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Note: This story appeared earlier this fall from our partners at SportStars. Editor Chace Bryson, who covered the Spartans for several seasons in his previous job at the Contra Costa Times, was able to follow Coach Alumbaugh throughout the day prior to his first game as the school’s new head coach.
On Saturday in the CIF Open Division state bowl game at StubHub Center in Carson, Alumbaugh and the 14-0 Spartans will try to get through the last day of the season with one of the biggest wins in school history. Standing in their way, though, will be 15-0 St. John Bosco of Bellflower, regarded as one of the most talented, most balanced teams from Southern California in many years. We hope you enjoy Chace’s feature story….
Justin Alumbaugh is already nearly eight hours into his day — a day he admitted started a little earlier for him than usual.
“I woke up pretty early this morning,” he says. “Definitely got up a little earlier than I in-tended to. That’s a good thing, though. I’m excited.”
Other than that, this day — Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 — is set to pass like any other early-fall Friday he’s experienced over the past decade of teaching and coaching football at De La Salle High in Concord.
With a few very notable exceptions.
Today is his first game day as the varsity head coach. Today is also the first game day coach Bob Ladouceur — who with a 399-25-3 record in 34 years of heading the Spar-tans program, is arguably the greatest high school football coach of all time — is NOT the head coach. Alumbaugh has officially been the head coach since last January 4, when Ladouceur called a press conference to officially step down and, essentially, ap-pointed Alumbaugh as his successor.
Lunch period is nearly over as the 33-year-old Alumbaugh strides purposefully across campus, past the main office on his way to the faculty room. In the first of four different wardrobe combinations he’ll sport over the next 10 hours, he wears black slacks with a plain white polo shirt.
Inside the faculty room he visits his mailbox and finds it nearly overflowing, mostly with large white envelopes sporting the logos of various high-level college football programs. It’s the type of mail haul one would expect the head coach of a nationally ranked, four-time defending state champion program to receive — and recycle — on a daily basis.
As a teacher who splits time in both the English and Social Studies departments, Alumbaugh doesn’t have a permanent classroom. Due to an abnormal schedule, he’s teach-ing his Period 3 Freshman English class in the Period 5 time slot. Today the class is to go to the library computer lab to participate in the state’s Standardized Testing and Re-porting (STAR) testing.
“I’m going to thoroughly explain to them before leaving (the classroom) how to log on, and what they need to bring,” he says. “But I’m going to be bombarded with questions as soon as we get there. Watch.”
He’s right, of course. But his passion for interacting with kids, even to the point of occa-sional exhaustion, is obvious.
Alumbaugh strikes up a conversation with one student about the “Freshman Mixer,” a freshman-only social event that’s the reason behind the day’s alternate schedule.
“You going to make the magic happen?,” Alumbaugh asks with a big grin. “Get a few digits?”
“Sure, we’ll see,” the student replies.
“Good talk,” says Alumbaugh.
The following period is a prep period for Alumbaugh. He takes long, brisk strides as he walks across campus toward the locker room. He has his own cubicle in a coaches’ of-fice that’s approximately 18 feet by 12 feet and features five other desk/cubicles shared by more than 20 coaches across the program’s three levels.
The only other person in the coaches office when Alumbaugh arrives is Ladouceur. The legendary coach has not retired from teaching, or coaching for that matter. He remains on the varsity coaching staff as the most over-qualified assistant coach ever. Alumbaugh’s desk faces Ladouceur. For some, Ladouceur’s presence would be an intimidat-ing reminder of expectations, but not for Alumbaugh. Nobody has been a bigger cham-pion of Alumbaugh’s credentials to take on the role than Ladouceur.
For the next 50 minutes, Alumbaugh will sit at his desk and look over some notes he’s made as well as notes left by assistant coaches.
Up until the kickoff against visiting Clayton Valley of Concord, Alumbaugh’s game day routine will play out very similarly to the many that have come before. After kickoff, there will be one fairly significant difference, he’ll be calling the plays on offense.
“The main difference is that I’m calling the plays, and that’s a big difference,” Alumbaugh explains. “So right now, I’m getting the plays right in my head — the plays that we want to run first and what we’re looking for. I just want to get the wheels turning a little bit to where I’m comfortable with what we’re going to be doing.”
He knows there won’t be any big rah-rah speech before taking the field.
“By now we’ve either prepared these kids well enough, or we haven’t,” he says.
It’s at this time that assistant coach and Dean of Students, Joe Aliotti, walks through the coaches office.
