This feature is not meant to call out another prep sports media outlet for a list on the top 50 active wins leaders in boys basketball for the nation, but to shed light on and honor the magnificent careers of St. Vincent de Paul head coach Tom Bonfigli, Riverside J.W. North head coach Mike Bartee and Torrance Bishop Montgomery head coach Doug Mitchell who weren’t on the list but also are among that group. Bonfigli met with us in the aftermath of a tragedy at his school. Bartee is closing in on his 800th win and reflected on his career.
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Gary McKnight of Mater Dei (Santa Ana) and his 1,214 career wins coming into the season is now the No. 1 active win total for a coach in the nation. He and Don Lippi, currently at St. Joseph Notre Dame, and sitting on 909 career victories (not including forfeits), were both on a recently published list by MaxPreps of the nation’s top 50 active coaching leaders. Also on the list was La Canada’s Tom Hoffman, who is still going strong and began this season with 779 victories.
We know more than anyone that it’s very difficult to get any type of list like that completely correct, but three from California that were left off were Tom Bonfigli from St. Vincent de Paul of Petaluma, Mike Bartee from J.J. North of Riverside and Doug Mitchell from Bishop Montgomery of Torrance. Bonfigli later was added on.
The Bonfather is going strong and
still on call at St. Vincent de Paul
To those that have played for him from his very first team at Cardinal Newman (Santa Rosa) in 1981-1982, to his current players as well as the entire community at St. Vincent de Paul of Petaluma, Mustangs’ boys head coach Tom Bonfigli is known as The Bonfather – and why not?
According to the Cal-Hi Sports Online Record Book, Bonfigli is the No. 7 all time winningest coach in California history, No. 5 among active coaches in the state, and No. 2 among active coaches in the CIF North Coast Section.
Overall, Bonfigli currently sits at No. 3 all time in the NCS behind Don Lippi of Alameda St. Joseph Notre Dame who came into the season with 909 career wins (not including forfeits), and the late Mike Phelps who had 843 wins at the old Alameda St. Joseph and Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland.
His current St. Vincent de Paul team was sitting at 3-3 this season heading into a Wednesday night game at home versus Redwood Christian of San Lorenzo and after a loss to San Domenico (San Anselmo) in the St. Vincent de Paul Winter Showdown last week. With the three wins this season, Bonfigli had 836 career coaching victories. That means if Bonfigli and his Mustangs can win eight more games this season, The Bonfather will pass Phelps and move up on the all time list in the record Book.
Based on the published list, Bonfigli would have entered the season at No. 28 all time in the nation.
We caught up with The Bonfather last Friday night when his team was a semifinal winner in the Showdown over Point Arena, and then last Sunday for breakfast after tragedy struck the St. Vincent de Paul community on Friday night.
Shortly after the Friday night game against Point Arena as he was locking up the gym, Associate Athletic Director Gary von Raesfeld, an icon of his own in the school’s community, who had been regularly sending in nominations to Cal-Hi Sports for St. Vincent de Paul student-athletes for over 30 years, and also knew everything there was to know about Mustang sports, took ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. He died the next day.
Bonfigli still kept the breakfast date on Sunday before going to mass, but the talk to start was not about his coaching, but about von Raesfeld and what he meant to those whose lives he touched, including yours truly.
They couldn’t keep the news away from the team and prior to playing the championship game on Saturday they got the word. The host team was already an underdog to San Domenico, but the 60-26 defeat likely wasn’t indicative of what might have been.
“My whole team was crying in the locker room before they had to play the championship game,” Bonfigli said. “There was sadness draped over everyone and it was an emotional time for me as well. Gary is just not replaceable.”
When the discussion turned to basketball and being left off the list, Bonfigli was looking at the bigger picture.
“Being left off doesn’t bother me,” Bonfigli remarked. “I’m just glad I’m alive and healthy and have a number.”
Bonfigli, who did two stints at Cardinal Newman sandwiched around a stop at Justin-Siena (Napa) before coming to St. Vincent de Paul, is still not quite ready to retire even at 69-years-old.
“Retire? To what?” Bonfigli said. “You retire when you finish and you’re done with what you want to do.”
“My wife is okay with me coaching and we’ve agreed to take things one year at a time,” Bonfigli continued. “I’m committed to next season and then we’ll make a decision.”
Part of the reason The Bonfather wants to go one more season is three players that he knew nothing about other than they were quality basketball players, transferred to St. Vincent de Paul for academics and to play for him. According to The Bonfather, all three are talented.
