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