“You better win,” he cracks at Alumbaugh. “You better freakin’ win.”
Alumbaugh fields the ribbing with a grin and shake of the head. It’s not the first time he’s heard similar remarks made in fun this day, and he knows it won’t be the last.
Time for the first wardrobe change. This ensemble involves high-top sneakers.
A hoops tradition before a football game
On every game day for approximately the past 10 seasons, members of the coaching staff have played pick-up basketball right after school. Ladouceur never participated in the games, according to Alumbaugh, but just about every other Spartans’ coach has at one point or another. The games also feature football alumni as well as a few current students who play basketball for De La Salle.
“A lot of us have a hard-time sitting still and waiting for the game,” Alumbaugh said. “This is something that let’s us take our mind off it for awhile.”
By 2:45, Alumbaugh is playing in a spirited game of 4-on-4. Over the next hour, approximately 16 will show up and play, including Aliotti, junior varsity defensive coordina-tor Greg Brown-Davis, head freshman football coach Paul Guaragna and boys varsity soccer coach and assistant athletic director Derricke Brown.
Not surprisingly for someone who was a first team all-state football standout at linebacker at De La Salle before playing rugby and baseball at UCLA, Alumbaugh showcases an all-around game. He prefers driving to the basket over shooting it, and had as many assists as he did rebounds during a half-hour stretch.
Following the hour of hoops, Alumbaugh takes a few minutes to hang out with the JV coaching staff which is preparing for its game. He then takes an hour to drive to his Pleasant Hill home for a quick shower and change, returning to campus at 5 p.m. in khaki shorts and a solid black Dri-fit shirt (outfit no. 3). He heads out to the field to watch the JV game with the rest of the varsity coaching staff, all of whom head back to the coaches office at halftime.
The next 90 minutes before the 7:30 kickoff are pretty much a whirlwind. Alumbaugh changes into his white coaches polo with khaki pants (no. 4). At 6:15, he tapes his pre-game interview with Spartans’ play-by-play webcaster Scott Armstrong. He’s asked if he’s feeling any pressure.
“If I wasn’t feeling any pressure, I’d be dead,” Alumbaugh remarks cooly.
Alumbaugh then holds a gathering of the offensive minds with Ladouceur, quarterbacks coach Mark Panella and receivers coach Blake Tuffli to review the general game plan. Just after 6:30, he leads the team out on the field for the first time to run through warm-ups. While the players stretch, Alumbaugh takes part in another near-decade-long tradition of playing long-toss with assistant Donnie Boyce from practically sideline-to-sideline. The stands are already nearly full as the crowd builds towards approximately 5,000 before the night ends.
The players and coaches are back in the locker room by 7:10 and there’s nothing short of at least 12 coaches in the coaches office at this point. At 7:20, he meets the team in the gymnasium, and as promised, keeps it subdued and relatively brief.
“They’re coming to take something from you,” he says. “Remember that. They’re coming to your house believing they can beat you.”
First game jitters?
And by halftime, it seems like there’s a chance the Eagles really could. Despite playing hard and physical, De La Salle has made its share of opening-night mistakes and Clay-ton Valley was able to capitalize. With the Spartans leading 21-14, Alumbaugh’s half-time address was simple.
“We told you it was going to be like this,” he tells the team. “It wasn’t going to be easy. … Now go out, hit somebody, be physical and make plays.”
The Spartans’ defense shut out the persistent Clayton Valley double-wing offense in the second half and Alumbaugh notched his first career win 34-14. He’s the last one to make it back to the locker room after talking to reporters and being congratulated by friends, family members and a slew of other supporters.
His postgame address to the team is relatively brief. Its overall theme is along the lines of “there were good things and bad things, but the effort was there, and we’ll get better.” He closes by announcing that everyone is expected back at campus at 9 a.m. Saturday morning to go over film.
The coaches office is flooded again and in good spirits. Several congratulations are of-fered to Alumbaugh, and one offers up this gem:
“You’re 1-0. You’re now leading all De La Salle coaches in winning percentage.”
The debrief is short for Alumbaugh on this night. He’s meeting his long-time girlfriend, Teresita Meroff, for a drink before she catches a red-eye flight to Nicaragua for work. He finally returns home around 11:30 and watches film until approximately 1 a.m. (which he readily admits “would not have flown” had his girlfriend not left the country).
Then the only undefeated coach in De La Salle history calls it a night. Will he still be the only undefeated coach in school history heading into next season?