino College’s football program.
“It will take some time getting used to. Old habits are hard to break,” he said.
John Featherstone coached his final game Saturday, November 14 at Redondo Union High School, where his players came up just a short of their goal to win one last game for their admired coach. (The game was at Redondo because a new El Camino football stadium is under construction.) Trailing 38-23 heading into the fourth quarter, El Camino rallied, only to lose 38-36 to Long Beach City College, the top-ranked team in Southern California’s National Division.
“It’s been a great ride, but it was time,” Featherstone said.
Featherstone’s football career began at Mira Costa High School and continued at El Camino College and then San Diego State.
Coach Feather, as he is affectionately known, finished his coaching career at El Camino with a record of 214-119-1. His teams made three national championship game appearances and won the title in 1987. They also won two state titles and 11 conference championships. Feather’s teams appeared in 19 bowl games and reached the playoffs five straight years, from 2004 to 2008. He was inducted into the El Camino College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.
“The reason we coach is for our football players. Our goal is to see they get to the next level academically,” Featherstone said during the halftime ceremony in his honor at his final game. “We work them hard academically and when they step on the football field during the week, they work hard. That’s what life is all about.”
In 2008, Featherstone was voted National Coach of the Year for a second time. He also received his eighth California State Coach of the Year honor that year.
“The NCAA used to not recognize Junior College ball at its national convention,” Featherstone said. “The National Coach of the Year honor was one of neatest experiences of my life. They had a parade and the auditorium was filled with over 1,000 people. I was honored to represent junior college football and El Camino College. I always accepted any type of award as a coaching staff award. I didn’t ever want to be singled out as the main man responsible.”
Featherstone coached more than three dozen players into professional football, including: Keith Ellison (LB, Buffalo Bills), DeLawrence Grant (DE, Oakland Raiders), Antonio Chatman (WR, Cincinnati Bengals), Marcel Reece (FB, Oakland Raiders, active), and Derrick Deese (OL, San Francisco 49ers). Countless former students were All-American athletes and transferred to universities to continue their education and play football.
“I have known Coach Featherstone since our elementary school days when I had to attempt to tackle him on the playgrounds of Manhattan Beach,” said Bill Beverly, president of the El Camino Community College District Board of Trustees. “He has touched thousands of lives and presided over the building of innumerable young players into better students, athletes and men. John represents all that is best about El Camino College.”
Keith Ellison, a standout player at Redondo Union High School, has known Featherstone since he was an 8-year-old watching his older brother Chris play for El Camino before transferring to BYU.
Keith followed in his brother’s footsteps, playing linebacker for Featherstone prior to two successful seasons at Oregon State University, which led to an NFL career with the Buffalo Bills.
Keith and Chris have returned to Redondo High as coaches. Keith is the Sea Hawk’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
“Feather is one of the nicest coaches you’d ever want to meet or play for,” Keith said. “El Camino is a special place and it has provided a second chance for many athletes. There are no words that can describe what Coach Feather has done for athletics in the South Bay.”
“He has the right touch with players and I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. His positive attitude rubs off on everyone around him.”
Don Morrow was inducted in the El Camino Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003 after an exceptional football career as a quarterback for Aviation High School, El Camino College and CSU Northridge. He is in his 23rd year as head coach of Mira Costa’s football program and has produced numerous players for Featherstone.
“Feather is a great alumnus of Mira Costa,” Morrow said. “He has helped me a great deal over the years, especially with his ideas on the passing game. He is somewhat of a legend in that regard. Our kids who have gone to play at ECC have loved playing for him. He is a true legend in South Bay football and will be greatly missed on the field.”
Paving the Way
Featherstone grew up on 21st Street in Manhattan Beach, across from Live Oak Park.
Featherstone smiles when he thinks back on how the lessons he learned during countless hours of playing baseball in empty dirt lots, catching footballs and making tackles on the grassy fields of Live Oak Park, running and jumping in the soft sands of beach volleyball courts and surfing formed the foundation for a career that would make him one of the most successful junior college football coaches in the country
The skinny, little blond kid who embraced every minute of fun in his youth is now 65. At 5-foot-8, he continues a strict fitness regimen that keeps him at his high school playing weight of 145 pounds. The boyish twinkle in his eyes is also still there and seems to glisten a little brighter when he speaks of football.
Featherstone was raised in a strong athletic background. His grandfather and father were both high school football stars. His older brother Fred was also an exceptional athlete to whom John would look up to. John would later pass on his knowledge to his younger brother, Jimbo, who is eight years his junior.
At Mira Costa, Featherstone competed in track and field, baseball, volleyball and football. “Sometimes during the baseball season, I would leave between innings and go over to the track to run in a relay event or compete in the long jump, then return to the diamond.”
In 1966, high school volleyball was more than a decade away from becoming a CIF sanctioned sport, so Featherstone and a few friends founded the Mira Costa Volleyball Club to compete against other high schools.
“We weren’t very good, but we sure had a lot of fun,” Featherstone said.
But Featherstone’s true calling was on the gridiron where he played quarterback, running back and wide receiver. At Mira Costa In 1967, he earned All-CIF honors as a wide receiver.
