These are sleepless nights for George Contreras. And buzzard-hot, fourth-and-long days. The kind during which men and boys prove to themselves that a preseason refiner’s fire is invigorating for body and soul--and the won-lost column.
Contreras is in his ninth year as the football coach at Westlake High. While he has managed both to win games and keep his sanity, by his own admission, it hasn’t been a carefree romp. In the weeks leading up to this season, Contreras’ days began with a glass of milk and a vitamin pill at 5:45 a.m. and ended with the late-night farm report on the tube. Squeezed in between were planning sessions, practices, film viewing, skill evaluations, drug abuse lectures and plans to set up drug testing of his players. He also had to handle college recruiting forms, booster club meetings, fund-raising bingo orgies and numerous speeches espousing the virtues of academic responsibility.
Among other things, he told his players to stay off drugs and, Good Lord, if it must be, go ahead and drop a pass but never-- ever-- drop a class before checking in with the coach.
Contreras learned a bitter lesson early last month when he discovered that former Westlake running back Gary Wellman might be ineligible for the current football season at USC. Unbeknownst to Contreras and USC, Wellman may have failed to meet a new NCAA academic requirement for freshmen because he dropped a physiology class during the spring semester.
Wellman’s problems and similar academic mess-ups nationwide--as well as other off-the-field issues ranging from drugs to broken homes--have raised new questions regarding high school coaches and their responsibilities to athletes.
Is it a coach’s job to keep athletes off drugs? How far should he go in disciplining players? Must he answer to parents, boosters and the media? Should a coach be expected to land college scholarships for his athletes? Is it his responsibility to provide academic counseling?
Contreras said coaches are carrying a heavy load. Some coaches believe it is too heavy. All of them agree that keeping up with spiraling concerns and paper work is harder than teaching a quarterback to throw a spiral. Said Darryl Stroh, football coach at Granada Hills: “These days, you wish you could just coach. There are so many problems to be dealt with. Those are the things that eat at you. When you lose a game, it presents challenges. But it’s the problems you don’t know how to deal with that really drain you.”
While Wellman was not an honor student, according to Contreras, conversely school was not an overwhelming challenge. The new NCAA requirements include a minimum score on a national aptitude test and a minimum grade-point average in a core curriculum that includes math and science. Wellman’s score of almost 1,000 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and his 2.8 grade-point average were well above the minimum. But because he dropped the science class he may not have fulfilled the curriculum requirement.
Still, a health class taken by Wellman might qualify as a science course. The NCAA is reviewing the case and a decision will be made within a week.
Either way, Contreras blames himself, at least in part, for Wellman’s troubles. “I had no idea what was going on until it happened,” Contreras said. “It slipped by us. Obviously, I didn’t do enough. We all need to become more familiarized with the new requirements.”
Wellman and Contreras weren’t alone in their confusion.
Said Dan Underwood, assistant football coach at San Diego State: “It used to be that when we recruited we went straight to the coach’s office. Now we go straight to the counselor. But even the counselors don’t know the requirements. A lot of people have been caught with their pants down. . . . I’d say there were hundreds of kids who were not well-informed this year.”
At San Fernando, receiver David Richards did not learn that he lacked enough core classes to satisfy the NCAA Division I requirements until February, when the final semester of his senior year had already begun. He added the class, but later signed with a Division II school, Cal State Northridge.
San Fernando Coach Tom Hernandez said blame for Richards’ problem should not be dumped on the coach. “I’m not a counselor. I don’t have time to be a counselor. . . . I try to make time, but you don’t see the counselors out coaching on the football field. Keeping track of this isn’t a coach’s job.”
Many high school coaches disagree.
“I’ve met with my players and their parents twice to go over the academic requirements with them, word for word,” said Harry Welch, coach at Canyon, last week.
The requirements were adopted by the NCAA in 1983 with an effective date of Aug. 1, 1986. NCAA officials say they will fine-tune the rules in the years ahead, but the standards are here to stay and coaches will have to find ways to keep track of players’ academic progress.
University of Notre Dame football Coach Lou Holtz said that punishments to players like Wellman will have a lasting, positive effect. “It’s going to cause the high school athletes, administrators and counselors to realize that this is for real,” he said.
Contreras, at least, got the message. “I need to know the rules better than the counselors,” he said. “I have to keep track of the academic programs a kid is involved in. If he makes any changes, I want to know about it.”
Contreras wants to sleep better--long hours notwithstanding--in the years ahead.
Only the few gifted athletes with a chance to win a Division I scholarship are affected by the new NCAA requirements, but high school coaches worry day to day about academic standards for all their players.
