Wally Grant played at Costa Mesa High in the 1980s and was the Mustangs' defensive coordinator last season. But the blueprint he will use to try to succeed in his first season at the Mustangs' head coach was drawn up in the 1990s by then-coach Myron Miller.
Grant was an assistant coach with Miller during a watershed three-season run that included a trip to the CIF Southern Section Division VIII title game in 1993.
Grant then accompanied Miller to Tustin, where they continued Miller's tradition of smashmouth double-wing offense and the physical imposition of his team's will that sometimes led to lopsided scores and almost always led to appearances in the postseason.
Costa Mesa, led the last five seasons by Jeremy Osso (now an assistant at University High), has been to the playoffs three of the last four seasons, including an outright league crown in 2008 and a co-championship in 2007.
But Osso's three first-round CIF playoff losses ran Mesa's first-round playoff record to 0-7 since its last first-round win in 1997. And the Mustangs are 7-27 outside of Orange Coast League play since joining arguably the least imposing Orange County league in 2006.
"Coming back here has been the perfect storm," said Grant, who noted that being on staff last season has helped the transition to his first head-coaching assignment. "When I was playing here and coaching here with Coach Miller, we were a small fish in a larger pond. When I was playing, we were in the same league with El Toro, and Saddleback had 4,000 kids. We were half their enrollment. And when I was coaching here before, we were in the Pacific Coast League that included Laguna Hills and Trabuco Hills, which meant we were, realistically, competing for third place. It was not a level playing field.
"Now [in the Orange Coast League], we should be competing for a league championship year-in and year-out."
Grant has been deemed "interim coach," and his future will be evaluated based on this season, Principal Phil D'Agostino has said.
Mesa went 3-7, 2-3 in league last year, but optimism for this season is fueled by more than its cozy league placement.
Senior quarterback Nathan Alvis returns with a veteran receiving corps and three returning starters on the offensive line. Further, there are a handful of new faces who figure to make a major impact, particularly since Grant plans a virtual two-way starting lineup that will most often have his best 11 players on the field.
"We won't run the double wing, because we have a very good quarterback and some very good receivers," Grant said. "But we are going to run the pitch [a staple of the double-wing attack] or at least our version of it."
The pitch —a power running play designed to wear down defenses with masses of blockers, allowing ballcarriers to break through and break open games — will require Alvis to shift from the shotgun to under center.
But Grant said Alvis, a first-team all-league performer who threw for 1,567 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran for 508 yards and 11 TDs in 2010, has made the adjustment. Alvis should also benefit from fortified pass protection, with two backs in the backfield and fewer receivers in the pattern.
"Everything is going to come off the run," Grant said of his offensive plan. "We're going to be a play-action pass team, with our passes coming off the run."
The pitch, however, also represents a philosophy, said Grant, who has also inherited a first-class weight room that he refuses to protect from overuse.
"We are going to be a heck of a lot more physical and a lot stronger," Grant said of the biggest change from recent years to this year. "We've made huge gains in the weight room, which we call the room. And if I'm lucky enough to be around a few years, I plan for us to have a lifting program on par with the bigger schools."
Seniors Jordan Walden and Trace Curet provide experience, reliability and skill at receiver, but the biggest name on offense may be the newest.
Mario Smith, a senior speedster who transferred in from Silverado High in Victorville, could be the leading weapon at tailback, Grant said.
"He's a special kid," Grant said of Smith. "He's by far the fastest running back I've ever coached."
Smith gained 130 yards on 12 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown, during a scrimmage against Corona del Mar High on Friday.
Smith figures to share time in the backfield with his little brother, junior Justin Smith, as well as sophomore Oronde Crenshaw, the son of DeWayne Crenshaw, who was a fullback and All-CIF defensive end on the aforementioned 1993 Mustangs.
And all the Mesa ballcarriers figure to benefit from the instruction of four-year NFL veteran Nick Bell, who is a first-year volunteer assistant coach.
Mesa has three playoff teams on its five-game preleague schedule (Buena Park, which the Mustangs visit for Friday's season opener, Ocean View and La Quinta). But the combined record of those five opponents last season was 25-28.
"We have the right amount of physical teams and finesse teams to prepare us for what we see in league," Grant said.
After a bye, Costa Mesa opens league play Oct. 14 against Godinez. The Mustangs close the regular season with the annual Battle for the Bell against crosstown rival and defending league champion Estancia on Nov. 11.
2010 record: 3-7, 2-3 in Orange Coast League (fourth)
Coaching staff: Head coach, linebackers Wally Grant (first year); Kent Paul (assistant head coach, quarterbacks, receivers, secondary); Nick Bell (running backs, outside linebackers); Brian McHugh (offensive, defensive line); Daniel Castro (offensive, defensive line); Dan Krikorian (secondary), Tony Krikorian (receivers); Danny Ruiz (tight ends, defensive ends).
Returning starters: Six offense, three defense.
Returning with honors: Nathan Alvis, QB.
2 – at Buena Park, 7
8 – Santiago (at Garden Grove), 7
15 – Katella (Home), 7
23 – at Ocean View, 7
30 – La Quinta (Home), 7
14 – at Godinez* (at Segerstrom), 7
21 – Saddleback* (at Santa Ana Bowl), 7
28 – at Calvary Chapel* (at Jim Scott Stadium), 7
4 – at Laguna Beach*, 7
11 – Estancia (home), 7
*Orange Coast League game
All home games at Jim Scott Stadium.