In many ways, Helen is college football.
She sleeps much of the day, as teen recruits are prone to do, is housebroken, as are most incoming freshman. As if on skates, she occasionally has trouble getting up from slippery tile floors. Other than that, she’s just your typical St. Bernard — stout, affable and 20% tongue.
Oh, and she’s a blind and deaf rescue dog, a footnote on Helen’s transcripts that probably shouldn’t be ignored.
Doug Semones savors a challenge, otherwise he wouldn’t be the Occidental College football coach — no scholarships, no letters of intent, insanely high tuitions. That he has adopted this beautiful but needy dog seals the deal.
Meet Helen, Oxy football’s four-legged metaphor.
As with Helen, where would this football program be without Semones? When he arrived three years ago from Yale, the Tigers were coming off a 2-7 season and NCAA probation. Since then, he’s gone 5-4 each of the past two seasons, instilled his own way of doing things, even evolved a bit to handle the changes that coaching millennials requires, particularly the high-achieving brand Oxy attracts.
“You can’t dog-cuss a millennial, says Semones, in the touchy-feely vernacular of coaching. “They’ll just shut down.”
There seems a whole “Friday Night Lights” aspect to Semones’ life, a family commitment, a passion for football, a sense of values represented by all these dogs they adopt — not just Helen, but Jimmy the golden retriever, and Zoom the terrier mix.
To see Semones, 54, walk his dogs around the shady Occidental campus is to appreciate the sort of herding instincts Division III football requires.
Over almost three decades, Semones estimates that he and his wife, Linda, have helped 25 rescue dogs and strays. After that, can 22 freshman recruits be that difficult?
“The thing we have going for us is the type of kid we get,” he says. “Highly motivated, they don’t skip classes or miss practices.”
All good, but here’s what Semones faces each season:
—Small rosters of fewer than 70, compared with the 100 players some of his SCIAC rivals carry.
—High costs, up to $67,000 with tuition, room, board and books.
—Demanding admission standards (half of freshmen were in the top 10% of their graduating classes)
—The usual Division III regulations: no redshirt year, no letters of intent, no scholarships based on mere athleticism.
Of course, there is something particularly endearing about Division III athletics and men like Semones, who trade big-college cred for small-college ethics. In return, they don’t have to traffic in the toxins blue-chip recruits sometimes bring, or alums with their clinically ridiculous expectations of 19-year-old boys.
“Our main problem is just the roster size,” he says. “We’ll have 67 kids come to camp,” which manifests itself in how physical practices can get, as the coaching staff takes extra steps to avoid injuries and address growing concerns over concussions.
“We have to be smart about it,” he says. “In practice, we rarely live tackle.”
How will Oxy do this year? That’s probably not what troubles your pretty head as you drift off to sleep each night. Nor, does it consume the thoughts of school administrators, at least here.
What Semones is hoping for is strong seasons from junior quarterback Bryan Scott and senior running back Kwame Do, who will both be working behind an experienced offensive line. Of concern for Semones are some holes to plug on defense before their Sept. 12 opener against the University of Puget Sound.
Semones, who opened camp this week, has certainly had an eventful career. Before Oxy he was assistant head coach at Yale for three seasons, helping mentor his son Jake, who played there (his daughter C.J. plays softball at Georgetown).
His most notable run, probably, was seven seasons at Kahaku High School in Hawaii, where he went 68-14-2 and won four Oahu league championships as Linda ran an SAT prep program for players. Semones also coached at the University of Hawaii and in the Arena Football League.
Now at Oxy his goal is to beat league rival Chapman as he works to build the roster to 80-85. In a typical recruiting cycle, he says, 100 high school seniors apply, 60 are admitted, 40 visit and 22 eventually commit.
“I tell parents, ‘Give me your son and I’ll give you a better young man in four years,’” he says of the process, an animal rescue of a different sort.
Along the way, the big St. Bernard will frequently be by his side, a dog that bounced from foster care to foster care til the Semones family came along and took a chance.
Hail Mary. Hail Helen. Hail Oxy Tigers.