Some high school districts require students to keep at least a C average to remain eligible for sports. The Los Angeles Unified School District has a C-average rule and a no-fail rule. If an athlete fails to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, or if he fails a class, he is ineligible to play for a season. As a result, in many cases, coaches end up providing the academic motivation for athletes.
Skip Giancanelli, who is in his 18th year of coaching football at El Camino Real in Woodland Hills, said he tries to spend time with players during the off-season. “If you lose contact with them, you lose them academically because most of them don’t have their priorities in order,” he said. “They are in school to learn, but it doesn’t work out that way. They put social activities first, football second, and academics third.”
To fight the problem, Giancanelli teaches a physical education class for his players during the spring. “We don’t do football at all,” he said. “We lift weights and work on their agility some, but mostly it gives us a chance to talk to them about grades--to keep them motivated academically.”
Although most coaches quietly tolerate the C-average requirement, many of them openly dislike the no-fail rule.
“What if Mozart flunked math?” asked Crespi Coach Bill Redell. “You’d have to tell him to lay off the piano for a year.”
Fearful of losing a prodigy at quarterback because he took calculus and couldn’t quite grasp, say, antidifferentiation, a lot of coaches say the rule should be eliminated. Some frustrated coaches even accuse teachers of a stuffy bias against jocks.
“Some teachers resent athletes because they think athletes get special privileges,” Stroh said. “Some players have personality conflicts with teachers. It’s not fair. A kid can get all A’s, and have problems with one teacher and end up with an F. That kid should be eligible.”
But Stroh said such conflicts should be worked out between the player and teacher. “I can’t walk 50 to 60 kids through their classes,” he said.
Contreras and an assistant go through academic files four times a year to make sure players stay above C level. Still, 13 Westlake players were ineligible for football this fall because of low grade-point averages in the spring. Contreras scrambled to make arrangements for them to retake classes in summer school.
Six of them did. Chris Millan, a junior linebacker who earlier had flunked English, earned a B in the subject in summer school and regained his eligibility. Millan said coaches constantly had reminded him and teammates to keep their grades up, but a few ignored the counsel.
“It was so frustrating,” Contreras said, “I felt like maybe I should quit.”
In past years, Liberace could have played linebacker for Stadium High, located in Tacoma, Wash. Stadium had been in the dumper for years. It was the inaptly named laughingstock of Washington high school football.
From 1968 to 1983, the school’s record was 23-113. It’s worse than it sounds. From 1981 to 1983, Stadium went 0-24. During the ’83 season, the offense scored six points, while the defense gave up 342. The team was beaten by scores of 61-0, 59-0 and 57-0.
Then, in 1984, Don Leebrick took over as football coach.
Leebrick arrived at Stadium with a load of progressive ideas, ranging from sound tackling techniques to an anti-drug and alcohol abuse campaign. The team proceeded to run up perhaps the cleanest 1-7 record in high school football. Last season, the Tigers improved to 3-5. Said Leebrick: “We weren’t the doormat anymore. Nobody played their third string against us. Nobody laughed at us anymore.”
Now Leebrick, his confidence gushing, predicts his team will win at least five games this fall. “If we don’t,” he said, “they should fire me.”
The coach said his team’s new outlook on both football and life is due as much to his emphasis on proper living as to proper pass defense.
Many high school coaches believe, like Leebrick, as if they must run drug prevention and rehabilitation centers, not just football programs. Stroh, for example, said that drugs are the biggest problem in education. The long-time coach at Granada Hills has confronted a number of his athletes about their drug abuse. “I’ve had kids come back after leaving and thank me for convincing them, forcing them, not to do drugs,” he said.
A year before the drug-abuse hubbub caused by the deaths of athletes Len Bias and Don Rogers, Leebrick plugged in his anti-drug program at Stadium.
All athletes in the Tacoma School District must sign contracts pledging, in effect, that they will not abuse drugs. For a first offense, a player is suspended for two weeks. For a second offense, he is kicked off the team for a year. But that document didn’t satisfy Leebrick. “It became a thing where they would just sign it and then not get caught,” he said.
The coach set up a review board consisting of six hand-picked Stadium players: three seniors, two juniors and a sophomore. The board patrolled parties, hang-outs and happenings--and if a player was spotted smoking, snorting or drinking, he would be called before the board for a reprimand. On a second sighting, the player was reported to the coaching staff.
Said Matt Holm, a senior tight end and linebacker: “Everybody was reluctant at first, but most of us decided it was a good idea. . . . There were a few who didn’t like it, but it brought the team together.”
At some schools, Leebrick’s program might have brought on a riot, but Stadium principal Marv Shain said his coach could sell Popsicles to an Eskimo.
