Larry Toner’s football past informs his standout role as Servite’s Formation Director

By Richard Dunn     12/31/2014

Father Toner is what they should call him at Servite High School. He’s Larry Toner, also known as Coach Toner, and in many ways he’s the heart of the soul of the all-boys college preparatory Catholic school in Anaheim.

While Toner once patrolled the sidelines as the Friars’ football coach, he has graduated to bigger and more important functions other than football (if you can believe that’s possible in the Trinity League).

It’s the Servite Formation, and Toner sets the tone.

Photo: Courtesy Servite

Photo: Courtesy Servite

What is the Formation? In short, it’s a set of principles, similar to John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. But the Servite Formation is Christ-centered and with a mission to share Jesus’ good news with others. The Formation is preached, taught and executed throughout Servite’s academic, athletic, community and cultural presence.

The mission of the Formation is to foster faith-filled leaders. It is an intentional, systematic direction of the complete student experience, which includes brotherhood, serving, giving, praying and discipleship. About 10 years ago, the Formation became a staple at Servite.

One of the ways to understand Servite—a school rich in traditions of structure, order and discipline—is to understand Toner, who was born in 1939 and is the quintessence of an old-school teacher-coach. Today, his personality and influence resonates throughout the Servite campus in his role as Formation Director.

“Coach (Toner) is the first person our freshmen interact with at Servite during our Freshmen Formation Weekend,” Servite spokesperson Kelly Esperias said. “He addresses them and helps them understand our history and how to live the charisms of the Order of Friar Servants of Mary. His influence over the years has been impactful.”

A former student posted this online comment about Toner on a teacher rating website: “He scared the bejeezus out of us all, literally putting the fear of God into a bunch of petrified 13- and 14-year-olds. He knew exactly what he was doing—cutting across any ethnic lines, instilling work ethic, self-respect, discipline and strength as a group. The man is a legend.”

However, there are some who disagree, especially if they encountered his wrath before political correctness and when parents began to intervene in coaches’ activities, duties and decisions in the 1980s. You might have had his finger in your chest or received a helmet slap. The former Servite football coach was not afraid to intimidate his players or scream at them. He started toning down his intimidating approach before he stepped down as coach in 2004. Still, the discipline remains.

“We have fewer constraints, because we’re private, so I can really push (the students),” Toner said. “I can’t do anything illegal, but I can really lean on you, whereas that might make the public school arena nervous if I lean on them the same way.”

Toner, who grew up in South Dakota, began teaching at Servite in 1970, three years after graduating from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he studied to be a priest. A master linguist, Toner not only speaks six different languages, but can teach every one: English, German, Italian, French, Latin and Spanish.

While the Vietnam War was spreading in Southeast Asia and protesters were burning draft cards in bonfires in the middle of American college campuses, Toner accepted a tranquil lifestyle of mostly studying, learning, praying and meditating. He would walk on cobblestone streets around the university in Rome for four years, learning to become a priest. His summers were spent at an abbey in France, just six miles from the Normandy beaches.

For four years, Toner stayed at the 17th century Normandy abbey every summer. It was strict. There was no talking. The priests took a vow of silence.

Toner returned to the United States in 1967 and decided that becoming a priest was not in his future. When he was interviewing for a teaching position at Servite in 1970, the principal asked him if he could do anything besides teach in the classroom. “I can coach basketball,” Toner said.

“What about football?” Servite Principal Father Charles Motsko asked. “If you want the job (in the foreign languages department), you have to coach football.”

And a legend was born.