It’s his expression that throws you. Serious but polite, intense but intellectual. The kind of look your geometry teacher gives you when you say you did your homework, but due to mysterious atmospheric conditions, it evaporated the moment you walked into class.
Fred DiPalma gives you this look when asked how he managed to turn around Savanna High School’s football program, one of the biggest losers since red dye No. 2.
The unranked Rebels (6-2-1, 4-0 in the Orange League) play third-ranked Valencia (9-0, 4-0) for the league championship Friday night at Valencia.
“The thing we had to overcome,” DiPalma says, choosing his words carefully, “was a few years of losing.”
A few years? Since the late 1970s, Savanna football has been one of the county’s top tragicomedies. The Rebels suffered through season-long scoreless streaks. Coaches came and went like window shoppers. And, for the most part, players embraced the attitude of Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore--they were positively pessimistic.
The brutal reality: From 1978 through 1988, Savanna’s overall record was 18-79-1.
And you were saying something about the Rams?
There was a high point, however. After going 0-9 in 1975 and 4-5 in ’76, Coach Mike Merkle guided the 1977 Rebels to an 8-3 season and the second round of the playoffs.
Merkle, now an assistant at Cerritos College, was replaced by Jim Everett (no, not that Jim Everett), who was replaced by Glen Garson, who was replaced by Alex Henderson, who led the 1983 Rebels to the school’s last winning season (6-4-1) before DiPalma’s arrival.
The next coach, Ron Milner, stayed two seasons, going 1-19. His farewell speech?
“I just didn’t see how anyone could build a winning tradition at Savanna,” he said.
Dana Coleman could probably relate. He stayed three years, and went 5-25.
Enter DiPalma, a former Santiago High School linebacker who, despite being 30 pounds under his playing weight, still looks as if he could snap a redwood in two with his toes.
Not that he would, mind you. At least not before considering every ramification. He is a gentle, thinking man’s coach, prone to processing every bit of information he can get his gray matter on. He thinks things through and thinks them through again, analyzing every possible aspect for any possible advantage.
But he’s flexible, too. In his mind, a good decision can always be--and should be--scrapped for a better one. In his final analysis, there is no final analysis.
It works for Savanna. The Rebels are 18-8-4 since DiPalma took over in 1989. That’s 18 victories (and counting) in three years, as many as Savanna had in the previous 11 years. The Rebels earned playoff berths the past three years, including this one.
DiPalma, who will be 35 Saturday, credits this to hard work, preparation, organization and putting the team first.
Sure, every coach worth his polyester shorts espouses those virtues, but DiPalma learned from the master, Valencia Coach Mike Marrujo. As an assistant at Valencia during the 1987-88 seasons--after three years as a head coach at Santiago--DiPalma learned a few tricks of the trade, not only technical aspects of the game, but organizational skills and player development.
Now with their big game only a few days away, DiPalma can’t wait to show up his former boss, right? Can’t wait for that play-calling showdown? That dramatic duel of wits, guts and instincts?
There’s that look again.
“If we beat Valencia, it’ll be nice because it will mean we’re the league champions,” DiPalma says, sounding as if he’s reading the list of ingredients on a cereal box. “But I don’t think I’d savor it more because I worked there. It certainly wouldn’t be like, ‘Ha, we got back at you.’ ”
If you think he’s downplaying, he’s not. His players say DiPalma is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He expects perfection but isn’t overly frazzled when it isn’t delivered. He rarely shows emotion, which explains why players were thrilled last month when he was unable to suppress a smile after Savanna pulled off a stunning 23-20 upset of Brea-Olinda, then the county’s seventh-ranked team.
DiPalma is a quiet, serious, responsible father of two. he the second-oldest of seven children. Believe it or not, his parents say, he never once caused any trouble (that they knew of), kept his room spotless and organized, and always brought home A’s.
DiPalma is so shy that when he was first courting his wife, Karen, then a supermarket checker, he wouldn’t go to her check-out line but the line next to hers. It went on for weeks, until he finally let her ring up a bag of dog food. It was true love.
His players, the seniors at least, have seen his soft side, too. That was in 1989, DiPalma’s first year, when Savanna had to forfeit victories because of the use of an ineligible player. The Rebels, who had earned their first playoff berth in six years, weren’t going anywhere. DiPalma gathered the players in a room, told them the news, then broke down.
Although he didn’t make a great fuss at the time--some parents took the Southern Section to court--DiPalma says the memory still hurts. He still reminds himself that the forfeited games were still victories--on the field.
“I hated to see it dragged out like that (in court),” he says. “But for the kids’ sake, they had to take it as far as they could.”
Without DiPalma, though, they probably wouldn’t have gotten that far in the first place.