The term “legend” is often-overused. To be a bona fide legend, particularly in the realm of sports, an individual must do something or have a history of achievements that is truly remarkable – something few others will ever attain. After considerable reflection, it must be concluded that the term aptly applies to Trent Merzon; he is indeed a sports legend. But his legend is such that it will certainly transcend merely his won/loss record. It’s more about the product he has provided the Oakdale community.
Merzon recently announced his retirement as the head varsity coach of the Oakdale Mustangs football program. His tenure spanned 23 years. In those 23 years, Merzon led his alma mater’s varsity football team to an incredible record of 225-62-1, which amounts to an average of more than 10 wins a year for more than 20 years, an achievement held by few other California coaches.
Mark Tennis of Cal-Hi Sports indicated that “Trent’s total of 78.1 percent looks like it would be in the top 10 and probably closer to the top 5, just going by (California) public schools.” Included in Merzon’s amazing record are 13 Valley Oak League titles, 11 appearances in Sac-Joaquin Section championship games winning four of them, three appearances in Northern California championship games winning two of them, and two appearances in the California state championship game, winning the 2016 game. Clearly, those are legendary numbers.
Longtime Merzon assistant coach and friend, Tim Meyer, says that Merzon as a coach “is a mastermind with the strategies of football, changing formations, tempo, running the same play using different formations and looks. Making big decisions during the game and his ability to make adjustments (gives) the players the best opportunity to be successful.”
Sitting in the home bleachers of the Corral where he both played and coached, looking out at the field with its prominent 50-yard line Mustang logo, Merzon reflected on his coaching career. After graduating from Oakdale High School in 1985, Merzon attended California State University, Hayward (now known as California State University, East Bay) and Delta College before ending up at Iowa’s University of Dubuque. He played football for all three institutions and added a season of baseball to his time at Dubuque, from which he earned his bachelor’s degree.
What drew him to coaching is an interesting story in and of itself. The short version, according to Merzon, was, “I wasn’t good at anything else.” One who digs deeper, however, will find a wonderful story that cuts to the very essence of football. Merzon, by his own admission, found his freshman year at CSU, Hayward disenchanting. A teammate, a senior on the Pioneers, suggested that Merzon pay a visit to the teammate’s former high school coach, who just happened to be the head coach of the Manteca Buffaloes, Mick Founts. Merzon, playing quarterback, had led the Mustangs to victory over Founts’ Buffaloes during both his junior and senior seasons. Merzon relates how he paid a visit to Founts in the latter’s English Language Arts classroom at Manteca High and, after about two hours, was so impressed that he would have “…followed (Founts) anywhere.”
Founts had recently taken a coaching position at Stockton’s Delta College and offered Merzon a position on the team, where he went on to play. Years later, after graduation from the University of Dubuque, Merzon and Founts crossed paths once again. The now Doctor Founts, had risen to Assistant Superintendent of San Joaquin County Public Schools (he would later be elected Superintendent), and offered Merzon his first teaching job in a Manteca alternative education classroom. In 1992, Merzon would find his way back to his Alma Mater OHS where he would come under the tutelage of head football coach Marc Malone and head baseball coach Rob Steves (Merzon also served as a coach in the Mustang baseball program for 10-years.) In the football program he served as a freshman coach, head JV coach, and varsity offensive coordinator until taking over as head varsity coach after Malone had moved from teaching/coaching into administration at the end of the 1999-2000 school year. He also earned his California teaching credential and became a health education and physical education teacher.
It certainly is a bit ironic that the individual who would give the eventual Mustang head football coach his first job in education was the former coach of the Manteca Buffaloes – arguably one of the Mustangs’ most profound rivals during Merzon’s tenure as head football coach.
“This game transcends uniform colors; it transcends communities,” said Merzon. “It is something very few people can even remotely relate to. It’s a brotherhood.”
Merzon and his wife Spring would go on to name their son Mick after Founts.
“It’s why I’m so connected to the Buffaloes and have so much respect for the Valley Oak League and what our rivalry represents,” added Merzon.
Reflecting on his 23 seasons as head Mustang coach, Merzon shared that the most enjoyable thing about being head coach was “…getting to work with likeminded human beings, who have a growth mindset, and getting to give back to my community.”
While Merzon really did not enjoy coaching the games themselves (“I never enjoyed allowing people to measure what we do predicated on what the scoreboard dictates, because I don’t think that a scoreboard measures what truly happened on that Friday night”), he truly loved being around his players and practices. “I honestly came to practice every day and loved where I was. Not one time did I come to practice or to a Saturday morning session with my staff when I did not want to be there.”
When asked what he will miss most about being a head coach, Merzon noted, “I’m going to miss watching film with a purpose. I’m going to miss the Xs and Os and creating offensive stuff behind the scenes. I’m also going to miss having fun with our kids.”
