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Rolling Hills Coach Returns and Brings Three of His Pals

Times Staff Writer

They say you can never go back, but Gary Kimbrell knows better. Not only has Kimbrell returned to Rolling Hills High School after 12 years, he has reached back and grabbed a piece of his past by bringing together three old friends to help him coach the Titan football team.

It’s a reunion rich in experience.

Assisting Kimbrell this season are Dwaine Lyon, Rolling Hills’ head coach in 1964-78; Garry Poe, the 18-year baseball coach at Rolling Hills, who has not coached football since 1974; and Jim Small, who was Kimbrell’s defensive coordinator for nearly a decade at Miraleste High.

Together they form what Kimbrell affectionately calls the “over-the-hill gang.” Their mission is to turn around a team that has struggled to a 5-24-1 record over the last three seasons.

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That’s a far cry from what Kimbrell is used to. In 10 years (1977-86) as Miraleste coach, Kimbrell’s undersized and undermanned teams won four league titles, went to the CIF-Southern Section playoffs nine times and compiled a 69-42-2 record.

Some consider Kimbrell a savior because of his past success. His response: “Not hardly.”

But he is optimistic heading into the Titans’ season opener at 3 p.m. Friday against Redondo at Rolling Hills.

“If I can keep guys like Garry and Dwaine and Jim, and get some lower-level coaches, our program is going to be solid,” Kimbrell said. “The kids have a good attitude. It’s more than just coming out here and working out. It’s believing in yourself.

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“When I was at Miraleste, those guys thought when they walked on the field they were going to win. That’s the kind of attitude you have to develop.”

The players say they have noticed a change since Kimbrell took over.

“Things are a lot more intense,” said John Lee, a 6-2, 220-pound offensive lineman who was named all-Bay League last season. “He keeps on pushing us to the limit. Maybe sometimes beyond the limit. He’s setting us mentally different this year. He’s keeping all of us mentally tough.”

Said quarterback Rick Judge: “He’s got everything organized and he’s got everybody working hard. Last year was a little more lax.”

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Kimbrell, 48, learned his disciplined, hard-nosed style of football during the nine seasons (1968-76) he served as assistant coach under Lyon. Those were the glory days of Rolling Hills football, when the Titans consistently fielded some of the finest teams in the South Bay.

“All the football basics that I know, I got from Dwaine,” he said. “He has so much knowledge, it’s unbelieveable.”

Lyon, 63, had said he would never coach football again after hanging it up in 1978. He changed his mind only because Kimbrell asked.

“I came back to help Gary,” Lyon said in a Southern drawl, the product of his Texas upbringing. “He did a good job for me, and it’s really hard to get a coach, so I came back to help him. If it was anybody else here, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

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Poe echoed the same reason for returning to the gridiron after 14 years, in which time he turned down other offers to coach football at the school. He was an assistant under Lyon before devoting all his coaching time to baseball.

“This just happened at the right time,” he said. “Gary is a known quantity. I’m not talking down on anyone else, but I do know Gary. I didn’t know the other (head coaches). I know how demanding he is. He and I were both brought up in the Dwaine Lyon school of coaching, so we are very similar.”

Poe’s other reason for coaching football is his son, Scott, a freshman at Rolling Hills.

“He’s a football player, and I want him to be part of a good program,” he said. “If I can help strengthen the program . . . maybe Gary sensed this.”

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After Lyon stepped down as coach, Rolling Hills went through three coaches in successive three-year periods--the late John Oswald, Dan Phillips and John Mack Brown. Although Phillips fielded competitive teams, the overall program slumped during this period.

Kimbrell says the only way Rolling Hills can slowly climb to the top is by building from the bottom. That means securing competent coaches for the lower levels, which sometimes are taken for granted.

“When I accepted the job, the biggest thing that I wanted was an entire coaching staff,” he said. “The struggle to get coaches for all levels was one of the reasons I got out of Miraleste. You get to the point where pretty soon you start having a negative attitude toward the younger kids and you just worry about the varsity. I carried that attitude for a little bit too long.

“When I came over here, I figured that I’m smarter than to get into a situation where I’m not going to have help. I wanted to get Dwaine back, and I wanted to get Garry Poe back, and I wanted to get Jim Small over here. And that occurred.”

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However, Kimbrell’s plans to acquire coaches for the lower levels ran into snags. He lined up several coaches, but he ended up losing most of them for various reasons. Darrin Del Conte, a former player under Kimbrell at Miraleste, left when he was named co-coach at his alma mater.

“Darrin worked with us all spring, and then he got the job at Miraleste,” he said. “I couldn’t say anything about that, but it hurt us. Darrin could have come in and coached the frosh-soph team.

“It’s real aggravating. The enjoyment of going out there and working with the kids has a haze over it because I’m still worrying about the lower levels. Some things never change.”

Rolling Hills lost another valuable member of the team this summer when returning quarterback Steve Kennan moved with his family to Denver. Kennan’s father, Larry, is an assistant coach with the Broncos. He formerly was the quarterback coach for the Raiders.

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Despite the setbacks, Kimbrell is happy to be back on the sidelines. He sat out last season, the first time in 34 years that he neither coached nor played football. The Rolling Hills job represents a rebirth for his career, one that became somewhat stagnant at Miraleste.

“One of the things that makes this year so interesting is that everything is new,” he said. “We got into a rut at Miraleste. The kids knew everything. They knew the offense and the defense. It was easy, but it got to be a little monotonous, too.”

Small, who was Kimbrell’s right-hand man at Miraleste, also feels a sense of rejuvenation.

“There’s a little more to look forward to here,” he said. “We had some (Miraleste) kids who started as sophomores and were with us for three years. They hear the same speech and the same stuff over and over. These guys are hearing it for the first time. It’s nice.”

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The 5-4, 130-pound Kimbrell is a tough taskmaster. He may look more like Mickey Rooney than Mike Ditka, but the former running back at Hawthorne High and Pepperdine works his players hard and expects commitment from them.

Some, apparently, were not able to give it. Since last spring, the Titans’ roster has dropped from 50 players to around 35.

Kimbrell said he expected that to happen. It usually does. For the players who remain, the coaching demands are a small price to pay.

“A couple of people have quit,” Judge said. “I guess they just didn’t want to deal with this. But if you want to play football, this is how it is played. You can’t come out here and do everything halfway. You have to do it like the coaches are showing us.”

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Kimbrell hopes the next step is showing Rolling Hills how to win again.


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