Fifty years ago, Foothill High was inviting students through its doors for the first time, and Ned Permenter didn't fancy himself a football coach.
My, how half a century will change things.
On Saturday afternoon, as Foothill celebrates its golden anniversary, the school will rename its Trojan Stadium for the man who coached the Trojans' football team for 37 of those first 50 years.
That would be Ned Permenter, who now spends most of his days doting on his three granddaughters and spending free time watching football and fishing at his home in the mountains north of Bakersfield.
"I'll tell you what: You never, ever think that something like this is going to happen," said Permenter, with typical humility. "It's just a dream."
Ned Permenter Stadium. It certainly fits, but what's in a name?
Well, 220 victories, third-most in Central Section history, and just 157 losses in those 37 years. Eight league championships in an era when every team in town was in the same league and Foothill, on the outskirts of town, always seemed like a perennial underdog. Landmark victories like the one that snapped Bakersfield High's 27-game winning streak in 1965 and a win over defending state champion Anaheim four years later.
But if you really want to know about Ned Permenter, you have to look beyond the numbers. Remember instead the boys he coached and the men they became.
“That’s what I really feel good about, is the people who are just winners in life,” Permenter said. “The most important thing is when they come back and say they had a good time in football. You forget the scores and wins and losses; the fact they say, ‘Hey, it was fun.’ That’s what I enjoy the most.”
Two of his players, Rashaan Shehee and Joey Porter, went on to have NFL careers — Porter as a four-time All-Pro — but to Permenter, they’re but two of many to be proud of.
Permenter, 74, is fond of saying his doctor, Bill Baker, and dentist, John Alexander, are former players, as was his last boss at Foothill, principal Joe Thompson. The list also includes countless educators, former police chief Steve Brummer and Kern County supervisor Mike Maggard.
“Sometimes, when you get my age, the joy of the wins is replaced by seeing how well your players are doing in life,” Permenter said. “That’s what I think about the most. Everybody loves the guys who go onto college and pros, but I think about how blessed we were to have all these guys who were successful in life.”
And if they played for Permenter, they loved Permenter.
“I’m one of hundreds who would tell you they would do anything for Ned Permenter,” Maggard said.
Same for Jim Wooster, who was a senior and the Californian’s Back of the Year in 1969 and is now an educator of special-needs students.
“He was a father figure to us all,” Wooster said. “Not the father you were afraid of, but the father you didn’t want to disappoint. I wasn’t afraid of his yelling and screaming, though he did do that. But we all just cared about him so much. We had that respect for him. We didn’t want to disappoint him.”
The players also had fun. Maggard remembers drills where Permenter would ask to hear, “‘You guys rip and snort and holler.’ So we lean down and look between our legs and we all snorted and hollered and yelled — and then we fall to the ground just laughing so hard.”
That’s not to say Permenter wasn’t strict with players at a school where problems didn’t always stay on the field.
“He felt his duty was to keep those kids on the straight and narrow,” said Bob Ezell, who assisted Permenter for all 37 years he coached varsity football. “He was firm, and they really appreciated him. They understood later why he did what he did. He did such a great job handling all of our athletes.
“He’s just one of a kind.”
He almost was a one-of-a-kind something else. When Permenter talks about his past, there’s one word that keeps coming up: “serendipity.” He speaks of two forks in the road and decisions he made — and those made for him — that could easily have made him something other than the face of Foothill’s first 50 years.
The first came in 1962, when Permenter — who grew up in Wasco and attended Bakersfield College for a year — was coaching baseball at another alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. He starred in both sports at Wasco and in college, but he considered himself a better baseball player until knee injuries derailed his career — another serendipitous moment.
“It’s a blessing I didn’t make it, really,” Permenter said. “I know many of my high school and college teammates who played three, four years in the minor leagues, and that’s it.”
Anyway, about that fork in the road. Permenter was on a recruiting trip for Santa Barbara when then-Foothill football coach and athletic director Harvel Pollard called and asked him to coach the Trojans’ first baseball team.
“I almost never should have been to Foothill,” Permenter said. “I turned Harvel down twice. I wanted to stay at Santa Barbara. But this was a rough recruiting trip, and he called me again that night.
