Brinkley & Co. still grinding

Just the other day, Jeff Brinkley summed up coaching high school football to a new Toby Keith song. The song titled "Hard Way To Make An Easy Living" aptly fits his job at Newport Harbor High.

"People look at [coaching] and think, 'What an enjoyable [job],' and it is enjoyable, but it's a lot of hard work," says Brinkley, sitting in his office while he and his assistants prepare to head out to the practice field on Wednesday afternoon. "These guys put in a lot of hours and they're away from their families."

Brinkley is used to the grueling schedule, which starts at his office at work, moves to the field, and ends back at his office at home, all in the same day. The day starts at 7 a.m. and ends well into the night. The rest of the days are the same, except for Sundays, he and his assistants work from home.

There's a reason why his wife, Laura, tells Brinkley every year in August, "Well, I'll see you in December." It's the first week in December and Brinkley, at 61, is still at it, grinding along with his staff.

One more game remains on the schedule. This is the game coaches dream about reaching every season. These are just illusions, as most coaches don't get to guide a team in a CIF Southern Section championship game.

This is Brinkley's 28th season in charge of the Sailors, and every 3 1/2 years on average, his team finds itself in the big game. The Sailors are back, making an eighth section finals appearance under Brinkley's watch.

When the Sailors (8-5) step on the field to play Huntington Beach (8-5) for the Southwest Division title at Angel Stadium on Saturday at 2 p.m., they will come out of the visitor's dugout. Newport Harbor is no visitor to this stage.

Yes, it has been eight years since the school last played for a section crown, but in the Southwest Division, Brinkley says, Newport Harbor can compete with anyone. In their second straight year in the playoff division, which is the equivalent to Division VI, the Sailors have made the quarterfinals and finals.

"The division, in terms of enrollment and type of athlete, is much more on the same [playing field] that we're on," Brinkley says. "In the [Pac-5 Division we were in from 2006 to 2011], it's private schools that are getting guys from everywhere and it's large public schools. We really got almost punished for winning too much in this division back [when we advanced to four section championship games from 1999 to 2005 and won twice]. Had we stayed in this division, I really think we could've had a couple of other good runs, where we would've either won CIF or been probably right there at the end."

There's no secret as to why the Sailors are closing in on their fourth section title with Brinkley at the helm. The staff under Brinkley has stayed relatively the same. Defensive coordinator Tony Ciarelli is in his 21st year, running backs coach Bill Brown has been there since the start of Brinkley's tenure, and linebackers coach Matt Burns is in his 16th year.

The players expect to work and play hard and smart for their coaches. Five of the assistants, Brown, Burns, George Greenwalt (tight ends), Garrett Govaars (defensive backs) and Zach Moghaddam (defensive line) are Newport Harbor graduates, so they understand the program's philosophy. They, along with Ryan Formento and Chris Anderson, the offensive line coaches, get the players ready. Preparation, Brinkley says, is the key to Newport Harbor's success.

The work ethic is one Brinkley developed when he took over his first program 35 years ago in Norwalk. He spent eight seasons at two schools in his hometown, before he moved on to Newport Harbor in 1986.

In his fourth season with the Sailors, the program got a boost. Ciarelli joined the staff and he introduced the Sailors to a new way of working out.

"My first year was the first year we had this weight room, but it didn't look like this," says Ciarelli, who quickly transformed a machine shop into an Olympic weightlifting facility. "Basically it was just some squat racks and an open area in the middle. There were no platforms or bumpers. Nobody was really doing the Olympic lifts back then because a lot people didn't understand it then and a lot of them still don't understand it.

"The whole key to training is to try to get your training to be as much like what you do on the field as possible. [With] explosive lifting, there's a much greater carryover from the weight room to the field because of the ballistic movement of which Olympic lifting is, rather than just bench, squats and the deadlift, which are all very good lifts and we do all of them, but there's not as much transfer of training with those as doing the ballistic lifts [as the] snatch, clean and jerk."

Inside the Sailors' weight room, there is equipment most schools don't have, from weightlifting stones, to Indian clubs, to heavy medicine balls, up to 200 pounds. What else will surprise outsiders is who the strength and conditioning coach is. A woman is in charge.

Ciarelli's wife, Stephanie, handles the bulk of the work. Players listen to her because she knows what she's talking about in the weight room. Stephanie is one of the top Olympic weightlifting coaches in the U.S. She came to Newport Harbor in 2005, the last time the Sailors won it all.

Her previous stop was at Huntington Beach, the same school the Sailors face on Saturday. There was a time her husband left Newport Harbor, from 1997 to 2001, to lead the Oilers as their head football coach. Things didn't pan out for Ciarelli at his alma mater, as Huntington Beach qualified for the postseason only once.

Ciarelli says he left because of the lack of support from the administration. Brinkley welcomed him back 11 years ago and Ciarelli fit right back in.

The two men get to see the Oilers once more after the Sailors lost at Huntington Beach, 40-14, in the regular-season finale on Nov. 8, costing them a share of the Sunset League title. For Ciarelli, the second matchup for a larger prize is a bit of a dichotomy.

"Everybody in our family went to Huntington Beach," says Ciarelli, adding that his father, Frank, played on the 1946 team, just one of three times the Oilers have advanced to the semifinals. "This is only the second time for them to make the finals and the last time was when Tony Gonzalez and my nephew [Nick Ziegler] played [in 1993]."

About two dozen of Ciarelli's family members plan to be at the game. Those members with Oiler ties, Ciarelli says, "they'll be rooting for me."

While Ciarelli's 84-year-old dad is going to the game, Brinkley's father, Roy, won't. Brinkley says his 94-year-old dad cannot see well enough these days.

Come Sunday, as Brinkley always does on Sundays, he will pay his father a visit in Norwalk. Expect him to spend more time with him.

"Sunday will be a strange day," Brinkley says. "This week, it's so definite that [the season will be] over. The other weeks [in the playoffs], you never know. You're playing and [you're thinking], 'Will we be back working [the next] morning or not?'"

There is another song on Toby Keith's latest album. Track No. 9, the one before "Hard Way To Make An Easy Living," there's "I'll Probably Be Out Fishin'" that Brinkley can take to heart when the season ends.


CIF-SS Finals

Who: Newport Harbor (8-5) vs. Huntington Beach (8-5)

What: CIF Southern Section Southwest Division championship game

When: Saturday, 2 p.m.

Where: Angel Stadium

Info: Game will have live stream online at Ticket prices at Angel Stadium – Reserved Club – $15; General – $12. *Student/child – $5 (*Students must show current high school I.D.)

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