“We want a program where the athletes come out of it with a lot of things other than how to hit someone,” Shain said. “I’m extremely pleased with what Don’s done. He’s more than just a coach.”
Stroh has a less elaborate, more hang-loose strategy for handling substance abuse.
“I’ve handled individual situations differently,” he said. “I’ve had kids be involved in drugs and kicked them off the team forever. In some cases, I suspended them. I’ve required kids to seek professional help. If a kid is willing to try, I work with him.”
Two years ago, Stroh discovered two of his players had been drinking when a bottle of cheap wine fell out of a duffle bag after a game. The coach required the players to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or be kicked off the team. “It was real humiliating for them to have to go to those meetings,” Stroh said. “They were embarrassed. I did it to make a point. They wanted to play, so they had to attend.”
Stroh said that coaches have leverage on athletes because they want to play football.
The National Federation of State High School Assns., the governing body of the country’s high schools, in turn wants to use coaches’ leverage to attack substance abuse. It recently launched a drug education and prevention program administered by a committee whose members include First Lady Nancy Reagan, former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, and baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
“Because of the strong relationship between coaches and athletes, coaches have teachable moments that you can’t create in a classroom,” said Don Sparks, assistant director of the National Federation.
Said Simon: “You’ve got to make doing drugs unfashionable. And the coaches have a lot of influence on kids.”
Still, both the effectiveness and willingness of coaches to deal with cases of drug abuse is in doubt. In an interview last year, Stroh said, “I’d rather get a kid off drugs than win any game.” But, he added, “I know some coaches, if they walked around the corner and saw 15 of their guys smoking pot, they’d turn around and pretend they never saw it.”
Likewise, players often ignore their coaches. Said Chris Richards, a former running back at San Fernando who is a sophomore at Cal: “The kid goes home after practice and gets with his friends and then he feels the peer pressure. . . . It’s deeper than most people think. Kids have so much influence on other kids. I saw a lot of my teammates losing their minds. Cocaine is so strong. When I go home now, it’s sad.”
At Westlake, Contreras is trying to beat the peer pressure with voluntary drug testing. He is awaiting Conejo Valley Unified School District approval of the screening, but said he expects 80% of his players to participate. Once a week, five names will be drawn. Those five players will be tested at a local hospital.
“It will be an honorable way for a kid to go to a party and he’ll have an excuse to avoid the peer pressure,” Contreras said. “He can say, ‘Hey, I can’t, I might get tested.’ ”
Most coaches, though, have no plans for drug testing, and many of them talk privately in tones of helplessness. Steve Landress, football coach at Cleveland, said he is not sure that testing will solve abuse problems. “A coach can’t make moral decisions for players,” he said. “You can’t be their moral conscience. You can just tell them the issues.”
Coaches often complain that their players lack discipline. Some talk as if adolescents these days are categorically a generation of sluggos, impervious to the benefits of a work ethic.
“The problem is that they’re just not motivated nowadays,” Giancanelli said. “At anything--academically or anything else. They can’t accept ‘no.’ When you tell them ‘no,’ they think you’re nuts. All they want to hear is ‘yes.’ ”
Landress said the diminishment of discipline stems from the increasing number of split families, and that athletes’ troubles at home are being dumped on the shoulders of coaches.
“Broken homes cause a lot of problems,” he said. “It’s to the point where a coach has to be a psychologist. Divorces are more prevalent and a lot of these kids don’t have fathers in their homes. Sometimes the coach takes the place of the father.”
In some instances, that happens literally.
Dave Mayer, 17, played football for Leebrick at Stadium. His parents were divorced when he was 9. Three years later, Neva and Mel Mayer remarried. According to Neva, Dave couldn’t handle the turmoil at home.
“It created a lot of anger in him,” she said. “He never dealt with it, so he turned to outside influences that were not healthy.”
Mayer got into fights at school and eventually the discord and tension at home became unbearable. After learning of the problems, Leebrick invited Mayer to stay at his home.
“It was a break for everyone,” Leebrick said. “I had a lot of room at the house, so he stayed here for nine months. It was a cooling-off period.”
Leebrick, who has a master’s degree in counseling, spent hours with Mayer. They drove to school together and talked about everything from football to psychology. When Mayer broke house rules, Leebrick said he disciplined him.
The time together solved some problems. But after Mayer went back to living with his own family, he had a blow-up with his parents and was later caught with marijuana, suspended from school and kicked off the football team.
It turned out to be only a temporary setback. Entering his senior season, Mayer is playing football again--and living at home. Leebrick said he has a new attitude and a B average in school. He has not missed a practice so far this season and could even play college football.
