Bill Backstrom, El Modena High School’s new football coach, isn’t about to change a good thing.
So when the Vanguards open the season tonight at 7:30 against Edison at El Modena, don’t expect many surprises. The Vanguards shouldn’t look much different from all those great Vanguard teams of the past.
Bob Lester, coach for the first 20 years of the school’s history, retired after last season. In building one of the best programs in Orange County, Lester won three Southern Section championships and compiled a 157-58-8 record.
And El Modena not only won during those years, it won with style. The Vanguards were as loose and relaxed as Lester. Opposing defenses never knew if El Modena was going to throw from its own end zone or run on third and long. Opposing offenses never knew when a blitz was coming.
Backstrom, an assistant to Lester for 11 years, says other teams still will have to be prepared for anything.
Backstrom has approached the opportunity with great enthusiasm, showing no signs of the burnout that Lester cited as the primary reason for his retirement.
“Well, Bob’s going to tell you that, but you’ve got to remember that he coached for the past 20 years or so,” Backstrom said. “I’m still new, and I haven’t gone through everything he’s been through. I don’t know what burnout is.”
Backstrom cited the program’s strong base of support as the main reason he pursued the job.
“I saw as an assistant that working at El Modena is fun,” Backstrom said. “We like to win as much as anybody, but regardless, we’ve always enjoyed great support from the faculty, students, booster club and especially our principal, Jack Elsner.
“Elsner’s an amazing guy. He’s Mr. El Mo. He’s everywhere. And he finds the time to support all of the programs at the school. If I ever have a problem and he doesn’t have the answer, he always seems to know where to look to get the answer.”
Said Elsner: “I didn’t want to go outside for the new coach, quite frankly. I’m convinced that a great part of our success came from the attitude of the coaching staff, how well they’ve worked not only with the players, but the parents and community as well.
“Bill had been an assistant long enough to know the program inside and out, and it just seemed like it would help our continuity by moving him up.”
Backstrom, 36, played defensive end at Cal in the early 1970s before joining El Modena in 1975 to teach history.
While at Cal, Backstrom married Debbie Bakjin, his high school sweetheart from their days at Warren High in Downey, and they now live in Corona with their 13-year old daughter, Kelli.
By all accounts, Backstrom is a man who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, and now he faces a double-edged one in working to perpetuate a winning program, as well as working in the shadow of Lester, for so long a favorite of the fans and media.
Even so, Backstrom doesn’t necessarily see following in Lester’s footsteps as a handicap.
“Hey, that’s how I learned,” Backstrom said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better head coach to have learned under than Bob.
“And with all of these smart old foxes in the Century League like Lester, Dick Hill at Santa Ana and Ted (Mullen) at Foothill, a young coach was bound to pick up something along the way.”
As for Lester, the oldest fox of them all is only too happy to see Backstrom in charge now.
“I’d like to say that Billy reminds me of me when I was a young man, but I wasn’t that good,” Lester said. “He’s outstanding with the kids, a very affable man, and he’ll be just the ideal football coach for the school.”
As for Lester, where will he be on Friday night?
“Oh, I’ll be at the game, sure,” Lester said. “But I haven’t decided if I’ll be in the stands or on the sidelines. If I do go on the sidelines, it’ll be from the 25-yard line on in and not near the bench. After all, it’s Bill’s bailiwick now.”
And Backstrom has been around the sport long enough to know not to promise victories.
“The only thing I’ll guarantee is that after you’ve played us, you’ll know that you were in for a game,” he said. “A good, hard-hitting football game.”