Matchup: Churchill vs. Clark, season opener for both teams
When, where: Thursday, 7 p.m., Farris Stadium
Series history: Churchill leads 19-15-2 (record includes three playoff games)
Year of first Gucci Bowl: 1984
Last meeting: Churchill 33, Clark 14, Aug. 25, 2016, Comalander Stadium. Churchill junior tailback Diego Vela, who is back this season, rushed for 147 yards, one touchdown and averaged 9.8 yards per carry.
Year of last Clark victory in series: 2009, 27-0, Farris Stadium
Notable: Churchill has won the last seven Gucci Bowls
SAN ANTONIO – It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Clark football coach Steve McGhee the foremost authority on the Gucci Bowl.
In the 36-year history of the Clark-Churchill series, which includes three playoff games, McGhee is the only person who has experienced the Gucci Bowl as a player, assistant coach and head coach. All told, he has been on the field or the sideline for 17 Gucci Bowls.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of them,” McGhee said Thursday. “I’ve played in it, coached in it. I’ve been in some wins, I’ve been in some ties, I’ve been in some losses. The wins always taste a little bit better, but it’s always been an exciting game. It wouldn’t the start of another season without the Gucci Bowl.”
A 1988 Clark graduate, McGhee played tight end on the varsity for two seasons before heading to the University of Texas on a football scholarship. He has coached at his alma mater for 15 years, including the past seven as the Cougars’ head coach.
McGhee, 47, was a freshman in 1984 when Clark and Churchill played in the first Gucci Bowl.
“I went to the first one,” McGhee said, smiling. “Clark won 13-7 and the stadium was packed. It was a huge game back in ’84, just like it’s a huge game now in 2017.”
Churchill leads the series 19-15-2 and has won the last seven Gucci Bowls, starting the streak in McGhee’s first season as head coach in 2010.
“We talked about that today,” McGhee said, referring to the Cougars’ skid. “The only thing we’re worried about is going 1-0. The kids on our team this year are not 0-7 against Churchill. But motivation won’t be a problem for us. It never is when we’re playing Churchill.”
The same holds true for the Chargers, who won last year’s Gucci Bowl 33-14.
“It’s a great way to start the season,” Churchill senior offensive tackle Ryan Booth said. “All the teachers, fans and community come out. Clark always has a good team, so it’s always fun to start off the season playing them.”
Churchill head coach Ron Harris is a relative newcomer to the Gucci Bowl compared to McGhee, but he’s 5-0 against Clark since he joined Glenn Hill’s staff in 2012. Harris was the Chargers’ defensive coordinator for three seasons before being promoted to head coach in 2015, when Hill resigned.
“It’s just a great rivalry and a great way to kick off the season,” said Harris, who was an assistant coach at Alamo Heights before he went to Churchill. “Two teams that are very similar in their makeup, the demographic of their school. Both have storied history and tradition. Both of them kind of grew up together, as it were, in San Antonio.
“The way that each of them kicks off the year every year is the best thing there is to not having a district rival. To have a rivalry like this with someone you share history with and respect is great.”
Harris downplayed the Chargers’ seven-game winning streak in the series.
“Every year is different, every team is different,” he said. “Whatever is in the past is in the past. There’s only one number that counts Thursday night and that’s going 1-0. The others have no bearing, whether it was positive outcome or negative outcome. This is the start of establishing the 2017 team’s identity and how they’ll be known and what they’ll be known for.
“Sure, it’s nice to have tradition and things on your side, but every group of 70 kids every year is different in terms of their makeup, their chemistry, their camaraderie. The first game is when you see it all come together.”
Players on both teams look forward to playing in the Gucci Bowl long before the season starts, and most have grown up watching Churchill-Clark games.
Clark senior tight end Ben Sims went to his first Gucci Bowl when he was in “the fourth or fifth grade, I think” he said.
“It was exactly what I expected,” Sims said. “The stands were packed, everyone was crazy. It was loud, so nerve-racking.”
While the Churchill-Clark rivalry is intense, a mutual respect between the teams always has kept the action on the field from boiling over.
“It’s always a great game,” Booth said. “Clark, they always have good players. We have good players. We play hard in between the lines, but at the end of the day, it’s just football. Nothing extra.”
McGhee agreed that the Cougars and Charters generally have kept the rivalry in perspective.
“Churchill does a good job,” he said. “Obviously, we respect them and they respect us. Knock on wood, but we’ve never had any major problems. Our kids act right. Their kids act right. The coaches respect each other. That’s what makes it such a great game.”
The familiarity between the players and the proximity of the schools – they share a boundary line at Lockhill-Selma – has added to the color of the Gucci Bowl.
“Our kids know each other,” McGhee said. “We bump right next to each other. Any time we play Churchill, whether it’s in volleyball, football, basketball, whatever it is, we’re going to get excited. Churchill kids know Clark kids and Clark kids know Churchill kids. They call it the Gucci Bowl for a reason and people get excited about it.”
The Churchill-Clark game was tagged the Gucci Bowl because the schools are in the more affluent areas of San Antonio.
Former Chargers coach Jerry Comalander, a plain-spoken, no-frills guy who headed the Chargers’ program when the Gucci Bowl came on the scene, didn’t particularly like the name the game was given. But Gucci Bowl stuck, capturing the imagination of fans from both schools.
Clark senior safety Bobby Owens still remembers going to his first Gucci Bowl as a third-grader in 2008, the year the Cougars reached the state semifinals for the first time and finished 13-2. Owens has played in the Gucci Bowl the past two seasons.
“It’s not like anything else,” Owens said, describing the atmosphere at Churchill-Clark games. “Walking on the field, both schools, their whole student sections packed. All the fans are there. It’s definitely nerve-racking, but it’s an experience of a lifetime. It’s something I’m never going to experience again. I’m just trying to live in the moment and enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun.”
While most players from both teams grew up going to the Gucci Bowl, Churchill senior running back/wide receiver Austin Castilleja didn’t watch his first Chargers-Cougars game until he was in the eighth grade at Eisenhower Middle School.
“From then on, I just wanted to play in it,” said Castilleja, who went to private school before going to Eisenhower. “It’s been amazing to be able to play the last two years. The Gucci Bowl brings everyone together. It’s one of the biggest games of the year. Being part of the tradition is amazing, so I’m excited to hopefully get a dub (win).”
Churchill holds a 2-1 edge against Clark in the playoffs, and beat the Cougars 16-14 for the city championship in 1987. Led by quarterback Alex Van Pelt, now an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers, the Chargers rallied from a 14-0 deficit to advance to the state quarterfinals.
McGhee was a senior on the Clark team that lost to Churchill twice in 1987.
“I remember that game,” McGhee said. “We both had good teams.”