Mayer said, “Everything ended up good.”
Neva Mayer said: “As a football coach, Don Leebrick went way beyond the call of duty.”
Many coaches insist on strict discipline on the practice field, but their individual demeanors range from Hoss Cartwright types to dictatorial supreme commanders. Some intimidate--even embarrass--their players for sins such as fumbling, running the wrong pass pattern or missing a block.
One lineman said his coach told the offensive line, “It would have been better to die at childbirth than jump offside when we’re inside the five-yard line.”
Stroh lines up with the supreme commanders. “I like kids to handle themselves with class and keep their mouths shut,” he said. “As a coach, you need quality time. You can’t be screwing around.”
Often, though, players screw up, coaches get mad, and sometimes the results are costly.
In western Pennsylvania recently, a coach was accused of physically abusing players during a practice. Jim Marelli had quietly coached football at Fox Chapel High in the suburbs of Pittsburgh for seven years, compiling a 45-30-2 record. During a practice three weeks ago, however, Marelli became frustrated, then infuriated, with the play of his defensive linemen. And, according to some of his players, he lost control.
Marelli ordered the linemen to get into a three-point defensive stance, then stood in front of them with his arm outstretched, swinging a helmet from side to side. The idea was for the linemen to stay low--or get hit in the head.
Many of them couldn’t get low enough. Said Jim Petrovich, a 6-2, 245-pound junior tackle: “He stood over me and used the helmet like a club. He held it by the face mask and swung it like a golf club. He was really teeing off. It was more of a punishment than a drill. Someone could have gotten seriously hurt.”
Petrovich, who said he had a bruised face, was a no-show at the next practice. In fact, nearly half the team missed the practice. When a number of parents not only complained but threatened lawsuits at a booster meeting a few days later, Marelli and his seven assistants quit.
Pittsburgh reporters showed up at Marelli’s office and at his home the next day. “I was the headline story on the news on all the TV stations,” Marelli said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why was this so important?”
Marelli said the drill he had used was “tough,” but not brutal.
With Fox Chapel’s season in jeopardy, Marelli and his staff later decided to stay on after talking with school Supt. Dan Freeman. Marelli agreed not to use the helmet-golf club drill again.
But for Petrovich and 10 other players--who refused to play as long as the coach remained--the compromise came too late. The shattered trust between coach and player resulted in a break in the players’ development. Said Petrovich, who is considered a major-college prospect: “I can’t play for someone who doesn’t have respect for me and I have no respect for him. . . . It’s pathetic.”
Marelli’s actions grabbed the attention of parents, boosters and the media. All high school coaches, though, not just those who swing helmets, must deal with criticism, scrutiny and pressure.
Redell, who left Crespi to coach for two years in the United States Football League before returning last season, has ample experience with scrutiny. “In pro football, you get heat from sportswriters, but in high school it’s mostly the parents,” he said. “Parents are always sticking their noses into everything. Some of them are a pain in the butt.”
Contreras said he periodically meets with parents. Because many of them ask the coach why their son isn’t playing, Contreras stems the tide by sending parents a football report card three times a year. The report shows how each of the players compares in six categories: strength, speed, agility, coordination, jumping and conditioning.
“You’ve got to have sound, rational reasons for making your decisions as to who is going to play,” Contreras said. “The report gives the parents a clue.”
For the most part, it keeps the parents off his back.
Former Burbank Coach Marty Garrison wasn’t as fortunate after an 0-10 season four years ago. He believes he was forced from his job. “The booster club, led by two parents, didn’t have confidence in me,” he said. “They were telling the kids that their coach wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to deal with that. It aged me 30 years,” he said.
After he resigned, Garrison told The Times: “I know that even if I was 10-0, I’m not going to satisfy everybody. I don’t think any head coach is treated fairly unless he’s winning the CIF championship. That’s an occupational hazard. Many people feel football is the most important thing in a child’s life.”
Redell said high school coaches feel as much pressure as coaches on the college and professional levels.
“You have to deal with criticism,” Redell said. “Even good coaches face it. Harry Welch is a great coach, but he has a lot of critics.”
Welch, in his fifth year at Canyon, has led the Cowboys to 38 straight wins. Despite the success, some parents and teachers say the coach is a fanatic and that he asks too much of his players. “It bothers me, but I try to remember that most of them are good people,” he said.
Dealing with the media is a new experience for a lot of high school coaches. With many newspapers and television stations expanding local coverage, coaches are finding themselves if not in the spotlight, at least on stage. Some are cooperative, some are uncomfortable, irritable and suspicious.
