On the eve of the football season, the Merced College football program finds itself in a precarious situation: without a head coach.
Athletic director Steve Cassady confirmed Thursday evening that Mark Kaanapu has left the program after just one season, reportedly taking a position at Portland State as running backs coach and recruitment coordinator.
On Wednesday, the Portland Tribune announced that Portland State’s first-year head coach Nigel Burton had added two assistants to his staff: assistant defensive lines coach Richard Seigler and an unnamed assistant with head coaching experience and “recruiting connections in California.”
Cassady said the unnamed coach is indeed Kaanapu. “It is Portland State,” Cassady said.
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“He had a great opportunity and had to take it,” he added, saying the school would wait through the weekend to make any formal announcements about a successor or hiring search.
“We have to wait for the dust to settle and take a couple of steps over the weekend. What I worry about is the players.”
A message left on Kaanapu’s cell phone wasn’t returned by press time.
The news stunned a program making its final paces toward fall’s first official kickoff. Merced College opens the season on Sept. 11 at home against San Joaquin Delta.
Football conditioning classes are scheduled to begin next week, and as of now the Blue Devils are without a leader. It’s still unclear who will teach the classes or when exactly they begin next week, Cassady said.
Assistant coach Bob Casey first heard of Kaanapu’s departure through text messages on Thursday while teaching a summer school class.
He was surprised, but understands that opportunities to advance in this profession are rare.
“Obviously, it’s a D-I opportunity, (so) you could see why he would do that,” Casey said. “I’m still trying to collect a lot of information myself. Without a doubt it’s a surprise. I had no inkling he was going or that there was even an opportunity out there.
“That’s college football,” he later added. “That’s what happens.”
Kaanapu was picked to succeed longtime coach and former Blue Devil player Tony Lewis in the spring of 2009 after a lengthy, tight-lipped national search by the college.
Kaanapu was lured away from Menlo College, where he spent nine seasons as the head coach. He was lauded as an offensive guru and academic watchdog.
“After a careful and thorough national search, we are very excited that coach Kaanapu has decided to lead the Merced College Blue Devil football program,” Merced College president Dr. Ben Duran said on the school’s website at the time of Kaanapu’s hiring.
“The pool of candidates was very strong and we are most fortunate to have landed a coach of Mark’s stature and commitment to young people.”
His commitment to Merced College didn’t last long.
Just the fifth head coach in program history, Kaanapu inherited a sputtering football program that had won just nine games in its previous three seasons.
Merced College won its first two games under Kaanapu decisively, posting double-digit victories over Monterey Peninsula (33-21) and DeAnza College (27-12).
Then the wheels came off.
The Blue Devils lost seven of their last eight games, including four straight to close the season. Their lone victory over that stretch was a 42-20 Golden Gate Conference win over Chabot College on Oct. 17 at Don Odishoo Field.
In a July 15 story that appeared in the Sun-Star, Kaanapu expressed his excitement for the upcoming season.
“If you look at our schedule, we arguably have the toughest nonconference schedule in Northern California,” he said. “We have Modesto, Fresno, Delta and (College of the Sequoias, and then West Hills and Diablo Valley coming into the GGC. So we actually have six A-level teams on our schedule.
“The kids are kind of relishing that challenge, however. The players have taken the lead in terms of getting done what they have to get done in the spring and now in the summer, as far as in the weight room and in the classroom.
“There's a work ethic there. They’re getting themselves prepared for the season to come and we think we’re going to compete.
“Our kids want to play the best. And with this schedule, I think they’re certainly going to do that.”
They just have to do it without Kaanapu, who, coincidentally, will follow former Merced College tight-end Kyle McMillin to the Big Sky school in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s an opportunity at a four-year school,” Cassady said, “and we’re certainly not going to stand in the way of that.”