The first time Bob Torribio stepped in as coach of the Newport Harbor High boys' basketball team was four years ago.
He joked back then that he was just keeping the chair warm for Larry Hirst, who took the season off to spend more time with his family.
As it would turn out, Hirst took a leave of absence twice more in the next three seasons. Each time, Torribio filled in, taking the coaching hot seat once again.
Now Torribio, 35, finds himself back in that familiar chair, but this time the seat is more permanent: He's the new coach at Newport Harbor.
As Hirst's right-hand man throughout the past seven seasons, he's the right candidate to take over, Athletic Director Mike Zimmerman said Tuesday.
The announcement comes almost two months after Hirst resigned after receiving criminal threats against him and his wife. The threats, which both the Huntington Beach and Newport Beach police departments have been investigating, led Newport Harbor Principal Michael Vossen to suspend the program for three weeks.
Torribio said Hirst gave him his blessing, though Torribio made sure to point out how he's different than his predecessor.
"I like Coach Hirst. He's a good dad, a great role model, mentor and friend, but there's a philosophical difference," said Torribio, who also praised Hirst for becoming the program's winningest coach and, at one time, leading it to 12 straight CIF Southern Section playoff appearances. "We've got to get the program back to where it needs to be. We've got to find a solution."
Torribio beat out two other finalists: Darryl Hilliard, the junior varsity coach and a varsity assistant at Back Bay rival Corona del Mar; and Jason Carey, the JV coach and a varsity assistant at Newport Harbor, said sources familiar with the situation, who asked for anonymity.
They said what put Torribio over the top was that he already is on campus — he teaches history — and has been involved with the program as both a player and coach.
"It never hurt that he was [a teacher]," said Zimmerman, who couldn't comment on the other candidates.
Hilliard and Carey are both walk-on coaches. Carey has only spent the last couple of seasons with the Sailors.
Torribio was around for 11 of Hirst's 16 seasons with the Sailors. The previous four seasons at Newport Harbor have been far from successful.
During that stretch, the Sailors have gone 6-34 in Sunset League play and have finished near the bottom every season. They have missed the postseason three times in the past four seasons.
Mark Okey, the booster club president, said Torribio isn't to blame for the program's recent troubles on the court.
"He was always put in a real difficult position, always filling in the last minute under some of the most difficult of circumstances," Okey said.
Torribio became the interim coach when Hirst took a leave of absence for personal reasons before the second league game this past season, two seasons ago because of Hirst's health, and four seasons ago because of Hirst's one-year sabbatical to spend time with family.
Okey is hoping Torribio, a 1995 Newport Harbor graduate, can turn the program around. The Sailors finished 7-17 — their fourth straight season with an overall losing record — and 2-8 in league.
"The fact that the team was able to beat Los Alamitos and hand [the league champion Griffins] their only league loss last year, hopefully that shows what the team playing together as a team can do playing under tough situations," Okey said. "I think the team is going to be good."
As the booster club president or just as a fan, the question Okey faces now is whether he wants to see how good the Sailors are next season. His son, Chris, a JV player last season, plans to come out for the varsity team.
But whether Okey expects to head the booster club is a different story.
"I've got to think hard about that," said Okey, who became the booster president last summer.
Hirst dealt with issues at Newport Harbor. Some of his players almost quit during the season if he wasn't gone, sources said.
They said Hirst's old-school coaching style and attitude — and because the program did not schedule the Battle of the Bay game against CdM for the second straight season — were the reasons why players were going to leave the team.
Hirst stepped down right before the Sailors' league home opener on Jan. 11.
He returned after the season in early March, only to leave a couple of weeks later for good because of threats directed toward him and his wife at their Huntington Beach home and on the Newport Harbor campus, where they both teach.
"I look forward to the focus being on basketball and not the other issues surrounding the program that detract from the most important aspect, that being the kids in the program and creating a positive experience for them," said Okey, who sees a difference between the new and old coach, even though Torribio is linked to Hirst. "My impression of Coach [Torribio] is that he seemed to be more upbeat. My experience with Coach [Torribio] is that he always seems to be positive and in a good mood.
"I hope he can bring that energy to the program."