“We were in a rebuilding process when I played there,” Featherstone said. “I’m excited to see the Mira Costa program where it is today. Donny Morrow has done a tremendous job.”
The Road Back Home
After earning all-conference honors at El Camino, the speedy receiver received a scholarship to play for legendary coach Don Coryell at San Diego State University.
“When I played at SDSU in 1970, it was the first year that college football went to single digit numbers on uniforms,” Featherstone said. “I was the smallest guy on the team and Coach Coryell asked me how I felt about wearing number 1. I said ‘Hey, I‘m just happy to wear the uniform.’ The lockers in the stadium were in numerical order, so mine was the first one in line, next to the coach’s office. Coryell never dressed in the coach’s office. He wanted to be close to his players, so he would hang up his red coat and get dressed in my cubicle. He was very superstitious. Even on road games, he would dress in my locker, so we formed a tight bond.”
As a junior, Featherstone’s offensive prowess helped propelled SDSU to the 1969 Pasadena Bowl and what would be the highlight of his playing career.
“I had a dream the night before the game about playing in Pasadena and having a good game,” Featherstone recalled. “Our star receiver, Tommy Reynolds was injured and our second-string receiver pulled a hamstring in warm ups, so I was thrust into the starting role.”
Featherstone scored two touchdowns in the Aztecs’ win in front of 52,000 fans and was selected as the game’s Most Valuable Player. With an unblemished 11-0 record, SDSU finished 12th in the National AP Poll.
Featherstone received a bachelor’s degree from SDSU in 1970, majoring in journalism with a minor in physical education. The following year, he began his coaching career as the Aztec’s wide receiver coach. He said Coryell had the largest impact on his career, not just by giving him his first coaching job, but because of his offensive genius.
Featherstone believes Coryell never received the recognition he deserved, though he went on to become the head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Chargers. He was the first coach to have 100 victories at the college and professional levels.
Featherstone earned a master’s degree in physical education from SDSU in 1973. During the next four years, he served as quarterback and wide receiver coach for Grossmont College, helping the Griffins win a state championship in 1974.
At Grossmont, Featherstone became hooked on coaching and thinking of it as a career. He traced his decision chiefly to his involvement in play calling and the opportunity to coach Player of the Year Joe Roth. The talented quarterback would become an All-American at UC Berkeley before cancer took his life in 1977.
“Joe was a tremendous talent,” Featherstone said. “I was the one who discovered the mole on his temple. I would see it bleeding every day. I asked him if he had ever had it checked? ‘Oh, it’s nothing, it scabs over.’ he told me.
In 1975, Featherstone replaced future St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz at San Diego Mesa College, where he worked as offensive coordinator and mentored future SDSU All-American quarterback Matt Kofler.
Returning to SDSU as wide receiver coach in 1980, Featherstone coached under Claude Gilbert and with future NFL coaches Doug Scovil and Brian Billick. Featherstone has also worked alongside star coaches Rod Dowhower, Ernie Zampese and Ted Tollner.
In 1982, Featherstone joined the UC Berkeley program under head coach and former NFL great Joe Kapp. But one year in the Bay area was enough for the Southern California native. Featherstone returned the following year to become offensive coordinator at Santa Ana College. In 1985, he returned to the South Bay, replacing future NFL assistant coach Jack Reilly as El Camino’s head coach.
“I was so excited to return to El Camino,” Featherstone said. “We had two good seasons when I played for the Warriors under Ken Swearingen, who was another great influence on me. I’ve been very fortunate to have been associated with good teams, especially good quarterbacks.
“When you look at our offense, we have averaged more than 20 points per game in my tenure here,” Featherstone said. “(Assistant coach) Gene Engle played here before playing at Stanford under Bill Walsh. He and I have played for two of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.”
Despite the long hours — Featherstone devoted 60-70 hours per week during the season to football — he loved coaching at the junior college level.
“Playing junior college football is the last time these guys can play for fun,” Featherstone explained. “Then it becomes a business. They’re getting paid to play at the next level. I tell the players to approach each game as if it’s your last, stay focused and have fun. Football is not a game for sissies. It’s a violent game and we’re part of a chosen few who get to play at this level.”
Featherstone’s credo on the field and in the classroom is: “Dream. Prepare. Endure. Achieve.” If the first three pieces of the puzzle fit, you will achieve.”
Although a high-energy coach, Featherstone did not believe in using whistles on the practice field, nor did he believe in cussing. “You don’t have to cuss to make a player successful. If we have to yell and scream, it’s done during the week, never during the game. We make the correction, and then give them positive reinforcement.”
With so much time spent together, players become a family unit, with Featherstone playing the role of father.
“We get a lot of kids who haven’t had a lot of love and discipline. One of the highlights of coaching was watching these kids grow up to be men and productive, successful citizens.”
With players being in the program only two years, Featherstone had to keep his eyes and ears open in the community.
He always bought game programs at high school games and walked the sidelines, asking players who the best players were on each team.
“I like players who never look at the clock, never look at the score,” Featherstone said. “I looked to see if they’re still playing hard even though they are down, or ahead by 30 points because those are players who love the game.
