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One of the Boys : Being Young at Heart Has Served Lawson Well During Fast Start at Chaminade

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Five-thirty a.m. Surf’s up. And so is Rich Lawson.

Lawson chugs through the early morning darkness of Malibu Canyon in his beat-up, 1969 Volkswagen station wagon--which, he argues, is not beat up at all.

“I’ve had this car since 1974,” Lawson says proudly. “My wife keeps telling me, ‘Get rid of that thing and get something new.’ I say, ‘What for? I get good gas mileage and it costs me only 25 bucks a year to register.”

Add to the car’s value a new hood and front fenders.

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Driving along, Lawson, Chaminade High’s second-year football coach, “felt and heard a thud.” In the road lay a deer. Dead.

Hence the body work--and Julie Lawson’s new nickname for her husband’s beloved car: “The Bambi Basher.”

“He came home about an hour later and he was so depressed,” she said. Then, in a scolding tone, she added, “but he had no business going surfing at 5:30 in the morning. He does that too much.”

Doesn’t every high school football coach grab his surfboard and hit the beach before dawn? Probably only a few. Probably only Lawson.

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“I see him down at the beach sometimes,” senior wide receiver Brady Mitchell said. “I was out on my board one day and he came paddling up next to me and said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be at practice?’ I didn’t know who it was at first and then I said, ‘Oh, Coach!’ ”

Oh, yes, Lawson, 33, is a football coach. It just seems a little hard to believe sometimes, considering his boyish grin, clean-cut look and passion for pre-dawn adventure. Most coaches who awaken early probably do so to jog or scrutinize game films.

Lawson, a trim and muscular 180 pounds spread over a 5-foot, 10-inch frame, contradicts the image of the stereotypical coach: the pot-bellied ogre with the whistle around his neck, screaming at young, sweaty faces during afternoon practice.

Yet in his brief career, Lawson has established himself as one of the most successful coaches in the Valley area.

Lawson, last year’s Times Valley Coach of the Year, is riding an early wave of success at Chaminade, where he has compiled an 18-5 record. Last season, Lawson and the Eagles won the Santa Fe League title and came within a play of winning their first Southern Section championship, losing to Woodbridge, 13-10, on a last-second touchdown pass.

Competing this year in the new San Fernando Valley League, Chaminade is 7-2, 3-0 in league play. Tonight the Eagles travel to Notre Dame, Lawson’s alma mater, to face the Knights (7-2, 3-0) for the league championship. With the start of the Division VII playoffs the following week, Lawson’s goal of 20 wins in 2 years is well within reach.

“I hope that record is a reflection of hard work and dedication,” Lawson said.

Undoubtedly. But what does surfing and a beat-up Volkswagen reflect?

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“He’s just a cool guy,” Mitchell said.

Lawson looks like he just stepped out of a television sitcom--the easygoing, fun-loving big brother with the neat sweater. He might be in his 30s, but he could almost pass for 19--his age when he bought the Volkswagen.

Said Julie Lawson: “He loves being around those kids. That’s what keeps him going.”

Lawson often sheds his clipboard and whistle after practice, joining the players in impromptu competition. He will provide 1-on-1 coverage of Mitchell while quarterback Greg Baumgartner slings spirals. He joins in on volleyball games, 1-on-1 basketball and “he hates to lose,” Mitchell said. During a recent flag-football game with his physical education class, Lawson emerged with a ripped pair of shorts.

“He gets along great with the kids,” Chaminade assistant Ken Del Conte said. “It’s like he’s their age.”

However, Lawson, the new kid on the coaching block, is not inexperienced. He served as an assistant at Notre Dame from 1978 to ’80 and followed that with 1-year stints as an assistant at Glendale and Pierce colleges. After a summer of coaching football in Finland, Lawson became coach at Chaminade, where he has been a teacher since 1982.

“He’s got a lot of youth,” assistant Larry Blonsky said. “But he also gets a lot of respect from the players. He demands respect.”

Said Lawson: “As a head coach, I feel I measure up. I have a good work ethic and I know the game of football. Of course, not as well as I will 10 years from now.”

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Lawson credits his assistants with much of the team’s success. He refers to his relatively young staff as “the new breed,” a compilation of enthusiastic, energetic young football minds.

