Rise and shine

Times Staff Writer

Ed Croson is sitting in his football office next to the Lake Balboa Birmingham High weight room. The cluttered, former broom closet barely has enough room for his 6-foot-4 frame, and the cacophony raised by banging weights and bass-driven rap music nearly knocks paint off the walls.

But Croson is oblivious. A natural storyteller, he has been engaging a visitor for nearly an hour with stories about the coaching road well-traveled, and his thoughts about the upcoming City Section Championship Division title game his team will play against San Pedro at 8 tonight in the Coliseum.

Since coming to Birmingham in 2000 from West Hills Chaminade, Croson and his staff have turned around a football program that won one City championship since the school opened in 1953, into one seeking its third title in five years.

Along with raising the level of respect for Patriots football, Croson has steadily, if unwillingly, raised his profile as an elite high school coach.

"What he does is keep his guys playing at a high level all the time," said Coach Paul Knox, whose Los Angeles Dorsey team lost in the 2004 final to Birmingham. "He has the program rolling and it's still building, which is a frightening thing. He has moved that program into the elite of the City Section and it will always be a contender."

Any praise aimed at Croson, whose overall record at Birmingham is 64-23, is quickly deflected. "This is not a one-man job," he said. "I couldn't do any of this by myself."

He would rather extol the value and sacrifice of his staff of 10 varsity assistants and six coaches who handle the freshman-sophomore team.

But Croson, 49, who inherited a team that finished 2-8 in 1999, sets the tone and brings the vision.

When the 10-3 Patriots began the 2006 season, it appeared the team might be crushed by the weight of an ambitious nonleague schedule. Early losses to perennial Southern Section powers Encino Crespi, Long Beach Poly and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame did little to reverse that impression.

"I'd always wanted to play Long Beach Poly, to see what they look like," Croson said. "So we schedule them. When it comes around to the game, it's around Labor Day weekend. And our school starts after Labor Day weekend.

"So zero practice on Monday because the LAUSD won't let you practice on Labor Day. On Tuesday, the first day of school is notoriously the worst day of practice during the year anywhere I've ever been in high school. And it's 107 degrees. No one wants to practice. We get nothing out of the guys.

"Wednesday we have, at best, a mediocre practice. Thursday has to be a walk-through, a lighter day."

When the Patriots arrived at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach for the game, Croson's team faced more obstacles.

"We walk into the stadium and there's a group of Polynesian kids speaking Tongan. I've got some Tongan kids. And they're telling our kids they're going to slit their throats, pull out their guts and throw them into the trash cans in Tongan. Our guys get it and were intimidated.

"Then you look at Poly, and they don't look like high school kids. They're big guys. They have this thing called the friendship handshake before the game. I got news for you -- it ain't a 'friendship' handshake. It's a I'm-gonna-show-you-how-mean-we-are look. And our guys got a little shell-shocked."

To the tune of a 46-8 loss.

But the Patriots are 10-1 since that game, and have won nine in a row. They have shut out four of their last nine opponents and given up only 13 points in three playoff games.

"The advantage is, our kids won't be that outmanned the rest of the year, no matter what," Croson said of the demanding schedule. "They have a baseline to draw from."

Tough early season matchups are among Croson's guidelines for success.

More telling about the man himself, however, are his life philosophies. He describes himself as a Marianist educator, grounded in the teachings of the Society of Mary, a Catholic order. Croson learned about Marianist methods during his 11 years as a coach and athletic director at Chaminade.

"There are certain traits that Marianists try to pass on -- honesty, graciousness, hospitality," he said. "Our goals are to develop faith in people.

"Now it doesn't have to be Catholic faith, Christian faith -- just faith in something, believing in something. Trying to teach kids how to adapt to change ... trying to educate the whole person ... trying to help kids instead of criticize kids."

If the Patriots beat San Pedro (12-1) tonight, Croson may hear the D-word -- as in dynasty -- thrown about. Even with 20 departing seniors, he will still have plenty of seasoned players returning next year.

But he'll tell you with a straight face he doesn't know what that means.

"We think as long as we continue to teach good values and help kids become better people, the winning will take care of itself."


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