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A Mannion is winning at Silverton, too

SILVERTON — This town of 9,300 is a slice of Americana, a few miles east of Interstate-5 in country that is lined with fields bearing a variety crops.

The area has its charm, known most for the Oregon Garden, Silver Falls State Park, a cross-dressing mayor and ... now ... Silverton High football.

The Foxes are 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the Class 5A ranks as they play host to second-ranked West Albany in a Mid-Willamette Conference showdown Friday night. After crushing Corvallis 49-0 — 49-0! — last Friday, “the town is buzzing,” Silverton High principal Mark Hannan says.

When John Mannion took over the program as head coach in 2010, Silverton had won one playoff game since 1994. Before he accepted the job, a local college coach warned him, “It’s a neat town, but off the beaten path and not a hotbed for talent.”

“When I interviewed, I said, ‘I don’t know about wins or losses, but I know if you do it right, you can put a product that people can be proud of,’ ” Mannion says. “I’m talking about the way the kids handle themselves, and competing hard.”

If the Mannion name rings familiar, it’s because the oldest of his four children, Sean, is the starting quarterback for 18th-ranked Oregon State.

No, Sean Mannion doesn’t hail from Silverton, His father followed him north from Pleasanton, Calif., where he had coached for 14 years at Foothill High, which typically battles powerful De La Salle of Concord for supremacy in its league. During Sean’s junior and senior years, Foothill lost to De La Salle in the sectional finals.

John Mannion, 44, is best friends with Foothill’s head coach, Matt Sweeney. When Sweeney took a year’s sabbatical in 2007 to watch his daughter play her senior season of soccer, Mannion took over as head coach. They served as co-head coaches in ‘08 and ‘09, but Mannion longed for his own program. He was also Foothill’s athletic director, “and the budget situation was getting bad,” he says.

So when Sean headed for Oregon State, his father started sniffing around the state, too.

“A lot of people assume it was to follow Sean,” he says. “It’s been nice to be close (to his son), but I have four kids. I’d been an assistant coach for a lot of years. That was part of it. There were a lot of elements involved.”

The Mannions had lived in the Bay Area for years. A decision on making the move didn’t come easy.

“I’m pretty conservative when it comes to things like that,” John says. “This was way outside the box for me.”

Mannion interviewed for two jobs — Silverton and Sunset. He had a second interview at Sunset and felt good about his chances, but the school couldn’t promise teaching jobs for John and his wife, Inga.

Hannan, meanwhile, had put together a search committee with landing a classroom teacher as well as a coach a high priority.

“When he stepped out of the room after the interview, we said, ‘We don’t need to interview anybody else. He’s it,’ " Hannan says. “It doesn’t make sense to hire a good coach but not have that carry over into the classroom. I got the sense he would be as good a teacher as he is coaching on the football field.”

Mannion liked that Silverton had opened a high school with new athletic facilities in 2009. He accepted a job coaching and teaching economics, U.S. history and physical education. Inga is teaching English language development to mostly Hispanic students.

“The hardest part is, I’m super close to my family and friends (in the Bay Area),” Mannion says. “It was hard to leave. But we’ve settled in, we’ve made good friends. The family makes visits here often. It’s been good to start anew.

“And now that’s all is settled in, being close to Corvallis has been nice. I can go down and watch practice. I can go down and have dinner with Sean.”

Silverton hadn’t had much success in recent years prior to Mannion’s arrival. He didn’t promise an immediate turnaround.

“The biggest thing is to control what you can control,” he says. “Hustle, commitment level, being prepared, offseason work, getting the guys to believe.”

Like many programs, the Foxes award stickers on helmets for achievements. But theirs are always given to every player based on team success.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing a guy with 50 stickers and another with three, and the guy with three works just as hard,” Mannion says. “We’re all in this together. Every guy is valued. Every guy is going to get coached. If you do that, you get the kids to feel like they’re all important.”

In Mannion’s first season in 2010, Silverton went 4-5. Last year, the Foxes were 8-3 and beat Eagle Point in a play-in game before losing to Ashland 43-35 in the first round of the playoffs. After a season-opening 25-21 win over Springfield this year, they’ve blown out their last three opponents 116-6, including the whitewash of Corvallis.

“I told my players, ‘That’s the kind of program you want to be like,’ " Mannion says. The Spartans “have won state championships. They’re always up there. We want to get ourselves where people recognize you as that kind of program.”

Hannan says the Foxes are “exceeding all expectations” under Mannion.

“He has made it an expectation that you’re going to work hard to be in his program,” the Silverton principal says. “The thing he sells kids on, if you work hard, football is the type of sport at the high school level where you don’t have to be the best athlete to be a good player.

“In this community, that resonates. We have a lot of kids who don’t grow up in youth football programs like some bigger schools. They get to Silverton High and he sells them on a work ethic, and now they’re seeing results. It has blown up. It’s clear in year three, his hard work and the kids’ hard work is paying off on the field.”

That doesn’t surprise Mannion’s son. Sean has been hanging out with his father’s football teams since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.

“Dad really got me to love the game,” the OSU sophomore says. “From going to his practices, playing catch in the front yard, teaching me a lot about the game, helping me become a quarterback — he’s probably been the biggest influence on my life of anyone.

“He’s a great coach. The one thing I really like about my dad, he works tremendously hard. He doesn’t take anything for granted. He takes advantage of every day. The hard work he puts into coaching inspires me to work even harder in my career.”

Sean Mannion is a chip off the old block. Both Mannions are soft-spoken, humble, given to deflecting praise to others.

“People say, I heard Sean talk; he sounds like you,’ " John says. “In some ways, he’s like me. In some ways, he’s like my wife.

“I’m more intense. He’s a bit more laid-back. I’m wound more tight. He rolls with stuff. That’s like my wife. It’s a blend.”

During a 45-minute conversation at Mannion’s Silverton High office, he gets emotional only once — when he speaks about his relationship with his son and their time together on a football field.

“Football was a great thing for Sean and me — the father-son thing,” John says. “He was on the sidelines for our Springfield game. He had been our ball boy from the first grade. Last year was the first time I’ve not coached with Sean on the sideline in about 12 years.

“It’s been a really positive thing. Wins and losses aside, it’s a shared experience that’s pretty cool.”

Sean says the family’s move with him to Oregon was good for everyone.

“He wanted to be a head coach of his own program for a long time,” Sean says. “I was excited for him, and I was excited my family would be so close. Just an hour away, they come to all our games, and I can run home for a weekend if I want to.”

The senior Mannion is having a blast building one of the state’s premier 5A programs.

“I love going to practice,” he says. “Our players are great guys. They’re fun, they work hard, they get it. It’s an enjoyable group to coach. You know they’re dialed in.”

Next comes the biggest challenge of the Mannion era at Silverton.

“We’re happy to be 4-0, but we know West Albany is a dominant team,” he says. The Bulldogs “have been up there for a long time among the state’s best teams. We’re underdogs, and we know that. It’s a huge challenge.

“I told the players, ‘By winning the first four games, you’ve made the first five games important.’ The next step is Friday.”