A Players' Coach : Santa Monica's Tebb Kusserow Believes Football Is a Chance for Young Men to Know Themselves

Times Staff Writer

There probably are many high school football coaches who believe that winning isn't everything, some perhaps who think that winning comes second to character development among players.

There may not be many, however, who believe with Santa Monica High Coach Tebb Kusserow that football, more than any school activity, is the best way of fulfilling the Socratic dictum: Know thyself.

Winning has a prominent place in the coaching philosophy of Kusserow, 45. In 15 years as Santa Monica's head coach, his teams have won 108 games, more than any other football coach in the history of the school, which played its first game before the turn of the century. His up-to-date record is 108-42-4; Jim Sutherland's teams at Santa Monica were 79-13-3 from 1941 through 1952.

But to Kusserow, putting points on the board is less important than putting young men on the path to self-discovery.

"I think that football offers a young man, first and foremost, the opportunity to find out more about himself as a thinker, doer and feeler than any other activity on campus," he said in an interview.

Football does not build character, either, he said, adding:

"It takes a tremendous amount of character to play it, a tremendous amount of courage to step on the field because football is such an unnatural game. To play it, you have to learn emotionally how to handle and control your natural instincts of not walking into something."

When you are out walking and find a telephone pole in your path, the natural thing to do is to walk around it, Kusserow said. In football, however, players are taught to tackle or block the pole.

He believes all sports bring self-knowledge but that a person can learn more about himself in football than in any other sport.

He likes to remember the words of one of his advisers at USC, the late historian Eleanor Metheny. He said Metheny used to say: "In sports, you can't escape the implications of who you are."

In terms that the ancient Greeks would understand, "You stand naked before the gods," Kusserow said. "The great thing about sport is that it requires you to be the best that you can be; the rules demand it. That's a good lesson for a young man."

If Kusserow's approach to football is that of an impassioned intellectual, it should not be surprising. He holds a Ph.D. in physical education from USC, and in the 1977 and 1978 academic years, he took a leave from Santa Monica High to lecture in his field at the State College of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

His dissertation for his doctoral degree was a comparative analysis of interscholastic sport at secondary schools in California and Australia, and he attempted in his thesis to identify the educational ideas that formed the philosophical basis for interscholastic sport. So his approach to football has been something more than trying to chart the offensive and defensive tendencies of his next opponent.

But if it were not for football, he might not have had the opportunity to go to graduate school after his undergraduate years at USC. He got to USC on a football scholarship after playing guard and linebacker for Coach Jim Powers at Santa Monica College. Before that, he was a two-way tackle at Santa Monica High.

What kind of lineman was he in high school? Don Steere, who retired last year from Santa Monica High after a long association as player, coach and athletic director, can speak with some authority on that subject. Steere said that Kusserow, who was a three-year starter on his high school varsity team, was as good at playing as he is at coaching.

"He would never make any mental errors," Steere said, and he was tough. "He had a serious shoulder problem, and the only thing he could do was use a strap and chain (to hold in a dislocated shoulder). It would come out (during a game), and somebody would pop it back in for him, maybe two or three times."

In 1958, Kusserow started as a sophomore on a Viking team that lost the CIF-Southern Section major division championship game to Long Beach Poly, 31-19. In 1981, his Vikings won the Southern Section Coastal Conference title, defeating Long Beach Poly, 21-8.

His high school coach was Leon McLaughlin, a star center for UCLA and the Los Angeles Rams. Kusserow said that McLaughlin was "a tremendous teacher. He understood the game so well and played the game at the highest levels. . . . He did more to stimulate my interest in football as a career than anything else that ever happened to me."

What happened to him after he left Santa Monica College and went to play football for then-USC Coach John McKay made it certain that his career as a player was over.

After one of his first practices with the Trojans, Kusserow left the field, complaining of a severe headache. "I don't know how it happened," he said, but the headache turned out to be a cerebral hemorrhage, an injury that ended his playing days before he could put on a Trojan game jersey.

After a stay in the hospital and rest at home, he returned to USC, where McKay told him his scholarship would be honored although doctors said he should not play that year. The next year he returned to McKay's office and informed the coach that he would never play again. His scholarship was then honored for his senior year.

Kusserow said he does not regret that he had to give up playing. He said he thinks he was fortunate to be associated with "such tremendous people in football," including McKay and his then-assistant Marv Goux (now an assistant coach with the Rams), Powers and McLaughlin.

He said that because he did not play for USC as a junior and senior he had the "chance to do well academically. You probably cannot focus as well academically when you are playing.

