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Pierce Revivalist : Urge to Return to Football Moved College, New Coach Bob Enger

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

When someone gets talked into accepting a job, it’s usually by a spouse or a friend or a small group of close and trusted colleagues and confidants. Bob Enger was talked into accepting his current job by 53,319 screaming lunatics, half of whom were drinking beer at the time.

Enger, 52, was minding his own business, comfortable in his position as an instructor in the business department of East Los Angeles College. He had coached football for much of his life, at East L. A., Cal State L. A. and a few high schools, but those days were over.

He had not been on a sideline in nearly five years when he left his home on the morning of Oct. 17 and headed for the Rose Bowl, where he would watch his alma mater, UCLA, take on the waddling Ducks of Oregon. No big deal. He had season tickets and had gone to most home games over the past few years.

But this one was different. On the way into the Rose Bowl he bumped into an old friend and former assistant coach from East L. A., John Farhood, now the dean of admissions at Pierce College. Farhood had asked Enger a few months earlier if he might be interested in reviving and coaching the defunct football team at Pierce, and Enger laughed.

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“I just had no interest at that time,” he said. “But in hindsight, I guess John planted the seed that day.”

As they walked up a tunnel into the Rose Bowl, Farhood told Enger that the vacancy at Pierce, which along with budgetary problems had left the school without a football team for the past two seasons, still existed.

This time, Enger did not laugh.

“He told me they really wanted to get the program going again, but they were having trouble finding a coach,” Enger said. “He asked again if I might be interested, and this time I told him, ‘Could be.’ ”

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Throughout the game, Enger kept one eye on the field as UCLA whomped Oregon. His other eye was on his future. And the tens of thousands of bellowing fans who sat in the stands that day convinced Enger that his future involved cleats and shoulder pads.

“I sat there with all those people and really got caught up in all the rah-rah,” Enger said. “All my old feelings returned. The bottom line was that I missed coaching. Maybe it was male menopause. But right there I made up my mind to give it another shot.”

Enger called Farhood a few days later and gave him the news. Farhood gave him the job. And now all Enger has to do is find a few assistant coaches to help him. Oh, and some football players.

“Coaches are the first priority,” he said. “I’ve already hired four but I need a few more. When I get everyone in place, then we’ll turn to recruiting. We’ve got to find the right athletes to rebuild this program. By mid-January I will have a list of the kids I want and then we’ll start bringing them to the campus. We’ve already had a big reaction from guys who are already at Pierce, and I think that perhaps 15 or 20 of the guys who are already here will be part of our football team.”

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The assistants Enger has signed up are John Pentecost, a former line coach at Burroughs High in Burbank; Paul Sabolic, another former line coach, from North Hollywood High; Tony Cleveland, a former coach at Pater Noster and Taft highs; and Leo Castro, who has coached at Kennedy, Cleveland and Taft highs.

The past two seasons, Glendale has either won or shared the Western State Conference title, but before then Pierce had built one of the most successful junior college football programs in the state under Coach Jim Fenwick. The Brahmas were the most dominant local JC football team for three consecutive years before the program suddenly was disbanded in 1986 because of what school officials said was a lack of money. The departure of Fenwick, who moved to Cal State Northridge as an assistant coach, aided the program’s slide to oblivion.

What ensued was two years of trying to untangle educational red tape, which seemed only to prove that higher education is not the same as common sense. Pierce might have fielded a team for the 1987 season; the school came up with the money needed and even found a head coach quickly.

A simple solution to the problem was at hand. Except that the coach they wanted, Steve Butler, was an assistant football coach, women’s volleyball coach and a physical education teacher at West Los Angeles College. And even though that school also had shelved its football team, the Los Angeles Community College District would not allow Butler to transfer. District officials insisted that the two schools must exchange personnel from the physical education departments, much like completing a major league baseball trade.