“And I don’t know why, but I said, ‘OK, I’m coming.’ But if I’d not said yes then, who knows what would have happened?”
So he came to the new school in southeast Bakersfield — which, really, at that time, wasn’t in Bakersfield at all — and coached a baseball team that didn’t yet have a home field.
After three years of that, Pollard asked, or perhaps told, Permenter to become the head football coach. Here’s the second fork.
“I didn’t want to coach football; I really didn’t,” said Permenter, who also taught physical education. “I knew in baseball, nobody said anything bad to you. But in football, they’ll let you know about it. But Harvel said, ‘No, we’re appointing you,’ and I went home that night and just had a lump in my stomach. I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ But I stayed around a long time.
“Really, when you think about it, this might never have come about. And I’m really blessed to see that.”
But he did it, and it wasn’t long before folks discovered he could coach football, too. In 1965, the Trojans downed a Bakersfield program so good that some say the Central Section quit awarding championships because BHS was winning them all. Foothill won that game 12-9 when Steve Johnson intercepted a Drillers pass in the end zone.
“At first, I didn’t have any confidence in myself in football, and I was going into a league with some veterans,” Permenter said. “Bakersfield was almost 5,000 students back then, and North and South and East all had veteran coaches. I was just a rookie. I knew I was in some deep water. But I was really blessed to have a great bunch of kids and a loyal assistant in Bob Ezell. After a while, it got to be a lot of fun.”
Four years after the monumental BHS victory, a typical Permenter motivational ploy inspired the Trojans against state powerhouse Anaheim and its star linebacker, Mo Rodriguez.
“We were scared to death,” Wooster said. “So we went to practice, and coach says to me, ‘Hey Wooster.’
“I go, ‘What?’
“He said, ‘The coach from Anaheim called me up and said Mo Rodriguez had a message for you: After the game, you won’t want no Mo.’
“Here I am, 17 years old, and I didn’t know he was telling me a story. I was so dang mad. So we’re ahead 8-7 at halftime, and I come off the field at Memorial Stadium, pounding my chest, just screaming, ‘I want some Mo! Gimme some Mo!’ And they looked at me like, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ But Ned just had a way of getting to you.”
Years passed, and the dynamics of high school football changed toward the end of Permenter’s career. Schools popped up in west Bakersfield, district lines shifted, playoff divisions changed and Foothill, which Permenter led to section runner-up finishes in 1969 and 1976, became something of an afterthought.
And yet here was Permenter with his right-hand man Ezell, finding ways to change that.
After Friday night games, he would write newspaper stories on the varsity, junior varsity and freshman level games and publish a 20-page paper the following Monday, selling it for a dollar to raise money for the program.
“He woke up every day with a smile on his face; he couldn’t wait to go to school,” said Permenter’s wife, Virginia. “Then he’d come back with a smile on his face. I’d say, ‘What the heck is wrong with you? I don’t like going to work that much.’ But he never stopped loving it.”
Through it all, he kept changing lives. In the mid-1990s, Porter and a few other Trojans made a few flashy uniform adjustments at halftime of a game they trailed 14-7 to Tulare Western — much to the chagrin of their old-school coach
Permenter told them they couldn’t play in the second half, but when the players begged back in, he relented on one condition.
“I said, ‘You guys can play until we have to punt for the first time in the second half,’” Permenter said. “Then I’m putting the other guys in.”
Consider that message, like many of Permenter’s, heard loud and clear: Foothill didn’t punt again and won the game in a blowout.
“The Tulare Western coach came to me at halftime with a slip of paper,” Permenter said. “He said, ‘You have go to write down for me what you told your guys at halftime.’”
That legend, and so many others, belong to Ned Permenter, the name that will now be etched forever on the side of the stadium where he coached teams who won and men who won.
“Ned Permenter taught me how to win, and he taught me how by being prepared and persevering, if even just a little bit longer than your opponent,” said Maggard, the county supervisor. “He taught me how to resist intimidation and how to lose graciously.
“The thousands of young people he touched is just a stellar record of character he’s always exhibitied, the integrity he instilled in us. There couldn’t be a more deserving man of this honor.”