For many coaches, seeing their words in print is frightening. They resort to talking in coachese. When they lose games, they say things like, “We ran into a buzz saw.” When they win, they often say, “We had a total team effort.” Usually, neither is the truth.
At some schools in Texas, coaches are contractually obligated to make themselves available to the media--and can make thousands of dollars by doing radio shows. The publicity and profits exact a price: Added attention brings added pressure.
“A lot of people in the communities here get their sense of well-being from how well the high school team does,” said William Farney, athletic director of the University Interscholastic League, the governing body of Texas high school sports.
Because Texas has a statewide football playoff, a championship team plays 16 games and can bring a school up to $250,000. Farney estimates that the playoff teams combine to gross more than $5 million.
The financial responsibility weighs heavily on the coaches, who in turn lean on their players.
Ty Detmer, a quarterback, threw for 36 touchdowns last year at Southwest High in San Antonio. “It’s a burden,” he said, “but here you grow up with it. It’s the main thing.”
Freddie James is the coach at Carter High in Dallas. During the past four years, James said, 30 of his players have gone on to play college football. He has dealt with college recruiters from Arkansas to USC. Landing scholarships, he said, “is the point of all this.”
Most high school coaches believe helping players earn a scholarship is a part of their job. Few are as successful at it as James. From December to February--recruiting season--James said he has had up to 15 recruiters in his office at the same time. “It’s like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in there,” he said.
James unofficially becomes a full-time college adviser before the NCAA’s signing deadline in February. “I answer my players’ questions,” he said, “but I don’t tell them where to go. That’s up to them. But some recruiters try to sell their programs like toothbrushes. Some of them lie. They tell a player he will start right away and when the kid shows up, he doesn’t play at all. That’s why I tell my players to go where they’ll get an education.”
Most high school coaches work as middlemen for the players they believe are good enough to play college football. College recruiters press coaches for leads. And often a player and his parents depend on the coach to land a college scholarship.
“Some parents think it is the high school coach who gets their son a scholarship,” Contreras said. “But a 5-6, 145-pound running back who wants to play at Notre Dame--and his parents--have to realize that the cheerleaders at Notre Dame are bigger than that.
“If a coach lies to recruiters about a player one year, the players in the next years will pay for it.”
Ted Tollner, coach at USC, said high school coaches play a big role in recruiting. “Sometimes we get fooled,” Tollner said. “We’ve taken players who weren’t as good as their coaches said they were. A lot of coaches are salesmen. They try to sell players. But we look to develop relationships through the years. I’ve taken players recommended by coaches I trust without even seeing them.”
James said he spends hours with his players and recruiters trying to find the best matches of opportunities.
“Coaches are as busy during the recruiting season,” he said, “as they are during the football season.”
With the advent of summer passing leagues and year-round conditioning programs, coaches no longer spend the off-season fishing and hunting and getting reacquainted with their families. Instead, they meet with other coaches to organize summer games and they teach players technique and subtleties of football. Landress of Cleveland High said his team played 40 games over the summer.
A lot of coaches are paranoid. They put trips to the Caribbean on hold so they can keep up with the Landresses. If they don’t put in the extra time, they fear other schools will surpass their own.
“We’re our own worst enemies,” Landress said. “We keep pushing and pushing. The football is better, but it takes a toll in long hours.”
Some coaches say they and their players put in too much time, but they do it because, as Redell said, “everybody else is doing it.”
Because of the time commitment, Al Hansen quit his coaching job this year after 10 years at Saugus. “I felt it was time to let someone younger do it,” he said.
Hansen is no pup at 46, but he is far from being an old man. “It could’ve been burnout,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I haven’t missed it. I don’t think I’ll go back.”
Giancanelli said the long hours of coaching are turning people away from the profession. “You used to have to stand in line to get into coaching. Now, in some places they have to advertise for coaches.”
Adding to the problem is the fact that high school coaching has never been lucrative financially. Bob Richards, coach at Thousand Oaks and a math teacher, earns a $1,600 stipend per year for coaching, which he figures works out to about $1 an hour. “If you look at it that way,” Richards said, “forget it.”
In most cases, it is the game of football itself that brought coaches into the profession. Most of them look forward to the fall with a passion even they can’t explain. The actual coaching of football is the easiest part of their jobs.
It is the other concerns and pressures that drive them away.
Welch echoed the feelings of many when he said that the responsibility of being father, social worker, cop, college adviser, paper shuffler--and, oh yeah, football coach--sometimes becomes unbearable.
“I think of my job as if I’m walking a tightrope,” he said. “Sometimes I think it’s the greatest job in the world, but at times I’m an inch away from saying, ‘Thank you very much,’ and leaving it all behind.”