"I had to try to take the negatives and turn them into positives. It was very difficult for me to go to a game during my first year at USC. I channeled all my energy into my classes."

After two years on the dean's list he was able to focus on graduate school and the possibility of a career in college teaching. He said that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, educators were predicting there would soon be a shortage of teachers. The federal government responded by providing three-year fellowships to graduate school for students who would commit to teaching as a career.

Kusserow was awarded one of the fellowships, and that's how he got his Ph.D. His original goal was to teach in college, he said, but after he finished graduate school it turned out that there were too many teachers and not enough jobs. He said he had one job offer, at the State University of New York at Brockport, but that he didn't want to leave Santa Monica with his wife, Jeannie, and his first son, Tebb Jr., then 6 months old.

He said that his wife was then teaching at Roosevelt Elementary School and he was that school's playground director when he learned of a teaching and coaching opening at Santa Monica High. He was hired, went on to succeed Steere as head coach the following year and has never left. He said that, though he has been offered posts in college coaching, he does not want to leave Santa Monica High. He said he thinks that football tends to become a business beyond high school, not an avenue for teaching. "I didn't want to leave the community and my family," he said. "I wouldn't have done anything to make (his situation) unstable."

He has three sons, and all are playing football at Santa Monica High. Tebb Jr., 17, and Todd, 16, are on the varsity, and Tim, 15, is on the freshman-sophomore team. Tebb, incidentally, is the surname of Arthur C. Tebb, Coach Kusserow's maternal grandfather.

Jeannie Kusserow, now in the real estate field, doesn't consider herself a football widow and said that she thinks she has been lucky that all her children are boys.

"I love football, absolutely," she said. Sometimes I think I love it more than (Tebb) does. We're fortunate that we had boys; football fits in real well with our family life style."

She has lived in the neighborhood near Santa Monica College, also the high school's home field, since she was a youngster. She has long been involved with the high school; she met her husband in a 10th-grade English class.

"I haven't missed a Samohi game since I was 9 years old. We (her parents and family) just always went to the games. I wouldn't know what to do on Friday night without football.

"Everything in our life revolves around football. So many football marriages don't succeed, but you just have to admit that it's going to happen, not fight it and roll with it."

Kusserow's assistant coaches, like his wife, have been with him for many years, and apparently they are also happy with the status quo. Norm Lacy, who succeeded Steere as athletic director, is his chief assistant, and other assistants are Irv Kasten and Mike Griswold, who was head coach when Kusserow was in Australia.

Kusserow said the keys to a successful high school football program are having "a successful level of teaching" and a good coach for linemen. His first line coach was Kent Francisco, who was a star offensive guard at UCLA. Francisco was with Kusserow from 1972 through 1977 and is now a dentist. Griswold was his own line coach when he filled in for Kusserow for two seasons, and Lacy has coached the linemen since 1979.

What kind of a head coach has Kusserow been? "Exceptional," said Steere.

"He's not just thinking about winning and losing," Steere said. "My son Doug played for him in 1973, and I can't think of any person I would rather have had him (play for).

"For character, honesty and modesty, I always thought he was a cut above most of the rest. He's a class person, and he produces a class act."

Bill Stansbury is co-coach with Dick Billingsley at Beverly Hills High, which plays football in the Ocean League. In a Southern Section realignment of leagues in 1986, Santa Monica was placed in the Ocean League, and a football rivalry that had been dormant for many years was revived.

Stansbury has a lot of respect for Kusserow. "We have to prepare differently for Santa Monica," he said. "We think, with the talent they have and the way they utilize it, you can't do the things you normally do or they'll completely shut you down.

"They appear to be very, very organized. And when you've got that kind of talent and they are disciplined in that fashion, you're going to be successful."

Stansbury said he doesn't believe that Kusserow is obsessed with football as some coaches are. As evidence of that, he said that Kusserow doesn't schedule an early opener as many schools have been permitted to do in recent years. "He's not tunnel-visioned (about football); he's more of a family-oriented guy."

Kusserow knows that football's role in education is not without problems but thinks that high schools do a good job of keeping the game in perspective. He said he believes that one of the game's greatest problems is that players have false expectations of what football will do for them.

He said that some youths "look at football as a way of going to college, and I think that's wrong. First, you want to play and then be part of the team and be successful.

"If you're good enough, you will go to college. (Some players) don't see the relationship between football and academics. The only thing they think about is a scholarship, and that's wrong.

"I try to help players understand that the reason they're here is, No. 1, to be a good student, and if you play football, it's because you want to. If you don't want to play, you're probably not going to play it well."

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