REMEMBRANCE John Britton, longtime ECC soccer coach, passes
by Mark McDermott
Ten years ago, John Britton lost his right leg. As a lifelong athlete and coach of both the men’s and women’s El Camino College soccer teams, this could have been seen as a devastating loss. But not for Britton, a man who rarely, if ever, passed on a chance for a laugh.
“I wanted to buy a new car,” Britton told the ECC Union newspaper. “They told me it was going to cost an arm and a leg. I bartered the guy down, so I gave him my leg.”
Ian Haslam, the former dean of ECC and a longtime friend, said the joke was in keeping with Britton’s approach to life.
“He was like that. He would laugh it off and make it light,” Haslam said. “The rest of us would be thinking it’s the end of life. Not him. He’s ready to play Special Olympics badminton with one leg.”
Britton, who over the course of a four-decade coaching career became an iconic figure throughout the South Bay, passed away on April 11 after suffering a heart attack. He was 70.
Britton was originally from Scotland. He coached at Mira Costa High School prior to taking over as both men’s and women’s soccer coach at ECC in 1996. He also coached badminton and was a full-time faculty member at the college since 1999.
Mike Jacobson, who succeeded him as ECC soccer coach, told the ECC Union that generations of student-athletes had the great good fortune to have learned from Britton.
“Salt of the earth. That’s what this man was,” Jacobson said. “He was just the most kind-hearted, unbelievably funny, caring person and just a perfect coach, instructor at a junior college level.”
Haslam said that although Britton was an avid athlete and lover of sports, what he offered student-athletes went far beyond the playing field.
“You know, working with the kind of student that goes to a community college, a lot of them come with a lot of challenges in their life,” Haslam said. “And if there’s one thing that sport and exercise can do with the right leadership — it’s not necessarily a playing-to-win at all-costs situation, it’s to build character and to identify challenges that can be met…And that’s the way John approached the game. It was all about togetherness, and it was all about camaraderie, and then it was about character, determination, persistence, and resilience. You walk away from the experience [of being coached by Britton] for a season a better person than when you started. And you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Gene Engel, a former football coach who worked alongside Britton for three decades, said he often observed soccer practices. He admired the way Britton worked with his teams.
“The intensity was never obvious, if this makes sense. It wasn’t an in-your-face intensity,” Engle said. “Any coach I’ve ever known wanted to win, and wanted to see their players do the best they could, and so [with Britton] there was an intensity about that. But his intensity did not project out in such a way that it would put pressure on his athletes, where they would feel, ‘Oh my gosh, if I make a mistake, the coach is going to yell at me.’ He allowed them to have fun, and pushed them to be the best they could be.”
Even more, Engel admired the way Engel conducted himself through life.
“I’ve never known a single person who had any interaction with John who did not like him, or didn’t want to be around him,” he said. “Not a single person. He was just really a fun person to be around.”
Haslam, who is from England, had a longer history with Britton than either realized when they first met. Haslam became dean in 2006, and Britton quickly suspected both by his age and accent that the two might have previously crossed paths on soccer fields. England has only ten universities that specialize in physical education, and those schools have an annual soccer tournament. It turns out that in the early 70s, Haslam’s team traveled to Scotland for that tournament and met Britton’s team. Both remembered the match well, in no small part because Britton took out the opposing goalkeeper, yet Haslam’s team managed to prevail with a fullback at goalie. Haslam was very pleased to remind Britton that his team eventually won the entire tournament.
“The biggest achievement of my college career was to play in that tournament, so I remember it really well,” Haslam said. “As I said to him when I got to El Camino, ‘Well, everything, everything turns out right in the end, doesn’t it? Here you are, a Scot in California, working for an Englishman from Mabley. So England still controls the Scots.”
Britton’s response was to recruit Haslam for an amateur soccer team that played every Sunday in Torrance that was sponsored by rock star Rod Stewart, who lived in Palos Verdes, and was populated by a lively crew of English and Scottish players. Haslam obliged and was genuinely touched when after one game Britton nonchalantly gave him what to an Englishman far from home was a genuine treasure — Licorice Allsorts, an English candy (known as “sweeties” in England).
“Here are some treats because you’re not playing too badly,” Britton told Haslam. “You’re not great, but you are not playing too badly.’”
“He was a very generous man,” Haslam said. “He was just fantastic socially. If you are in the business of coaching soccer teams as long as he was, you learn a few things, and you influence so many players and students over the years. It’s just incredible, the power that guy had over those teams in terms of his skills in relationship building, his empathy for their challenges, and his ability to put them on the right track.”
Britton was also a dedicated family man, and last year experienced an honor that represented a beautiful intersection of his passions — his family and his sporting life. In honor of its 75th Anniversary, El Camino College named its top 75 athletes, both male and female. Britton was honored, as was his wife, Traci, for badminton, and his daughter, Jaymie, who played soccer at ECC.
“So you had him, his wife and his daughter all inducted in the top 150, or 75 men, and 75 women,” Engel said. “It was pretty special.”
Britton had long battled diabetes. He was visiting his 95-year-old mother, Mae, in Scotland when he fell dramatically ill and died in a hospital after suffering a heart attack. He is survived by his wife, Traci, his daughter, Jaymie Britton Baquero, and his sons Andrew and Tom.
A memorial mass for John Britton will take place at American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach on May 6 at 11 a.m., followed by a reception in O’Donnell Hall. ER