Entering the 1996 season with Fountain Valley, I finally felt like I had a clue as to what I was doing. I had my practice routines down, my drills were crisp, I knew what adjustments to make within our offense and my guys started knowing what I was going to say before I said it. In February, I had a definite game-changing experience: listening to Coach Mike Sherman (Texas A&M OL coach) present at a coaches’ clinic. He was SO organized, so meticulous and so thorough that I just felt like I had to know more. I went up to him after the presentation and let him know how much I enjoyed it. He simply said, “Well, why don’t you come out and visit this spring?” Fortunately, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Fountain Valley had a very accomplished Booster Club. That spring, my assistant OL coach went to Nebraska, our QB coach went to Colorado, our DC went to Washington and I ended up going to A&M.
When I walked into Coach Sherman’s office a few weeks later, he “assigned” me a GA, Jason, and told me he’d meet me for lunch. Jason took me down to the film room and asked me what games I’d like to see. I picked out a few, settled in and started taking notes. I then met with Coach for lunch, and we went over everything I saw that morning, and answered all my questions. Then we went into the OL position group meeting, and then out to practice. I was pretty much “in the huddle” for everything, and ghosted alongside Coach Sherman the entire time. After practice, I was invited to dinner with the entire staff. Head Coach RC Slocum was extremely gracious with his time. The next morning, I had breakfast, and then reported back to Jason, and the sequence repeated itself that way for five days.
For those who wonder why I’m still a very passionate fan of Texas A&M, that’s the reason. I fell in love with the place when I was there, and have been fortunate enough to make two more visits back for game days. It’s on my list to go to again, for sure. But more than that, the time spent with Coach Sherman really changed my way of coaching, especially in terms of organization. Those habits have stayed with me ever since, and I can’t thank Coach enough for taking the time he did with me.
Moving into the fall, I knew I had probably the best offensive line in Orange County, which was saying something considering the competition. The left tackle I talked about in 1994 was now a senior and ended up being 2nd Team All State. I got a transfer right tackle in, who ended up being All County. My guards and center were solid enough that they too, received scholarships.
We beat the hell out of arch-rival Huntington Beach Edison, 35-12 and capped off the year by winning the Sunset League championship, beating Anaheim Esperanza High 29-22. Unfortunately, we ran into La Puente Bishop Amat in the playoffs, and their Notre Dame-bound receiver/returner Joey Geatherall. They ended up winning 32-26 as Geatherall returned both a punt and a kick for TD’s.
Going into 1997, I had to start over with my OL. I only had one returning guy who had a lot of playing time, and that was at left guard. They were all smaller, as well (with the exception of the LG). With that, I learned about another key part of playbook construction from Offensive Coordinator Hank Cochrane (who taught me so much over the years): Have a system in place so that even if your personnel changes, your plays don’t need to – just emphasize a different part of the playbook.
Our players in 1996 were set up for power. We ran a ton of I-Backs, straight ahead inside zone, Iso’s and Counters. Our passes were mostly straight dropbacks and play action. In 1997, the playcalls became more of the outside zone, speed option variety, and a lot of the pass plays were sprint-outs, which suited our changing player traits on the OL, as well as at QB and RB.
We managed another last-minute victory against Edison, winning 19-17. In the playoffs, we again experienced the downside of playing in the Southern Section. We faced mighty Long Beach Poly in the first round, and it wasn’t pretty. They probably had five or six guys faster than our fastest guy, and their four DL collectively outweighed my five OL by 100 pounds. The final was 40-9.
In 1998, my youngest son, Travis, was born and we moved the family back to San Diego in September. I became a “game night” coach for Fountain Valley that year, driving up for the games only – I couldn’t quite let myself give it up! The guys who were there were still “my guys”, at least in my mind. My assistant, Scott Wilford, took over for me and was an extremely capable coach in his own right. He ended up coaching at Saddleback College, so he obviously knew his stuff.
One of the early highlights that year was playing at Bloomington High School. They were coached by noted Double Wing guru Don Markham, and had been held under 30 points only two or three times in the 90’s. We added to that by beating them 35-26. Against Edison, we beat them for the fourth straight time, 42-28. “My” 4-1 record against them is something I’m still rather proud of – that’s just how much the rivalry means.
Unfortunately, by now you probably know how the season ends….by facing Santa Ana Mater Dei and a QB you may have heard of – Matt Leinart. We ended up losing 30-14, and that also ended up being Coach George Berg’s final game, as he retired soon thereafter. I was pretty sure after that season that it wouldn’t serve anyone to keep making the drive, but Coach Berg’s decision made it easy – my time at Fountain Valley was over.
It is safe to say that my time as a Baron was the most important period in my coaching development. I can’t even begin to list the things that Coaches Berg, Cochrane, O’Connell and Puga taught me. I will always be a fan of FV. Blue Pride!
Next Week: A different level.