The day before Newport Harbor High School hired Peter Lofthouse to take over as football coach for Jeff Brinkley, the school literally cleaned house. Longtime assistants under Brinkley removed their items from the coaches’ office Monday and left to make way for a new regime.
The Sailors decided to go with Lofthouse, an outsider and a walk-on coach, instead of Matt Burns, a former player and coach under Brinkley, and a current teacher on campus, sources familiar with the situation said.
Athletic director Jerry Murray said Newport Harbor introduced Lofthouse, the former head football coach at San Diego Mesa College, to the football team on Tuesday afternoon as the successor to Brinkley. Murray referred to Lofthouse as “new blood.”
“They seemed interested. They seemed excited, so we’ll see,” Murray said of the nearly 50 players in attendance. “It’s all new.”
Being in charge of a high school football program is new to Lofthouse as well.
Lofthouse turns 37 on April 11. He said there will be added pressure following someone like Brinkley, the Sailors’ winningest coach who retired in January after 32 years at the helm.
Brinkley finished with a 244-130-3 overall record, the fifth-most wins in Orange County, and his Newport Harbor teams made eight CIF Southern Section finals appearances, winning the title three times.
“After all the success Coach Brinkley had, it was, you know, just to hopefully [hire] somebody with some fresh ideas, something a little different,” Lofthouse said when asked what the administration sought from its next coach. “Obviously, with Coach Brinkley retiring, you know, they were looking for another person who was younger, who’s got a lot of energy, you know, passion, who can relate with the kids, and hopefully create some of that excitement that Coach Brinkley’s had in prior years with some really great teams.”
Lofthouse won a lot more in his third and final year in charge at Mesa, a junior college program, than the Sailors did in 2017, when they went 2-8 overall.
Lofthouse led Mesa to its most successful season last year. The Olympians beat Santa Ana College 37-34 in the Southern California Bowl Nov. 18, finishing 9-2 overall. The team went 3-7 in each of the previous two seasons under Lofthouse.
After last season, Lofthouse said he stepped down to be closer to family in Orange County.
“It was more about, you know, just coming home and being back in my community, where I feel comfortable,” said Lofthouse, who is from Lake Forest and graduated from El Toro High School in 2000. “I love the kids [at Mesa]. The kids were great. Mesa was a great experience. I learned a lot. Really what I just kind of came to the realization was, you know, I wanted to be around family. I got a … son, who is about to be 2, and [my wife and me] wanted him to be close to our families.
“When a great program like this opens up, you got to jump on it. Sometimes it may be sooner than you anticipate from a career standpoint, but when it does happen, you got to get it.”
Even if that means Lofthouse’s new job will force him to drive a lot to coach football at Harbor, it’s worth it to him.
For the time being, Lofthouse, who lives in Lake Forest, leaves his home at 6 a.m. to work at the junior college in San Diego. He said he makes it in 90 minutes, a half hour before he teaches health and exercise science courses.
The trip from Mesa to Harbor is 80 miles, and Lofthouse said he should be on the Newport Beach campus by 2 p.m. for workouts.
“The goal is to hopefully get a teaching job here at Newport,” said Lofthouse, adding that he’s working on getting his credential to teach math.
Right now, with spring ball right around the corner, Lofthouse is worried about getting to know his players and putting together a coaching staff. He’s open to meeting with Brinkley’s former assistants, including Burns, Brinkley’s right-hand man.
Brinkley was a great guy and people loved Brinkley, but, you know, people also like a fresh start.
Lofthouse said he was aware that Burns was also a finalist for the position he won. Burns, who served 20 years as an assistant under Brinkley, the last three as the defensive coordinator, was named the interim coach shortly after Brinkley retired at age 65.
With Harbor missing the CIF Southern Section playoffs for the third straight season, the Sailors chose Lofthouse.
“[He’s] got some good ideas for offense and defense,” Murray said of Lofthouse. “He’s a guy who has had success at the college level, and he can relay that to the kids and tell them what’s necessary and show them the hard work that needs to be put in.”
Lofthouse, who runs a spread-option offense, also held offensive coordinator duties for two years at Citrus College in Glendora before taking over at Mesa in 2015. He was an offensive graduate assistant at Baylor University in 2006 and 2007 and earned his master’s degree in kinesiology, before coaching wide receivers at Texas Lutheran, an NCAA Division III program, in 2008.
The offense plagued the Sailors a year ago. Harbor averaged 15.2 points per game, a big reason why the Sailors began 0-8 in 2017, their worst start to a season. They won their final two games to finish 2-3 in the Sunset League, good enough for a share of third place.
The Sailors will be without Sam Barela, last year’s starting quarterback. After leading the boys’ basketball program to its first Sunset League title since the 1979-80 season, Barela, a junior, said he’s going to stick to basketball.
One player who will return is starting middle linebacker Brian Bailey. The junior liked what he heard from Lofthouse.
“Very passionate about football,” Bailey said of Lofthouse. “He said that football is obviously very important to him, but he also wants us to learn to become better men. It’s not just about the game. It’s about a whole lot more. It’s about the rest of life.
“I think with a new head coach it kind of just brings like a new shot of energy to the school. Brinkley was a great guy and people loved Brinkley, but, you know, people also like a fresh start.”