Calabasas High School had not made the playoffs in more than a decade. It didn’t win a single game two years ago. Local football talent bled out to other teams despite the campus’ high academic performance.
But the Coyotes began turning heads in December 2013 after the school hired a new coach — former University of Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen.
Since Clausen’s arrival, the school, located in one of the most affluent areas in the state, has seen an influx of football players transferring from across Southern California. The moves are raising questions among coaches and others about how a long-floundering program has amassed the kind of blue-chip talent that college scouts covet.
New, strong players have come from communities such as Compton, Long Beach, Malibu and Torrance. Among them: Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Darnay Holmes, both highly touted athletes and the sons of former NFL players.
About 30 football players transferred in the last two years, though not all of them played, according to the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section, which oversees high school sports in the area. The organization has asked the Las Virgenes Unified School District to review half of the transfers to ensure that the new student athletes are eligible.
Over the last two weeks, administrators began visiting the homes of football players who had transferred to Calabasas. They interviewed parents and students about their move, where they were living and any contact they might have had with coaches before they decided to transfer.
Based on the review, administrators said some students will be allowed to play in Friday’s home opener. Others may have to wait a month because of rules governing transfers.
“When you get the number of transfers you get, you’ve got to watch it carefully,” said Las Virgenes Unified Supt. Dan Stepenosky. “It’s exciting, the energy and what’s going on, but you have to follow the rules.”
A winning football team does more than boost school spirit. Grabbing the attention of major collegiate football programs is a high-stakes venture and can be made easier when a player is part of a successful team loaded with prospects.
But teams can face sanctions, including the forfeiture of games, if a player is deemed ineligible because the rules governing transfers weren’t followed. Those rules bar students from transferring to a school for athletic reasons, prohibit the recruiting of student athletes by schools and spell out how quickly a new student can play at a campus.
Making sure that schools adhere to the rules is important, said Tim Kenney, head coach at Oak Park High School, which competes with Calabasas.
“We want to maintain the integrity of the game,” Kenney said. “I think everybody does, but we do live in a time where people are going to push the envelope. People are going to push the limits because high school football is competitive.”
Schools are generally left to police themselves and impose their own sanctions if a violation is found, said Thom Simmons, spokesman for the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section.
“It’s a 100% self-policing organization,” Simmons said. “We’re not the NCAA. We don’t have an investigative office here that goes out with a team of lawyers and scours through paperwork. It just doesn’t exist.”
Clausen said he welcomes the review. He said the coaches in his program have followed the rules and that the students are simply interested in attending a public school that has built strong academic and athletic programs.
He said the football program stands out because his coaches — half of whom played in the NFL, including his brother — have cultivated relationships that help students get into college even if they don’t continue to play football.
“This is a program that is growing and improving, and we’re doing it with the right kids the right way,” said Clausen, who is paid a stipend of $3,500 per season. He does not receive any additional pay, according to school officials.
But some coaches said the high number of transfers at Calabasas raises red flags.
Agoura High School football coach Charlie Wegher said his team had, at most, two transfers this year. Other coaches, such as Kenney at Oak Park, said they had a handful of new football players, but transfers that reach double-digit figures are rare.
“The number of transfers they’ve had is pretty unprecedented,” Wegher said. “I’ve never heard of that in a two-year period. Obviously, when you have a big influx of players headed into a rival school like that it’s concerning.”
One of the first students to transfer to Calabasas in the last two years was quarterback Tristan Gebbia, who attended Oaks Christian, a private school where Clausen was an assistant coach. According to eligibility rules, players who follow their coaches cannot play for a year. Gebbia switched to Calabasas a week before Clausen was hired, according to Southern Section records.
Keyshawn Johnson Jr. grew up in the Calabasas area, but his family moved to Mission Viejo when he was a freshman in high school. In an interview at a recent practice, he said he had problems with some of the coaches and the players at Mission Viejo, but that was not the reason his family returned to Calabasas last year. Rather, he said, his parents decided to move back because his dad was not a fan of living in Orange County.
“I came back here because my family wanted to move here because of their own reasons, and I was OK with it because I had some problems with the players,” said the 17-year-old junior.
With players including Gebbia and Johnson, the team went 6-6 last year. It was the breath of life that Calabasas Principal C.J. Foss said she was hoping for when she hired Clausen to run the flailing program.
“I want great programs for kids,” Foss said. “I wanted a program where, especially for football, kids felt like they were going out on the field and they had a fair shot at winning. They didn’t feel that for a long time.”
Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.