Blonsky is 32, Mike Hogan 38, Tim Kimball 28, and John Phalen 24. Del Conte, who joined the staff this year, is the veteran at 47. Lawson intentionally formed a young staff that would complement his approach to coaching.

“We’re all wide open and not adverse to change,” Lawson said. “They make suggestions and I listen to them. Sometimes I won’t use them, but many times I do. With an older coach with young assistants, sometimes he doesn’t want to learn new tricks. When a young assistant might suggest something, the head coach says, ‘He’s only been coaching two or three years and I’ve been coaching for 15. What does he know?’ ”

Lawson and his staff displayed their adaptability by transforming last year’s run-oriented offense into a potent passing attack this fall. Last year, tailback Tim Lavin, the Desert Mountain Conference Player of the Year, carried the Eagle offense, rushing for 1,742 yards.

But this season, with the team averaging only 125 yards a game on the ground, the offensive load has been shouldered by Baumgartner, who has emerged as the Valley’s leading passer. Baumgartner, unheralded before the season, has completed 119 of 222 passes for 1,838 yards and 21 touchdowns. Chaminade is the Valley’s No. 1 passing team, averaging 204 yards a game.

“The coach has really helped me with my confidence,” said Baumgartner, who says he “choked” in last year’s championship game. “Before the season, he said, ‘It doesn’t matter what they say about you in the beginning of the year, it’s what they say at the end of the year that matters.’ ”

More surprising than Baumgartner’s emergence is the Eagles’ success in light of the team’s dwindling roster. Chaminade began the season with 28 players and is down to 26.

“I didn’t think that at this point in the season, we would be 7-2 and playing for the league championship,” Lawson said. “On the third day of two-a-days we had only 21 kids. Morale seemed low. But we’ve been able to overcome adversity.

“We don’t have the depth that Notre Dame has, but the players that we do have, they’re going to be ready to give it a full four quarters.”

One would expect Lawson to be exceptionally eager to play Notre Dame. Not just because he is a 1973 graduate and former assistant coach, but because he probably still would be coaching there if he had had his way.

Lawson left Notre Dame for Glendale College after his coaching contract was not renewed for reasons he says were never explained to him. He declines to discuss the matter, saying only that there was a “lack of communication” and a “personality conflict” between himself and Notre Dame Coach Kevin Rooney, then in his first year.

“I think it’s a moot point,” Lawson said. “It’s over with.”

Said Rooney: “It wasn’t that big a deal.”

Lawson says that it was a big deal for him in last year’s season-opening, 24-10 loss to Notre Dame, his first game as a head coach.

“I wanted to win so bad that maybe I lost sight of what I was doing and the calls I was making,” he said.

Lawson insists that will not happen tonight.

“The purpose of me wanting to defeat Notre Dame is not to beat Kevin Rooney or show that I’m a better coach because I don’t know if you can prove that,” Lawson said. “We could very well play an excellent football game but still lose. If that makes Kevin Rooney a better football coach than I, then who’s to say?

“I want to win because that’s my nature. It would be nice to win a league championship in the first year of this league. Setting it up against Notre Dame, there are other implications, as well.”

Yet he declines to elaborate.

“They really want to win,” Mitchell said of Chaminade’s coaches. “This week, they’re all wearing Notre Dame shirts. And practice this week has been hell. We practice for 2 1/2 hours and then we have mandatory films.”

Said Conte of Lawson: “He gets so intense the week of a game. He’s there from 7 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night. He must drive his wife nuts.”

Almost.

“I think he loves football more than me,” Julie Lawson said. “He may say that I come first, but I think I’m second to football.”

Yet Lawson bravely rushed to his wife’s defense when the couple spotted a rattlesnake in the back yard of their Agoura home last summer. The adventure spawned another nickname.

“We started calling him ‘Rich Dundee,’ ” Julie Lawson said. “He’s in his swim shorts and he rigs up this noose. Then he runs inside to get his cowboy boots on. I was mad. I wanted to call the animal-control people, but he said ‘I want to get it.’ It was just a principle with him.”

Lawson slew the snake and today displays its skin on his office wall. He likes to ceremoniously shake the rattle before games.

“Maybe it’s just my competitive nature,” Lawson said. “I just wanted to get the snake.”

Not so, says Julie Lawson.

“I think he just wanted the rattle,” she said. “That’s why he did it. The 16-year-old kid on our street had one and Rich always wanted it.”


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