Merzon gives great credit to his “tremendous group of assistant coaches through the years,” who have become “very close friends, especially Tim Meyer.” He will miss working with them. He stated that he and his assistant coaches “are not what people think we are. We are not the prototypical dumb jock football coaches. We are intelligent, we love our kids, and we have fun. We talk to them and with them. We develop a relationship.” In particular, that relationship has always included high expectations.
Merzon once said on camera that his job entailed a great deal of pressure. But that pressure was not about winning or losing. “The pressure was to provide a product that our community could be proud of … to live up to a standard or expectation that I have placed on myself, which is to never let down my heroes: Marc Malone, Rob Steves, Dale Clipper (my coach), John Quaccia, and Jack Walker. I did not want to disappoint them.”
Merzon also feels the community puts more emphasis on the product than the win-loss record.
“What our community wants is a product they can be proud of.”
According to Merzon, that product would include players who “respond as we should in dealing with adversity. Our community wants a team that plays hard and honors them with their style – where you come back from defeats; where you continue to fight, to play with honor, to be tough and resilient.”
Merzon gives a great deal of credit for his perseverance as a highly successful head coach to his faith and his family.
“My Christian faith is easily the single most important thing that has continued my tenure here. I truly feel it is what God has asked me to do.” Additionally, Merzon says, “You can’t do what I do and be good at it without a supportive wife – it’s impossible.”
He went on to relate that his average work day during football season is 13 to 14 hours, beginning Monday through Friday at 6 a.m. with weight training and running late into the evening. Saturday mornings are consumed with film and coaching strategy sessions and he’s in his classroom working on football for 4 to 5 hours on Sundays.
Merzon also expressed great pride in the Merzon children, Mick, an OHS senior, and Morgan, a sophomore. “They have thrived within this system. That has kept me going.”
When asked what advice he would give to his successor, Merzon did not hesitate: “Have a growth mindset. Every single day you need to get better. Too many young coaches today think they know everything right now and they are looking for short cuts.”
He went on to note that a strong work ethic is crucial as are communication skills.
“You have to be able to articulate your thoughts. But you also have to be able to read a room; you should not treat everyone the same. And you should approach different athletes with different modalities.”
Nearing the end of the interview, Merzon gazed out on the Corral, with his son across the field working alone on conditioning drills to make him a successful college football player, and his daughter in the endzone doing conditioning drills with the Mustang softball team, and said, “It’s beautiful that we are doing this interview here. This stadium holds so many memories – lots of ghosts here.”
Merzon continued: “Any time we played at home I thought it was a blessing. Coming out in this stadium means everything to me.”
He shared that he also liked going on the road to play. “There’s nothing like playing on the road and seeing more red in the stands than what is sitting on the other side of the stadium.”
Merzon also expressed some dismay that attendance has seemed to diminish over the past few years. Additionally, he noted, “I miss hearing fans cheering after the play and not waiting to hear who made the tackle … People are no longer cheering for the Mustangs. They are cheering for their own child. When I got into coaching it wasn’t like that. We now live in a highlight film world where everyone thinks the highlight is going to define who they are. It doesn’t.”
As a coach, Merzon’s teams often faced opponents who were bigger, faster, and stronger and, as his record proves, the Mustangs usually prevailed.
“We found a way to get things done. Our guys are OKGs (Oakdale Kind of Guys). This is about Oakdale people. Those are the kids I want. We figured out how to put the best product possible on the field then we’d do everything we could do to be successful. If we weren’t, we’d worry about the next opponent. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 23-years.”
Assistant coach and former Mustang player under Merzon, Zack Quaccia, attests to the Merzon style of coaching: “I have had the privilege of being coached by and coaching with Trent the past few years and can honestly say I cannot think of anyone else that I would choose to follow onto the field more than Coach Merzon. The Merzon era of Mustangs football will be the new standard for future coaches of all programs.”
Meyer chimed in that Merzon is a masterful leader who has “the ability to get young men to work together as one unit to execute a game plan, getting the best out of (them) and getting them to believe in themselves, their teammates, and the system.”
Meyer concluded that Merzon is “a great football mind and a great leader.”
The Merzon product has been the stuff of legend for certain. So many of Merzon’s players from years past have gone on to be great parents, successes in the workplace, and wonderful human beings, in part due to traits instilled in them by Merzon and his assistant coaches. In essence, he did what he set out to do. As he departs his head coaching duties, Merzon can certainly look back and see what an incredible legacy he has left for the community he loves.
“You are never going to find anyone who loves this place more than me,” he concluded. “I love it because it gave me an opportunity to have a career that my kids can take pride in.”
It is also a career in which the people of Oakdale should take great pride.