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As soon as Joe Bates returned home, the upper trajectory for Skyline football was taking hold.
Bates, a Skyline alum himself who graduated in 2004 and was named as one of the top players in the Bay Area during a sensational football career, took the head job at his alma mater starting with the 2016 season. But it would not be an easy fix, at least not on paper, as the Titans were coming off a one-win campaign.
“When I took over the program, they were 1-10,” Bates said. “They let everyone into the playoffs that year, so they got that extra game, so when I was an assistant coach that one year, we went 1-10. I took over. The morale was down.”
In Bates’ playing days and before, Skyline was a giant. And it was just waiting to be awakened again.
When Bates was a senior, Skyline won the Silver Bowl – the last time the program came out with the trophy – and was continuing on a tradition of excellence only mirrored at a select few schools in the state and across the country.
For years, the football program was tallying big win after big win and producing great player after great player. Davone Bess played in the NFL. So did Will Blackwell. Theotis Brown.
“It’s a school that was up there with De La Salle for decades, and it was a top program in NorCal for years,” Bates said. “The 70s, 80s and 90s and the first few years of the 2000s.”
What Bates and his staff did when they took over was strip the team of everything they knew both mentally and physically. They preached discipline, energy and the ability to finish. Their motto was “finish strong” during Bates’ inaugural 2016 campaign.
And what they also taught the players was the storied tradition of Skyline football – one filled with excellence, star players – like Bates himself, who went on to play at the junior college level before moving up to the University of Toledo – and what has made the school so special.
They made sure there was discipline and that they never let off the gas pedal no matter the circumstances.
“We ran through the whistle,” Bates said. “We didn’t jump offsides. Those little things. We just focused on those little things that helped us out a lot.”
Right away, the Titans began building back to the winning ways the program and school are accustomed to.
Skyline improved to a four-win squad in 2016 and then five in 2017. And when Bates left for one year in 2018 to go to Florida, Skyline won four games but did suffer a tough 94-0 defeat to the hands of McClymonds, who ultimately went on to win their third consecutive state championship in 2018.
As soon as Bates came back, the returns were once again evident.
Just look at what took place in 2019. The Titans went 9-3 and played in the city of Oakland’s pinnacle playoff game, the Silver Bowl, before falling to McClymonds to take a runner-up finish.
“They grew so much,” said Skyline incoming junior defensive lineman Darius Fonteno. “A couple years ago, back like when I wasn’t playing ninth grade year, they did take a major loss against Mack. But this year we made it to the Silver Bowl with Mack and we gave them a challenge. We fought all we could. We did all we could. But we just fought, fought hard, fought together.”
On top of all that, Skyline is also fighting its way up the charts in the classroom.
In Bates’ three years as Skyline’s head coach, the program has never lost a player to grades. Bates said he got a lot from what he learned at Toledo with its academic system, ensuring the players sit in the first two rows of every class, build relationships with instructors and have separate groups for academic progress – a red group (2.0 GPA line), yellow group (under a 3.0 GPA) and a green group.
“Academics is always the emphasis of all the guest speakers that come in. We just pound it. We pound it. We give them tools, communications tools with the teachers. We just try to build those skills up, so they might not be the best academic student, but they’ll get a C just because they’re respectful, they show up, they take notes and they give effort at the worst.”
That fight and toughness on the field and in the classroom has Skyline molding into more when it comes to what will now be the 2021 season after the California Interscholastic Federation announced a new sports calendar for the 2020-21 academic year.
Alumni have been pouring in. They’re donating ties and suits. They want to hold the chains at games. They want to speak to the team.
The Titans also got a new and beautiful locker room last year, another symbol signifying just what is happening in Oakland.
“They want to do all of these different things,” Bates said. “It’s been coming at an alarming rate in a good way. I’m excited about the support we’re getting.”
For the 2020 – now winter/spring 2021 team – Bates is excited about what this year’s group possesses. The last time Skyline won a Silver Bowl was when Bates was a player in 2004, and he believes more is in store for the current group he coaches – one that features a slew of players on the recruiting trail.
Now, the sleeping giants at Skyline have been awakened, and maybe some rings are in store in the Bates era.
“I feel like this team is the most talented team across the board I’ve seen since before I was a senior,” Bates said. “I would supersede it over my senior year. I’m excited about this group. We’ve got a few new pieces added to the puzzle that wasn’t there last year that I’m excited about. Great young men. Great families.”
“It would mean a lot because ever since I’ve been at Skyline, we’ve only had one winning season,” said Skyline incoming do-it-all senior Kweke Garth Jr. “And that would just show much we grew as a program and as players.”
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