The acting career planned by former Los Angeles Ram tackle Doug France after his retirement from football was doomed from the start.
He didn’t understand that men 6-feet 5-inches tall, body by Boeing, don’t get punch lines. They just get punched. Leave the talking for the Dudley Moores of the world. Guys like France are supposed to be the big, strong, silent types.
Whereas that suits Fred Dryer, it doesn’t fit France. Because for all his bulk, the most potent part of Doug France’s anatomy always has been his mouth.
“I’ve always loved to talk, that’s why I thought I’d like acting” said Orange County’s newest celebrity coach, reclining on the grass at La Quinta High School before practice. France is the Aztec offensive line coach.
“But there were too many people telling me what to do. I was tired of that. The reason I talk so much is that I was always being told to shut up when I was a kid. I swore I’d get out of the house and talk my head off.”
He was the Rams’ player representative for years, and in 1979 announced that racism existed at the Rams training camp at Cal State Fullerton.
When the Rams, after years of frustration, finally made it to the Super Bowl in 1980, he told a battalion of journalists that Ram fans didn’t deserve a championship.
“They know it’s not theirs anyway . . . Our fans couldn’t wait for us to get off the field,” he said at the time.
Doug France rarely bites his lip.
And he finally has a captive audience. Standing next to France, most of the La Quinta lineman look like reserves on the freshman team. But his coaching style is not based on intimidation. He admires the subtle manner of Chuck Knox, the former Ram coach now coaching the Seattle Seahawks. France’s own laid back method falls between Knox and Perry Como.
“I’ve always had great rapport with people,” he said. “I think that’s my strongest point in life. I don’t need to scream and yell. I’ve always been able to communicate.”
He’s the only Aztec coach who doesn’t use a whistle. His voice is rarely raised higher than a conversational pitch. And, hold your ears Frank Kush, he tells his players not to hit too hard sometimes.
“Hey! You don’t have to blow him out like that,” France told an overzealous lineman during a Wednesday practice. “We’ve got a game in two days against El Dorado. There’s no use in hitting hard now. Now we just want to work on the mental part of the game.”
Welcome to the ‘80s, and coaching by reason. Your instructor, Doug France.
He abolished the Carioca drill, a warm-up exercise that has players cross their feet over and back for 10 to 15 yards.
“You never want a lineman to cross his feet during a game, why would I want him to practice it in warm-ups?”
Another common drill he nixed was the practice of players burying a shoulder into a blocking sled.
“I’d never teach someone to put his shoulder into a block. You’re off balance if you do. You’re just going to pick up bad habits doing that drill.”
Los Amigos Coach Art Michalik, a professional with the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1950s, said this summer that the problem with today’s players is that they question their superiors.
“In my day, if someone told you to run into a wall, you did it,” he said.
France said he doesn’t mind the questions.
“I’m the same way,” he said. “I won’t do something unless I know the reason. I think that shows intelligence. I want to have intelligent players who can think for themselves. Actually, most of the time I know enough about the game that I answer their questions before they ask them.”
But just getting his players to ask can be a problem. Though he doesn’t believe in rule by intimidation, France’s credentials (a two-time Pro Bowl selection and 1979 NFC Lineman of the Year) can be awe-inspiring. Credibility is not a problem for France. Idol worship may be.
“I don’t want them to feel out of place with me,” he said. “I’ve tried to put them at ease from the first day I got out here.”
France works from four to seven hours a day, six days a week at La Quinta.
“I think consistency is the most important thing,” France said. “They know I’m going to be here to help them with any problems they have.”
One problem for his linemen is the new, one-running back offense La Quinta will employ this season. Last season, the Aztecs were undefeated in the Garden Grove League, and 7-2 overall. They passed with all the frequency of the Ohio State teams France played for with a running back by the name of Archie Griffen. France was an All-American at OSU his senior season at tight end.
But La Quinta has an experienced quarterback in Eric Zeno, son of Joe Zeno, Aztec coach, and has several talented receivers as well as small, not-so-overpowering running backs.
“Our talent dictated that we open up our offense and pass more this season,” Joe Zeno said. “Our backs aren’t exactly going to knock people down. We think we have the right tools to run this more sophisticated offense.”
Which makes France’s job even more important. The best pass defense is one that stops the quarterback from passing. Because high school offensive linemen are forbidden from extending their arms fully or using their hands as in college and professional ranks, protecting the passer can be difficult.
“Doug is very aware of the stunts and other special alignments defenses will use to get to the quarterback,” Joe Zeno said. “He passes on a lot of what he learned while he was playing to our players. I think they’re getting the best coaching available.”
The wisdom France is passing along to his pupils is sometimes confidential. Asked how he advises his players to get around holding calls, he said, “I got some tips . . . just leave it at that.”