Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Look Back at 300 - Part 2 Learning to Swim

This is the second in a series of a look back at my first 300 games as a coach. You can read Part 1 here.

Last week I talked about my nerve-wracking initial days at Fountain Valley High (1994), from being thrown into a deep playbook with entirely new concepts, to actually being held accountable for knowing the same, was a new experience. Now, as always having been the self-aware type, as I mentioned last week, I knew I was the weak link as the Assistant OL Coach. The guy I reported directly to was Jim O’Connell, the OL Coach and DC. I like Jim – I like him a lot, “now”. Back then he scared the crap outta me. He’s a great coach, is an unbelievable technician, but he probably looked at me and thought, “I’m trusting my OL to this guy?” Fortunately, our relationship changed dramatically one day when we were talking about the offense and what I did or didn’t know about it. I flat out told him that he intimidated me, for whatever reason, or whoever’s fault, that’s just the way it was. He was truly taken aback I think, and that’s when our dialogue got a whole lot better.

Well, it turned out to be a good thing that I spoke up and opened the lines of communication, because towards the end of the summer session that year, Coach Berg pulled me aside. He said, “OK, you’re The Guy.” I asked him what he was talking about, and he said that Coach O’Connell had just taken the DC job at a brand new school in South Orange County, Aliso Viejo High. The Grand Plan of having me learn the offense and the realities of competing in one of the most competitive divisions of high school football in the country evaporated. As Coach Berg said, I was The Guy now.

I had a senior-heavy crew who were technically sound, if a bit undersized. However, they knew they knew more about the playbook than I did. Winning their trust was a season-long effort. Two games I vividly remember: Week 4, we were playing Anaheim Servite High. They are an all-boys Catholic school, and an extremely well-regarded program. They’d been in our league in the past, but had fallen down a little and got bumped down to Division V this year. They weren’t happy about it. We were the first former Sunset League team they played. Their Coach, the recently retired Larry Toner, ran an unusual flex defense that featured full-man slants, loops and twists. They held us to -27 yards rushing in a 21-7 victory. After the game Coach Toner sarcastically said, “I guess they’re right. We *don’t* belong in the Sunset League.” That comment really stung, and caused me to seriously re-evaluate my place in the coaching community. I got the chance to meet Coach Toner several times over the years I was at Fountain Valley, usually during a film exchange or something, and I love the guy. I’d gladly work for him, but that one hurt. Fortunately, we were able to bounce back the next week, beating up on Orange County #5 Huntington Beach Marina 35-0, and I felt a little better about myself.

One other thing – I learned what a rivalry truly was. Sure, there were “rivalry games” at both San Clemente (Dana Hills High) and at La Quinta (Fountain Valley Los Amigos High), but *nothing* like Fountain Valley vs Huntington Beach Edison! I can remember walking onto the campus at 7:00 AM on a Saturday morning after a game and seeing dozens of volunteers already at work putting up banners that would eventually almost completely blanket the school. There were times in the past that they played this game at Anaheim Stadium, and drew crowds of 30,000. Unfortunately for us, we weren’t very good in ’04, and Edison was. They beat us “a whole lot to not very much.”

The second game I remember also gave me a life-long coaching lesson. It was Week 10, and we were sitting at 4-5, not going to the playoffs (but hey, after three consecutive years of 2-8, this was a bit of improvement). We were playing Anaheim Esperanza High who was coached by twin Orange County coaching legends – HC Gary Meek and DC Bill Pendleton. Coach Pendleton ran a form of the Bears’ 46 defense. As with Servite’s flex, this was the first time I’d seen the 46. I had a sophomore starting at LT. He would turn out to be a very talented player, but not as a sophomore. We gave up, I don’t know…maybe 8 sacks in the first half. It was ugly. We go in at half down by a bunch and I get my guys together and just started lighting into them – ripping them up one side and down the other. When I was done, my senior center, Bryan Erickson, looked up and said, “OK Coach – you’ve told us what is wrong. Now tell us how to fix it.” Quite honestly, I was taken aback by his calm, direct nature. And he was 100%, absolutely correct. All I was doing was yelling – I wasn’t coaching. I’ve lost contact with Bryan, but I thank him every so often for reminding me what is important.

Going into 1995, I started feeling a bit more comfortable in what I was doing. No longer were the concepts completely foreign, and I actually started “thinking” in the terminology. I had a full off-season with my guys in the weight room (yes, I once again took an active role in that), a full spring practice season, and a full summer camp experience. It’s amazing what can happen in a true year-around program. The seniors who were brought up under Coach O’Connell were gone and the guys who became leaders started believing in me. We formed a pretty tight bond.

