Montclair Prep, a small private school with a 4-acre campus in Van Nuys, is built in traditional Southern California fashion: a hint of Spanish architecture, classrooms and offices with large picture windows that look out on open-air hallways.
But there’s one room without a view. It belongs to the athletic director, Howard Abrams, and is also used by the school’s comptroller, Carol Stevens, mother of a Montclair Prep graduate.
Outgoing and gregarious, Stevens sees herself as unofficial cheerleader and historian for the athletics program. So when she’s not counting cash raised by the Spanish Club, she finds time to clip newspaper articles on former Mounties who have gone on to big-time sports.
And that’s why the room looks like London during the blitz, a large coating of newspaper blocking sunlight from coming through the picture window. When Stevens sits at her desk and tries to look out, she sees nothing but yellowing newsprint and reverse type.
Although Montclair Prep has only 400 students in grades 7 through 12 and rents football and baseball facilities, its graduates have managed to keep Stevens busy by making headlines. The articles on the window--known as the “Brag Window"--have overflowed to the office walls, where space is also at a premium.
“When we run out of room,” Stevens says, “it’s always a dilemma: Who am I going to take down? I get so emotional about it.”
In the past few years, Montclair Prep--despite a meager annual pool of about 100 boys--has sent a good number of athletes to major colleges, including New Orleans Saints defensive back Toi Cook and former Pacific-10 Conference baseball Player of the Year Torey Lovullo. But the production of newspaper articles--as well as the school’s reputation--went sky-high recently when a pair of Montclair Prep grads helped Washington State pull off a 34-30 win over then No. 1-ranked UCLA in a nationally televised game. In combining for 4 touchdowns, Riche Swinton and Tim Stallworth got the attention of the announcers, who brought up the Montclair Prep connection.
“You can’t buy advertising that good,” says Dr. V. E. Simpson, founder and director of the school. After the telecast, Simpson received more than 2 dozen phone calls from all over the country and he expects at least 10 new students to transfer, including as many as 5 football players from Colorado.
Montclair Prep’s success in attracting top athletes is reflected in the Mounties’ performances over the years. The school has won 4 Southern Section championships in baseball, 2 in basketball and 1 in football in addition to dozens of Alpha League titles in all sports. This season, the football team won a share of the league title but was eliminated Saturday in the first round of the Division IX playoffs by Oak Park, 24-6.
“Montclair has great tradition,” says Lovullo, now a member of the Detroit Tigers organization. “And when I went there, I wanted to continue it.”
Although there is a strong emphasis on sports at Montclair, it is by no means just a playground for talented jocks. “It’s a great academic school,” Lovullo says. “That’s what attracted me.” Last year, every one of its 86 graduates went to college, some having had accumulated 45 hours of college credits at Montclair.
When asked how Montclair Prep manages to integrate athletic excellence with academic excellence, people at the school are unanimous: Simpson “sets the tone,” Stevens says.
“It all stems from him,” says Lovullo, a UCLA graduate. “He’s a great guy who loves sports.”
Simpson, 61, is a rotund, jovial man who is called “Doc,” even by students. “As long as they say it with respect,” he adds.
Simpson started the school in 1956 with 5 students, but, although the figure shot up to 75 by the second year and continued rising through the ‘60s, “we were attracting the egghead kid,” Simpson says. “We wanted to be more well-rounded--and I believe in strong mind and strong body.”
Simpson moved the school to its current location in 1963 and decided to begin stressing athletics. “Kids have a certain amount of energy that must be expended,” says Simpson, who has his doctorate in educational psychology. “If you have a strong athletic program, the kids are better behaved in class and they’re likely to stay away from drugs and other problems.”
In every success story, there is usually a stroke of luck to help the protagonist. Simpson found his when he did a favor for L. A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in the early ‘60s. Hahn reciprocated by introducing Simpson to Walter O’Malley, owner of the Dodgers.
“We met in O’Malley’s office and he was smoking a big stogie,” Simpson says. “He tells me, ‘I know what you want but you have to listen to me first.’ He went on for 45 minutes talking about all the problems he was having trying to build Dodger Stadium.”
What Simpson wanted, he got. O’Malley began sending Montclair Prep old equipment--balls, uniforms and bats, “maybe 100 Louisville Sluggers a year,” Simpson says. But O’Malley also sent something else of great importance to the school’s baseball team: Lefty Phillips, who was a scout for the Dodgers at the time and went on to be manager of the Angels.
“You can imagine how great this was for a young player to get that caliber of instruction,” Simpson says.
Simpson seems to have a knack for hiring top coaches, providing a lot of them with their first coaching experience. Cal State Northridge basketball Coach Pete Cassidy began his career at Montclair Prep, as did high school basketball coach Steve Goldstein of Oak Park and football coaches Joel Schaeffer of Reseda, Gene Uebelhardt of Royal High and John Hazelton of Valley College.
