Austin's New City Limits : Former South Torrance Football Coach Takes Job at Rival North

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say it ain't so, Joe.

That undoubtedly was the reaction of South Torrance High football fans when Joe Austin, coach of the Spartans for 17 years, was named coach of rival North Torrance High two weeks ago.

Austin's son, Brett, a former football standout for South, was one of those initially disturbed by the news.

"My son and his friends see it as a loyalty thing," Kathie Austin said. "At first, it was, 'Oh no, how can you do this to the Spartans?'

"It's a funny feeling. Who would have ever thought he'd coach at North?"

Not Joe Austin, that's for sure.

"I really couldn't picture myself coaching here at first," he said. "I said, 'God, what am I doing here?' "

Austin didn't end up at North by design.

When he left teaching in January of 1989 to go into private business with his brother, Jeff, Austin was excited about embarking on a new career. "The possibility to make a lot of money was there," he said.

But 14 months later, Austin, 47, was faced with a mid-life crisis.

The Irvine-based computer company he worked for was strapped financially, and the owner informed all the sales representatives, including Austin, that they would no longer receive a salary. They would only be paid on commission.

"It was the worst day of my life," Austin said. "My brother had to tell me, too. It was the worst day of his life."

Unable to support his family under those terms, Austin left the company.

That was in March. Today, he is teaching science and coaching football at North. And he couldn't be happier.

"This is where I belong, by far," he said. "I wasn't dealing with what I really like to do at the computer company. Because, a lot of times, adults are not a whole lot of fun to work with, and the kids are great."

Austin has always enjoyed working with kids, whether they are at South or North. He realizes that more than ever after his ill-fated experience in the business world.

"I didn't know how much I missed coaching until I got back in coaching," he said. "A lot of times when you leave, all you remember is the bad stuff. Then when you get back, you remember the good stuff.

"The reward at the computer company was money. The reward in education is seeing the kids get better and learn."

Austin recovered quickly after he left the computer company late in March.

The next day, he was on the phone with John Conway, director of personnel for the Torrance Unified School District. He learned there was an opening in the science department at North and set up an interview with Principal Peggy Tremayne.

Once hired, Austin looked into rejoining the coaching ranks.

Regaining his old job at South was out of the question because Don Morrow had established himself during his rookie season last year, guiding the team to a second-place finish in the Ocean League and a CIF playoff berth.

Austin thought about returning to South as an assistant coach and possibly coaching the Spartan baseball team, but what he really wanted was another head coaching job in football.

The opportunity arose in May, when Don Bohannon resigned after four years as North's coach. According to a source, Bohannon was pressured to resign by Tremayne, the principal, after he purchased new uniforms without permission.

"If he wouldn't have resigned, (Tremayne) would have fired him," said the source, who requested anonymity. "He made one mistake and she jumped all over him."

Said Bohannon: "Let's just say there were disagreements. I promised her I wouldn't get into it."

Tremayne said she would not have fired Bohannon. She declined to comment on the allegation that Bohannon violated school policy by purchasing new uniforms without getting the money up front.

Austin, worried that Bohannon might suspect he had something to do with the coach's removal, tried to smooth over any hard feelings.

"As soon as he resigned, I went over to his classroom and said, 'Hey, I don't know if it's a coincidence or what, but I haven't talked to (Tremayne) about the head job and I hope you don't think it's me that made you have to resign.' It really made me feel bad."

Athletic Director Steve Schmitz, who coached North for 10 seasons before becoming an assistant at El Camino College in 1986, took over the Saxons in spring football and persuaded Austin to help out. A few weeks later, Austin was chosen over four other finalists to become North's coach.

"It was fate," Austin said. "I remember when I walked on the field with Steve Schmitz. I said, 'Steve, I would have bet you a million dollars that I'd never walk on this field as the coach.' "

When Austin was at South and Schmitz was coaching at North, they met 10 times on the gridiron. Now they are working together, trying to help North return to prominence after a 2-8 season in 1989.

Austin is coaching the offense and Schmitz has taken the defense in the Saxons' passing-league games. But Austin said he doesn't know if Schmitz's commitments to El Camino will allow him to coach at North in the fall.

"If Steve could stay, that would really be great," he said.

For nearly two decades, Austin's name was synonymous with South Torrance football.

His teams compiled a record of 108-63-2 and won league titles in 1981, '86 and '87. Among the players who blossomed under Austin were linemen Brian Kelly and Wes Jordan (both UCLA recruits), wide receivers Johnnie Morton (USC), Rich Harger and Derek Sholl, linebacker Paul Hill (Oregon State), running back Steve Kujawa and two members of his own family--brother Jeff, a quarterback who played at El Camino and Colorado, and his son Brett, a tight end who played at El Camino before giving up football after a neck injury.

Joe Austin was a standout athlete himself at South, excelling in football, basketball and baseball. He went on to play baseball at USC.

"I still have a lot of loyalties at South," he said.

He grew up in the South Torrance area and now resides in nearby Redondo Beach. If ever there was a man who appeared entrenched in his job, it was Austin.

Why, then, did he give up a secure teaching position for a sales job he knew virtually nothing about?

"It was the excitement, the money," he said. "It sounded so neat. The company was growing so much. We had a chance to really make it big. It just didn't work out."

As a sales rep, Austin's job was to find buyers for the company's line of computer systems. He left home at 7 a.m. and usually didn't return until 7 p.m. Most of his day was spent on the freeway or on the phone.

When the business was flourishing, he had no regrets.

"I didn't think about football," he said. "I didn't even think about education. All I thought about was selling computers and learning how to be a good salesman. That's how you've got to be, because if you're not, you won't be able to do it."

In time, though, Austin began to grow weary of the long drive to Orange County. And, he began to miss the classroom.

"I don't think we realized how much he missed teaching and coaching," Kathie Austin said.

Nevertheless, Austin said he would have stuck with it if the company had not encountered a financial crunch.

"Once they said they couldn't pay me, I said, 'Hey, that's it.' But I would have stayed with it. I would have given it another year."

Instead, Austin returned to the classroom with no regrets.

"I would do it all over again," he said. "It was a hell of a good experience. I learned a lot."

Austin begins his second coaching stint with renewed enthusiasm and new objectives.

"When I left South, I wrote down all the things I wanted to do but never did," he said. "I made a promise to myself that if I ever came back, I'd do certain things differently."

They include taking more interest in players on the underclass levels and spending more time working with the varsity quarterback in the off-season.

Austin said North quarterback Brian Jurado doesn't need much work. The senior, beginning his third year as the varsity starter, led the South Bay with 1,943 yards passing in 10 games last season.

"He's as good as any of the quarterbacks I've ever coached," he said.

In the L.A. Games last weekend, the Saxons defeated Chatsworth and Verbum Dei before losing to Canyon of Santa Clarita. Austin expects the winning ways to continue next fall.

"I think we're capable of winning the (Pioneer League) title," he said. "These kids are good."

Said Bohannon: "I expect them to do very well next year."

Despite the relative closeness of North and South, which are about five miles apart, Austin said there are differences in the programs. He said more students come out for football at North because the school has a higher enrollment. And he said the North players are generally tougher.

"Some of them come from neighborhoods which are tougher, which is neat, especially for football," he said.

That comment probably won't endear Austin to his old friends at South, but it is an indication he's beginning to feel at home at North.

His wife has noticed the change.

"He's so excited," Kathie Austin said. "He loves to put in a long day. It's nice to get that feeling of starting over again."

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