Three games of note that year: Week 1 and Week 11 were against the same opponent – Los Angeles Loyola High School. We lost both of them. They ran the most vanilla 3-4 defense I’ve ever seen. Their roster wasn’t filled with future collegiate players, unless you count Ivy League guys – they were just solid high school players. But they made zero mistakes and missed few, if any, tackles. The game to remember though, was the Edison game. Edison has won five out of the last six meetings, and we were tired of it. We went out to a big 21-0 lead, and watched it waste away, eventually trailing 22-21. With 2:43 left, we started our drive. My right tackle, Travis Ault, gave up consecutive sacks. I had pressure to “get him out of there” but I knew he could do it. On 4th and 24, we completed a “12-9 Deep Lock” for 25 yards. With only 19 seconds left, we hit one last completion in the end zone for the win. You can read the recap from the Loa Angeles Times here. It was a feeling unlike any other I’ve had playing or coaching football (to that point in time). Playing in front of 13,000 frenzied fans was a new, exciting thing. I wanted more!

Next week: Riding High

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Looking Back at 300 - Part 1

This last week was my 300th game as a coach. This journey started back in 1991 as an Assistant Offensive Line Coach for the San Clemente High School Tritons. I was very enthusiastic – my only problem then is that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Fortunately, by the end of that season I realized how much I didn’t know, and made some “course adjustments” that allowed me to keep going.

The first game that year was against the El Toro High School Chargers. I don’t remember much about the game itself, but we lost 28-7. That came to be a recurring theme that year, as we only beat San Diego Crawford High, and Garden Grove Santiago High in going 2-8. I did enjoy being the assistant coach for the powerlifting team though….we had some great kids there and I enjoyed hanging out with them in the weight room. For a lot of reasons though, the football program just wasn’t very good then. I’m happy to say they’re doing well now and every time I pass the school on my way north to Orange County or LA I always give it a glance and think about where it all started.

In 1992, my mentor at San Clemente, Offensive Coordinator Steve Castle, got hired as the Head Coach at Westminster La Quinta High School. He brought me along as the Offensive and Defensive Line Coach, and put me in charge of the strength program. The best thing that came out of that was the weight room itself. When we got there it was a dump. A friend of a friend happened to be the Strength Coach for the LA Rams, and he was getting rid of a bunch of equipment. We got benches, weights, leg presses, etc., all for $250. I went in there and cleaned the place up and just like at San Clemente, it became a place for the linemen to hang out. The skinny guys would work out right after school, while the linemen went home and did homework, then they came back and we worked out at night. The Powerlifting team ended up being pretty good – with usually only four guys competing, we took home medals in more than one meet. 

LQ’s only problem was a lack of participation in football. The kids we had were tough and willing, but there were too few of them. The baseball and basketball programs were both well-established and those coaches discouraged their players from playing anything else, so we were in a bind. In ’92 we went 2-8, with the highlight being in Week 1. QB Jason Gondringer threw a last-second TD against “big brother” Westminster High to pull out a 12-9 victory.

In 1993, a cross-country move cost LQ Coach Castle, and Coach Fred Valko came in. Steve was a spread guy – sort of on the leading edge of the time, and Coach Valko was more of an old-school power offense guy, so we lost some continuity. The constant was me, and I still wasn’t very good. In ’93 I only had to handle the OL, which was a good thing. That year we went 2-8 again and I started to think that was the norm…..

In February of 1994 I was at a coaching clinic (a habit started immediately after my first year) and was working at a booth for one of my biggest mentors (still to this day), Bill Williams of the Football Coaches Professional Growth Association (FCPGA). It was there that my coaching fortunes changed forever. Coach George Berg from nearby Fountain Valley High walked by and struck up a conversation with me. He ended up asking me to come by for an interview. Initially it sounded like I was going to be the JV OL coach, and honestly, I wasn’t interested in that (I was still somewhat in the “I didn’t know what I didn’t know” phase). Eventually though, I was told that I would also be the assistant varsity OL coach and would take over the following year as the current OL coach moved over to defense full-time. Now, mind you….La Quinta was Division IX at the time and was 2-8. Fountain Valley was Division I and coming off a 12-1 season. This was going to be a huge jump.

Fountain Valley was only about 1.5 miles away from La Quinta, but it might as well have been in a different state. Just in pure demographics from a football standpoint: LQ had 1200 students; FV had 2400-2500. LQ’s student population was 60% Vietnamese – the largest Vietnamese population in a high school outside of Saigon. FV’s population was 60% Caucasian. The Booster Club budget at LQ was right about $1,200 for the year. At FV, it was a staggering $75,000. I don’t think that LQ fielded a Freshman team – I think it was only Varsity and JV. Fountain Valley had two Freshman teams. It truly was a have vs a have-not situation.

Anyway, the big change for me was the accountability factor. In my previous schools, both the coaches I worked for didn’t demand a lot of the assistant coaches’ time. In a lot of cases, that may not have been a bad thing – looking back at it, whatever I was assigned to do those first couple of years, they probably would have had to re-do anyway. Within a couple of days of my hiring at FV, I was immersed in the playbook, and quite frankly, was drowning. I remember the QB Coach, Willy Puga (now a former HC himself), put me up “on the board” and asked me to walk him through our various pass protections versus different fronts. It wasn’t pretty, and it was emphasized rather strongly to me that I had to get this down.  FV had a large staff, and every one of them knew their stuff. I was easily the weakest coach there. It was definitely a sink-or-swim situation for me!

(Next week: Learning to Swim!)