“I looked for overachievers. Team guys with discipline and the attitude to work hard in all phases of their lives. The only promises we gave our recruits is that if you came to ECC and stayed out of trouble and become a good role model to your younger brothers and sisters, worked hard in the weight room and on the practice field and played hard between the lines on Saturday night, we would take care of you for the rest of your lives. We wrote letters, made calls, whatever it took for players to get to the next level. And I think we’ve been successful in that aspect.”
The Other Family
Featherstone has an equal affection for the students he has taught in his health education classes.
“I loved teaching as much as coaching,” Featherstone said. “I’m as involved with my 250 students each year as I am with my football players. I send letters home to parents with tips on feeding their kids, like I do my players.
“I tell the kids how important exercise is, to make it the same discipline as brushing their teeth. Take a walk, ride a bike, do something you like and don’t be afraid to try new activities. Make a lifestyle change, which may include a change in diet. Adult diabetes is raging and everything is super-sized. Americans eat way too much man-made foods, laden with sugar, salt and fat.”
Featherstone lives by his 8-8-8 theory: Eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work or school, and eight hours of play. “There has to be a 20- or 30-minute window in there to exercise. I’ve always looked at exercise as a reward, not a punishment. In the last 40 years, we’ve gotten into man-made foods and with natural evolution, kids are getting bigger. Whether they’re healthier or not, I don’t know. America still has the highest cancer and heart disease rate. Americans are hard workers, but don’t take time to relax. If you don’t find time to exercise, you’re too busy and need to cut something out of your life.”
Sands of time
Despite the many hours Featherstone devoted to football and teaching he always found time to enjoy his youthful passion for the beach.
Featherstone began playing beach volleyball at 15. He and his brother Fred played many years on the California Beach Volleyball Association (CBVA) tour, finishing in the top 10 in five open tournaments.
“I would get out of the water after surfing and see these guys playing volleyball. It looked like fun, so I gave it a try and fell in love with the game,” Featherstone recalled. “It turned out to be the best thing I ever did for all my other sports. It helped my surfing and it helped my football immensely because when the season rolled around, I reported to practice in great shape. Because of the great workout of running in the sand, I’ve never had problems with my lower extremities or joints.”
During the summer of 1975, when Featherstone was taking advantage of an off-season lull from his coaching duties in San Diego, he joined forces with three friends to form the Mission Beach Volleyball Clinic for adults. It was an immediate success and the program was packed for five summers.
Just as the athletic days of his youth would prove valuable for Featherstone later in life, the experience gained from the adult volleyball clinic would pay dividends down the road.
Featherstone’s future would include four daughters.
“I’m very lucky with all my daughters,” Featherstone said. “They didn’t get into the drink and drug deal. Plus, they all love football so we support each other.”
Although athletics didn’t appeal to his oldest daughter Terre, sisters Ivy, Keegan and Arianna all played volleyball. Keegan is the girls volleyball head coach at Bishop Montgomery High School.
Even though the girls fall volleyball season coincides with football, Featherstone attended as many of his daughter’s athletic events as possible.
“I know how important it is for parents to go to back to school nights and other school functions. Unfortunately, a lot of kids on my football teams didn’t have that kind of support growing up and that breaks my heart.”
After Featherstone became a parent, he saw how popular volleyball was becoming for girls. “We had the facilities right here,” he said. “So I started coaching and started my own club, the Manhattan Beach Tidal Waves.”
Last summer, Featherstone celebrated the 21st year of his beach volleyball clinic, which includes two sessions. “Kids taking Junior Lifeguards in morning take my class in the afternoon and vice versa. Parents can drop their kids off for an entire day at the beach. I see how much fun kids have playing the sport. I’ve been overjoyed teaching young kids the great sport of beach volleyball. I’ve loved every second of it.”
If playing recreational and master’s competition in beach volleyball along with coaching the sport wasn’t enough for Featherstone, he found time to serve as a referee for many years.
“I refereed a lot in ‘80s and enjoyed the high caliber of competition,” Featherstone said. “Professional beach volleyball players are some of the best athletes in the world and can match up with those in any other sport.”
John Featherstone is survived by his wife Diane Featherstone; daughters Terre Haines-Featherstone, Ivy Madden, Keegan Felix, Arianna Featherstone; brothers Fred Featherstone and Jim Featherstone;grandsons Gabriel Vargas-Featherstone, Maverick Madden, Monroe Madden, and Dino Felix; granddaughter Emily Felix; sons-inlLaw Danny Madden, and Kevin Felix; sisters-in-law Mary Featherstone, and Cheryl Featherstone; nephews-in-law Cory Featherstone (and his wife, Sam, and kids Parker and Carly), Colin Featherstone (and wife, Samantha); and stepsons Brent Frohoff (wife, Tiffany and kids Jake, Sam, Luke, and Quinn), and Chris Frohoff (wife, Ann and daughter, Rio) .
A memorial service has not yet been planned. Contributions in John Featherstone’s memory may be sent to ElCamino.edu/Foundation/Featherstone