After the 1969 football season, Simpson had a hunch about a 19-year-old Montclair Prep graduate and elevated George Giannini from assistant football coach to head coach. From 1970 through ’78, when the school played 8-man football, Giannini led the Mounties to 8 Delphic League titles and a Southern Section championship.
Giannini’s teams put Montclair Prep on the athletic map in the Valley.
“When George first started,” Simpson says, “we were a doormat. He started the winning tradition and took us from the bottom of the league to the top.”
It was the winning tradition, Giannini says, that began attracting not only top athletes but top student-athletes. “Then we started getting them into good colleges and they started doing well, which feeds on itself,” says Giannini, who left Montclair Prep after the 1978 season and again after the ’83 season, returning this year.
Montclair Prep’s athletic success has elevated school spirit, Simpson notes, but it has not made the Mounties popular with rivals.
“Crespi is the team you love to hate among large schools,” says a Valley-area high school coach, “and Montclair is the same way with small schools.”
Montclair Prep, which gets most of its students from the West Valley--with a strong contingent from the Chatsworth-Northridge area--often seems to wind up with talented players who began their careers at other schools, the rival coach says. Three years ago, the Southern Section investigated the eligibility of several Montclair Prep football players, but no irregularities were found. Recruiting is not allowed by the California Interscholastic Federation, even for a private school.
Simpson hears the criticism. “We often get accused of recruiting,” he says, sitting behind a large desk in his trophy-filled office. “But we don’t have to recruit. You get a couple of good athletes, then you get the publicity from them, and it snowballs. When Toi came here, a lot of kids heard he was here and applied.”
But there is a fine line between “recruiting” and “encouraging,” and Montclair Prep often walks it. Simpson credits a lot of Montclair Prep’s baseball success in the ‘80s to Coach Jeff Pressman, the school’s former athletic director. Pressman once owned the Valley Cardinals, a summer baseball camp attended by some of the best youngsters in the area, and he used to recommend Montclair Prep to parents of his players. That’s how Pressman found Lovullo, a stringy seventh-grader, in 1978.
“I had strong ties to Jeff,” Lovullo says. “He told me what a good school Montclair was.” Lovullo left Montclair Prep his sophomore year and went to Birmingham High for a semester but returned “because it didn’t work out academically at Birmingham,” he says.
Abrams, a co-coach in basketball, insists that enrolling an unproven youngster is different than persuading an established high school star to transfer.
“You can’t predict how a seventh-grader is going to turn out,” he says, standing in the gym watching the junior high basketball team practice. “Most of our recruiting is done right here in this gym. What you see will be our varsity.”
Private schools are not permitted to give tuition-free scholarships to any student. At Montclair Prep, where tuition runs $5,200 a year, students in need are given financial aid, Simpson says, “if their families qualify.” Even athletes, he says, receive the same scrutiny.
“There’s no preference for athletes,” he says. “There are some of our athletes on financial aid, but their athletic abilities were not a consideration.” As examples, Simpson points out Lovullo (no aid) and Cook (partial aid).
Winning, says Simpson, is important, “but there are some things more important than winning a game.” Twice in the past 5 years, on the eve of big baseball playoff games, Simpson has suspended players for cutting school and drinking. One of the games, a loss, was played with second-stringers; the other was forfeited by Montclair Prep.
“The emphasis here is on sportsmanship,” Simpson says.
Athletes, he says, are governed by the 40-page Montclair Student Handbook, a compendium of rules and responsibilities covering everything from hair (no shaved designs) and “forbidden” dress (blue jeans and sandals) to “courtesy and respect” (never call the faculty members by their first names).
A lot of Montclair Prep students have demonstrated great physical prowess over the years, but one stands out for his spectacular moves--we’re talking about the ability to sing and moonwalk at the same time. Yes, the Gloved One, Michael Jackson, was a student at Montclair Prep in 1972-73 but left to tour with the Jackson 5.
“He was a real nice kid,” Simpson says, adding that Jackson did not play sports.
Neither did Cher, a Montclair Prep student in 1961-62. She was a homecoming princess, however, and a great inspiration to the football team, Simpson says.
THE HONOR ROLL MONTCLAIR PREP ATHLETES WHO WENT ON TO PLAY IN COLLEGE
Name Class College Sport Tom McKay 1981 Northridge Baseball Rocco Buffolino* 1982 CS Sacramento Baseball Toi Cook* 1983 Stanford Football Torey Lovullo* 1983 UCLA Baseball Todd Bowser 1985 Northridge Basketball Vern Williams 1985 Penn Football Tim Stallworth 1985 Washington St. Football Riche Swinton 1986 Washington St. Football Frank Charles 1986 Pepperdine Baseball Jeff Light 1986 Stanford Baseball Eric Treibatch 1986 Northridge Football Bill Houston 1986 CS Fullerton Football Anthony Pack 1986 CS Fullerton Football