Wearing a Los Angeles Romans baseball cap and dark blue jacket that has a giant L.A. logo stitched on the side near his heart, Eric Scott leans back in a chair blocking the entrance to his coaching office.
Twenty-five players are gathered around in the locker room, some lying on tackling dummies, as Scott launches into his daily address before football practice.
He reads Scripture from his smartphone. He checks to see how his players are doing in class. And on this day, as his team prepares to play in its first City Section championship game in 49 years, he tells them: “You made it to the gate. You’re at the door. We’re knocking. We lose, you go home. We win, you enjoy what’s behind door No. 1.”
On a weekend of 16 championship football games, there will be no more unusual sight than Scott coaching Los Angeles High, the oldest public high school in Southern California, in the Division III final against Monroe on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Coliseum.
“We’re like the Bad News Bears of high school football,” Scott said. “Every week is a new experience. Winning a game is a new experience. It’s addictive for the kids. We play every week like we have nothing to lose because none of the kids thought they’d be in this position.”
A year ago, Los Angeles went 1-9 and had to forfeit several games because it didn’t have enough eligible players. Enter Scott, 39, hired as the new head coach in March. He came in highly regarded, a former UCLA player and assistant coach who won a Division I title as offensive coordinator at Crenshaw in 2005 and was a former head coach at Compton Centennial. But he also had a background of legal scrapes that scared off some employers.
Scott’s history includes misdemeanors for carrying a concealed weapon and disturbing the peace. At UCLA, he was briefly put on administrative leave in 2007 when police arrested him on suspicion of burglary. Charges were dropped and he got his assistant coaching job back. But the negative publicity didn’t help him retain his position when Karl Dorrell was fired after the 2007 season.
Los Angeles Athletic Director Julio Colon said school officials knew about Scott’s background when they hired him. He said Scott received L.A. Unified clearance after passing a mandatory fingerprint check issued by the Department of Justice and the FBI. He works as a special education assistant and is also taking business classes at USC.
“He has done nothing to give us a red flag or prove us wrong or give us something to worry,” he said. “He’s done the opposite.”
Scott said coaching at Los Angeles was a chance to start over.
“I just saw they were hungry. I was hungry,” he said. “That was a huge part of it being a great fit. It was like writing on a blank piece of paper. There were a lot of kids that didn’t have a lot of training. It was like starting from ground zero, which is easy. You press but there was no resistance.”
Scott helped get players eligible by consulting with their teachers, getting them tutoring and making sure they focused on completing their homework and showing up to class. On the field, the players were shocked to learn new techniques.
“Everything’s been different even from the first day,” senior receiver Derrick Kellum said. “I didn’t know what a route was before he came. I just knew to run and catch the ball. Then he taught us.”
Los Angeles has a large, proud group of alumni, the school having opened in 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, Jesse James was robbing trains and George Armstrong Custer was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. cavalry. The football team won a City title in 1965. In recent years, the school’s band has taken home lots of trophies. But the sports teams have struggled. Then came this season’s 11-2 record.
The early Saturday kickoff means the Coliseum will be mostly empty, but that won’t lessen the excitement for junior linebacker Ryan Calderon.
“It’s unexplainable, indescribable coming from last year when we had no chance coming anywhere near the Coliseum to this year being the No. 1 seed and playing in the Coliseum. I’m going to give it all my heart. It’s amazing,” he said.
Scott hasn’t been on the Coliseum floor since UCLA lost to USC, 24-7, in 2007.
“My life was going on the up,” he said.
The twists and turns since brought him to Los Angeles High, where sitting in the locker room he told his players, “Finish what you started.”