Unfortunately for the school, the team and Bonfigli, the CIF North Coast Section, which regularly denies eligibility more than any other section we know of in the state, declared the three players ineligible citing “athletic motivation” according to Bonfigli.
“Our league is tough and we’ll win our share of games this year,” said Bonfigli, who has won two CIFNCS Division IV championships, two D4 NorCal titles, 16 North Bay League championships, and one league championship at Justin-Siena. “But we’re going to be tough next season.”
Bartee to retire with a milestone
after satisfying and successful career
Mike Bartee, who has announced his retirement from his alma mater at the end of this season, would be No. 40 on the nationwide active coaching list. The 73-year-old 1967 graduate of J.W. North and a member of its second graduating class, had 792 career wins entering this season.
His current Huskies were 7-6 after an 81-38 victory over La Quinta, and that means when his team takes the court on December 26 in the Damien Tournament against Salesian of Los Angeles, the wily veteran will be going for career win No. 800. According to the Cal-Hi Sports Online Record Book, only 11 coaches have reached that milestone, and on the recently published nationwide list he would be only the 39th coach, including Bonfigli, to reach 800 career victories.
Bartee might have reached 800 sooner and been higher up on the list had he not retired once already after the 2008 season.
After his first year as a head coach at Perris in 1982, he came to JW North and taught PE and began coaching in 1983. Then, in 1984 an administrative position opened up as the Assistant Principal for Discipline and he took the job, but there was a caveat. They wanted him to stop coaching.
“Initially they wanted me to stop coaching but I said I have to coach,” Bartee said. “They let me do both and that was unprecedented at the time.”
When he got close to retirement as an administrator, he also decided to retire from coaching as they really wanted to hire a teacher as the head coach.
“For three years I stayed out of the gym,” Bartee remarked. “I didn’t go to games and didn’t watch games. I didn’t want the new coaching staff thinking I was looking over their shoulders.”
Then, in 2012, the job opened up again and when they couldn’t find a teacher they asked Bartee to come back basically on an interim basis.
“They asked me to come back for a year and I agreed to it,” Bartee said. “And one year turned into 12 years.”
Bartee was aware 800 wins is on the horizon but he really wasn’t concerned about making the list and wasn’t even aware of the story. What he really wanted to talk about the impact he’s had on the lives of the student-athletes he’s come in contact with.
“I think it’s always the same,” said Bartee, who has won 26 league titles and four CIF Southern Section championships. “It’s not about wins and losses. In our community, it’s about the kids we had coming back and thanking us for preparing them for the world.”
What will Bartee miss most when he retires?
“Gosh, let me think a minute,” Bartee said while contemplating. “I’m not a guy that ever looks back but to me the most satisfying thing is the relationships.”
“Not just the kids,” Bartee continued. “It’s the officials, the scorekeeper, and the clock guy that comes all the way from the high desert and rarely missed a game. Yes it’s the kids, but those other relationships are important too.”
Bartee lives in a 55 and older community with a golf course so he will be playing more golf, but what else lies ahead?
“I’ll have more time to spend with my grandchildren and some time to do some traveling,” Bartee answered. “It’s time once again to give the new coaches a chance.”
Bishop Montgomery’s Mitchell
Will Never Forget 2017
Last but far from least is Doug Mitchell.
Besides coming into the season with 759 career coaching victories (not including forfeits), Mitchell has won four CIF state championships, including the 2017 Open Division title. That was one year removed from the 35-0 season at Chino Hills and not only did the Knights win the CIF Southern Section Open Division and CIF state titles over a field that included the Huskies (who still had LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball) but also Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth (which was led by future NBA lottery pick Marvin Bagley).
At the end of the 2017 season, Mitchell was not the State Coach of the Year since he had already received that honor after 2014. But one of his players, guard Ethan Thompson (later starred at Oregon State), was named Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year.
With 759 victories in a career that began in 1990 at South of Torrance and has continued to 33 years at Bishop Montgomery, Mitchell was No. 15 and No. 8 among active coaches according to the Cal-Hi Sports Online Record book to start the current season. He also should have claimed a spot on the active top 50 national coaching list.
Mitchell captured the 700th win of his career during the 2018 season. He said after that game to the South Bay Daily Breeze: “I always said that if I lost the fire, if I lost the passion, I would step away. But I feel like I can coach for a few more years.”
That was four years ago so Coach Mitchell obviously still has the fire.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend