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!)

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