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When no suitable, or willing, physical education faculty member at Pierce was found to replace Butler at West L. A., the deal fell apart and the 1987 season went down the drain.

When the same problem continued this summer, it appeared as though the school would be Brahma-less in 1988, too. But then Enger was cheered back onto the field by 53,000 strangers, and football will return to the Woodland Hills campus next fall. The transition from East L. A. to Pierce was allowed because Enger is not involved in the physical education department. He has joined the business department faculty at Pierce and will teach real estate courses.

“It is with a great deal of anticipation and, quite frankly, a great deal of relief, that we are able to reinstate our football program and secure Bob Enger as our coach,” Pierce President David Wolf said. “We are delighted that he was available and when we found out that he might be interested, we jumped at it.”

Enger played football at UCLA under Coach Red Sanders but “wasn’t a great football player.” He redshirted in 1954--the year UCLA won the national championship--and played throughout the 1955 season as a linebacker and blocking back, but he saw no action when UCLA played in the Rose Bowl game at the end of that season.

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When he graduated from UCLA, he had the urge to coach. He coached at several high schools before jumping to the college level. At East L. A., he guided his 1968 team into the state junior college championship game. He left coaching for a few years but returned in the early ‘70s. In his most recent coaching stop, he built a solid football program at Cantwell High in Montebello before giving it up in 1983 to pursue a full-time teaching position at East L. A.

Since accepting the two positions at Pierce, Enger jumps each day into his new BMW, which is rapidly accruing miles on the 120-mile West Covina-to-Woodland Hills round-trip commute. But he vows to match his daily drive with his drive to succeed at Pierce.

“I will sell this school to the athletes I want,” he said. “This school is the jewel of the Los Angeles JC district. When I was teaching at other schools in the district, this was the place all of the teachers wanted to get to. It will be the same for the athletes.”

A problem Enger already has solved is an academic counselor for his players. At East L. A., he said, academic ineligibility was a common problem because no one had time to check the football players’ progress in the classroom. At Enger’s insistence, Pierce has approved a new position of instructor and academic counselor.

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“I need that person, someone who is watching out for my players’ needs. Advising them about the right courses to take and monitoring their progress. That’s one requirement I had from the start.”

But Enger said that even without such a person at Pierce, he would expect far fewer academic problems than he encountered at East L. A.

“The student body at a school generally reflects the parents,” he said. “In the Pierce area you have affluence and people who are concerned about their kids, probably more than in other areas of the city. Students here, largely, have their roots in education from the earliest levels. The basic atmosphere of the school and the area is good.”

From that atmosphere Enger must quickly put together a program that can compete in the expanded Western State Conference in just nine months. In his assistant coaches, Enger looked primarily for loyalty.

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“I talk to them and test them,” he said. “I’ll ask a question and wait for a response. If I mention a guy he used to work for and he says the guy was OK, then I figure I might have the guy I’m looking for. If he tells me the guy he worked for was an SOB, then I question his loyalty. Because in two years, I figure I’ll be the SOB in his eyes.”

Enger characterizes himself as a field-position coach. He won’t neglect the offense, he said, but it is defense that makes him light up.

“Because defense and the kicking game give you field position,” he said. “And field position wins football games. Teams at this level don’t march 80 yards down the field to score. You give the ball to teams in our conference on their own 20-yard line, and they’re going to be lucky to score once in eight times. But if you give me the ball on the 50-yard line or the other team’s 45, I’m going to score on you three times out of four.”

He said the Pierce program is only a few weeks behind other local JC programs in recruiting but doesn’t foresee the slow start as a problem.

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“I know we’re behind everyone else, but we’ll catch up,” he said. “I don’t intend to slide through a losing season and then blame recruiting. I intend to win the championship next year. I wouldn’t bet a whole helluva lot on it, but I wouldn’t bet against it, either.

“I don’t mean to sound cocky, but I have a lot of confidence in my football coaching ability. If I can get a few of the right people with me, I’ll beat you.”


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