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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Narbonne coach won't settle for 'satisfied' at 14-0

Manuel Douglas, with the help of a new offense and the 'real head coach' at home, is taking Harbor City Narbonne into the CIF regional championship game Saturday, but is looking beyond.

Eric Sondheimer

6:55 PM PST, December 6, 2012

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Manuel Douglas is listed as the head football coach of City Section Division I champion Harbor City Narbonne, but his assistants tease him about "checking in with the real head coach."

That would be his wife, Jelerine, the mother of his three young children. She's a teacher and has been in the U.S. Army Reserve for 19 years as a combat medic instructor.

What Douglas does for Narbonne's football players, Jelerine provides at home, keeping everyone on schedule and offering plenty of support.

"She's the epitome of [an understanding] coach's wife," Douglas said. "I tell my assistant coaches, 'You have to have one if you're going to be in this game.'"

The summer began with Douglas and his wife celebrating the birth of their third child, a boy, in June — just weeks before the first practice of what would be, if all went well, the longest high school football season in California history.

And everything has gone well for Narbonne, which is 14-0 and playing Corona Centennial (13-1) on Saturday night at Cerritos College in the inaugural CIF state regional Open Division championship bowl game.

With only minutes left in last week's 25-0 victory over Crenshaw in the City championship game, Douglas became emotional. He had tears in his eyes. He thought about his players and the journey they've traveled to help transform Narbonne into one of the best teams in the state.

"I was thinking about those kids when they were 10th graders and Crenshaw blew us out," he said. "14-0 is an incredible thing. I was thinking about my family. Everything at once hit me. I don't get sentimental. I try to stay low-key and even keel. But that's the time to let it go because those moments don't come very often. Those two minutes were lots of years in the making."

Douglas was not ready to be a head coach when he took over the Narbonne program in 2002. He had so much more to learn. And then there was his offense. He was a Bloomington wing-T guy — run, run, run. It got the Gauchos close but never to the championship game.

After losing to Lake Balboa Birmingham in a 2004 semifinal, Douglas began to abandon his wing-T philosophy. He started to study what Urban Meyer was doing at Florida. He changed to a spread option attack with his quarterback in shotgun formation.

"I've been converted to the dark side," he said in 2008 before winning the first of his three City titles.

The ability to pass and run made all the difference in getting the Gauchos over the hump. He studied the no-huddle formation at Corona Centennial. He traveled to Oregon to learn how the Ducks ran their fast-break offense.

Douglas said he doesn't even remember half of the wing-T offense.

"I don't even know why I ran it for so long," he said. "This is so fun."

Narbonne had 10 starters returning on defense from last season's City title team, plus the reigning City player of the year, Washington-bound quarterback Troy Williams, so the pieces were present for a season to remember.

Official practice for Narbonne began July 22. Even then, Douglas was planning for an exhausting 16-week season, having his team tackle less while trying to save legs and bodies for the long haul.

Now comes the mental challenge. Douglas has directed his players' motivation toward a possible state championship bowl game next week against one of the nation's most respected programs, Concord De La Salle, which is favored in its regional game against Folsom. That's what the reward could be if they beat Centennial.

"I talked to them about not being satisfied," Douglas said.

Challenges on and off the field come almost daily for Douglas, who is the one assigned to track more than 130 players in the Narbonne program while working as a special education teacher.

"We always ask each other, 'Why, after 11 years, do we still do it?'" he said. "It is not easy. Our district continues to place barriers. Their focus is on advanced test scores and attendance rates, which are all important. Guys like us understand all those things intertwine with athletics."

Douglas has been approached on more than one occasion to leave LAUSD. But he's a South Gate High graduate who can't forget how his own coaches helped him find a path to success.

"They really looked out for me by hook or crook and strong-armed me into making it and graduating," he said. "I kind of feel it's our responsibility to do those same things with some of the kids we have now."

One player who inspired Douglas was running back Major Culbert, who rushed for 1,955 yards in 2005 and received a scholarship to Nebraska.

"It turned out he was pretty much on his own, taking care of himself," Douglas said. "He had a different family situation. To see that kid mature and grow up as an athlete.... That kid was one of the hardest workers I've known. He didn't make it to the [NFL], but every time he says, 'Coach, I just want to thank you for everything you've done, and when I make it, you can trust I'm going to take care of Narbonne.'

"Those are the reasons you coach. The fact he comes back when he never has to — those are the relationships that matter most and have kept me grounded and kept me within L.A. Unified."

Having a dedicated partner at home has also helped him through crazy days with long hours. And when he doesn't have that support, well, you can tell.

Several times each year, his wife has to leave the state to teach, putting Douglas in charge of his two young daughters. Teachers know when the daughters show up for school that his wife must be gone, because Douglas isn't particularly good at picking out clothes or putting them in pigtails.

But just like learning a new offense, Douglas is getting better. And he's got somebody he trusts to teach him at home, like his players have someone to trust to teach them at school.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSondheimer