California's All-Time Best
Who: Coach Bob Ladouceur
School: De La Salle
Birth date: 7/3/1954
Birthplace: Detroit, Mich.
National crowns: Six
North Coast Section titles: 24
Today’s game versus Centennial: See preview.
By Mitch Stephens
CARSON, Calif. - At 54, De La Salle’s Bob Ladouceur could become the winningest football coach in California high school football history tonight. That’s right, 54.
Knowing Lad for almost a quarter-century, it’s the last thing on his mind. And if reminded he’d just give a quick chuckle, because historic wins like this are for old curmudgeon sorts. He never imagined he’d be doing it this long.
Anyway, I’ve written so much about him over the years, I tried unsuccessfully to come up with a new storyline or way to present his coaching life. But I remembered a little-read magazine story I put together on him more than five years ago that I always thought capsulated him.
It was before the team’s 151-game win streak ended. Before he had a heart attack. Before the tragic deaths of Terrence Kelly, Mike Bastianelli and others.
His records back then were staggering – that’s why a guy from Florida running a coaches magazine asked me to do it. Lad’s numbers in his 30th season continue to amaze, now at 344 wins, 21 losses and three ties. He’s won six mythical national crowns, 17 straight and 24 North Coast Section titles and last year the Spartans nabbed their first CIF State Bowl championship.
They go for the second straight over the same team, a bigger, faster, stronger and slightly favored Centennial (Corona) team that could delay Ladouceur inevitable record that would break a tie with longtime St. Paul coach Marjion Ancich, who coached for 45 seasons and lost 102 more games in his career than Ladouceur.
But, of course, the last thing that drives Lad is numbers. People always ask me how he does it and my most immediate reaction is that he’s just the real deal.
Like no other, teens can smell a phony and there’s no way he could inspire young men year after year after undefeated year without being able to tap into a higher but genuine power.
If Lad was just interested in teaching and fundamentals and technique and winning only – areas he’s expert – his players could not possibly reach the levels that they have for three consecutive decades.
What he connects with is so deep and powerful it’s really beyond words. But here are a couple thousands that tried to explain and describe it.
Written in the summer of 2003
By Mitch Stephens
Bob Ladouceur has always had a good feel for football, a good sense of spacing.
“I think I’ve always been able to see the whole field pretty well,” he said.
This, in part, explains why the unpretentious, self-effacing De La Salle High coach has never worn headsets or never been one to scream or holler.
He’s too busy dissecting and discerning.
“He’s a great technician,” De La Salle athletic director and defensive coordinator Terry Eidson said. “He knows every position on the field, he understands both sides of the ball. He just understands the game.”
More so, Ladouceur understands teen-agers.
With Buddha-like wisdom, calm and conviction, he taps deeply into their sense of worth — emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Quite literally, he sees, senses and feels the whole field of their young, impressionable lives.
It is precisely why the 47-year-old is the world’s most successful high school football coach. Check that — the world’s most successful coach at any level.
“He’s not just a high school football coach, he’s like God around our campus,” said senior offensive lineman John Chan, an all-Bay Area selection by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Said Eidson: “(Ladouceur) gives lessons on life and he has a lot of heart. When he talks, kids just listen. When he takes the microphone during a rally, you can hear a pin drop.”
His coaching resume drops jaws.
Ladouceur just led his Spartans to their 11th consecutive undefeated season, this time 13-0, pushing their ongoing national record win streak to a preposterous 138 games.
With it, De La Salle won its third straight and fourth overall mythical national championship according to USA Today. Ladouceur also improved his 24-year record to a mind-boggling 275-14-1 (.948 winning percentage), earning him the Schutt 2002 national high school coach of the year, an honor he also garnered for the fourth time from USA Today.
When asked about his vast personal accomplishments, Ladouceur, already a member of the National High School Sports Hall of Fame, winces. He disdains talking about himself.
“This is about the kids, not me,” he said. “I don’t care about the streak or records. What I care about is looking at the larger picture. Are we teaching these kids tools for life? Are we helping them feel good about themselves? … I’ve just tried to create an environment where these kids will learn and perform.”
The performance has been flawless since the other George Bush was president.
The last time the Spartans lost was Dec. 6, 1991, a 34-27 decision to Pittsburg in the North Coast Section 4A finals at the Oakland Coliseum. That broke a 34-game winning streak, meaning De La Salle has won 172 of 173.
In week six of the 2003 season, the Spartans will likely win their 144th straight game that will — get this! — double the previous national mark of 72 set by Hudson, Mich., a record that stood for 22 seasons.
“The funny thing is, we never talked about winning or losing at De La Salle,” said former record-breaking tailback and assistant coach Patrick Walsh. “We never talked about The Streak. It’s always about getting better and reaching potential.”
Even more mind-bending is that the average score during “The Streak” is 47-9. Only four games have been decided in single-digits and the Spartans haven’t exactly scheduled the Sisters of the Poor.
In the last four seasons they’ve beaten, among others, two-time national champion Mater Dei of Santa Ana (Calif.) four times, Long Beach (Calif.) Poly – which has sent more players to the NFL than any other high school — twice, and perennial national power St. Louis of Honolulu once.
The combined score of those seven games (four on the road): De La Salle 223, opponents 98.
Average score: 32-14.
That includes a 28-7 victory over Long Beach Poly last October in a game pitting the nation’s top two ranked teams.
The Spartans were supposedly down in 2002 after losing All Americans, lineman Derek Landri (now at Notre Dame) and quarterback Matt Gutierrez (Michigan) to graduation. The loss left Poly coach Raul Lara in disbelief.
The previous year, De La Salle shocked his then No. 1 team in the nation 29-15 by jumping all over an over-confident team early. Lara promised history wouldn’t repeat in 2002.
Instead, the Spartans won in even more dominating fashion racing to a 28-0 lead early in the third quarter and owning a 474-258 edge in yards.
Britt Cecil, a little-regarded 5-foot-11 veer quarterback who replaced three-year starter Gutierrez, threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns and all-state running back Maurice Drew, who scored four TDs against Poly the previous year, added 161 yards rushing.
Ladouceur called it probably De La Salle’s greatest single-game performance in his tenure.
Lara was shell-shocked.
“I was impressed,” said Ladouceur, who doesn’t impress easily. “They just played beyond expectations. That says a lot about the heart of our kids.”
Said Lara: “It inspires to try to get to that level. I thought we were going to be at that level today, but obviously we weren’t. Maybe one day, God willing, we’ll get to that level.”
LEAGUE OF HIS OWN
Lara isn’t the first to be inspired by what Ladouceur inspires. In fact, the list of his admirers is long and impressive.
Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh keeps a copy of De La Salle’s schedule on his desk and usually attends a De La Salle game every year.
San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci attends at least one Spartans’ practice a season and Tampa Bay and former Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden often sings Ladouceur’s praises.
The Oakland Tribune was so impressed with Ladouceur’s achievements not only as a coach, but a mentor, they made him one of the 50 most significant Bay Area sports figures of the 20th century. At No. 47, he was ahead of Harry Edwards, Steve Young and Kenny Stabler.
“I’m not even in their league,” Ladouceur told the Tribune.
He then recanted somewhat, not wanting to discount his mentorship more than his coaching.
“If you think of kids as being people, too, I guess we have had an impact,” he said.
Any who have seen De La Salle’s finished polished product, say he is in a league of his own.
“In the arena he’s in, he’s dominating,” Mariucci said. “Who’s to say he couldn’t do that at any level?”
Even legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who guided UCLA to an NCAA record 88 straight wins, respects Ladouceur’s feats.
“When you win that many games, it doesn’t matter at which level you’re doing it,” Wooden told the Oakland Tribune. “Because (De La Salle) is doing at the high school level doesn’t diminish their accomplishment any more than our collegiate record would be subordinate to the pro level. It makes no difference.”
It makes no difference what kind of athletes wind up at De La Salle either.
As a Christian Brothers private school 30 miles east of San Francisco, the myth is that De La Salle lassos in only the top beef throughout a populated and athletic region.
Truth is, Ladouceur has won with overachieving 5-11 quarterbacks like Cecil and 200-pound lineman more so than blue chip recruits.
“I believe the trademark of what we do is raise the level of play,” Ladouceur said. “Regardless of the talent level, we will make you better.”
In the last decade with all the school’s acclaim, athletes arrive at De La Salle bigger and faster. There’s been four Spartans to land in the NFL: Super Bowl lineman Aaron Taylor, most notably of the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants receiver Amani Toomer, place kicker Doug Brien and Redskins’ backup guard Dave Loverne.
The last three years the talent pool has increased further with top-100 recruits like linebacker D.J. Williams (Miami), linebacker Kevin Simon (Tennessee), Landri, Gutierrez and this year’s group that includes Drew and defensive back Damon Jenkins, both Division I prospects.
Herc Pardi, who was the last coach to beat Ladouceur, says athleticism is down the list of concerns when playing a Ladouceur team.
The Spartans are always impeccably conditioned (they train 49 out of 52 weeks with strength and conditioning coach Mike Blasquez) and their veer attack is finely tuned.
“There are times when they meet an opponent with equal talent,” said Pardi, whose Pittsburg team defeated the Spartans in Toomer’s last prep game. “But nobody is going to work harder. They have good athletes, but everybody on the team maximizes their talent to the fullest.”
Walsh was one of those players.
He stood 5-foot-6, weighed 185 pounds and rushed for a school-record 2,023 yards and 38 touchdowns his senior season in 1992.
After playing four years at San Jose State, Walsh was the Spartans’ running backs coach for three years before taking over the head job at Serra High of San Mateo across the Bay.
Walsh said Ladouceur creates a starless environment. If someone steps out of line or against team rules, Ladouceur rarely has to step in, the other players do.
“Every athlete that comes into De La Salle is treated the same way,” Walsh. “Whether you are D.J. Williams or a kid who never plays, you receive the same respect. As long as you earn it.”
And you earn it, Walsh says, by striving to be your best and abiding by team rules. The No. 1 team rule in football is to commit to the team first and foremost.
Ladouceur doesn’t permit players to wear bandannas, jewelry or single digit numbers. Touchdown dancers or taunters are also prohibited.
“The game kind of lends itself to boorish behavior,” he said. “I hate that.”
In a dissertation Ladouceur wrote his team in 1998, entitled “What is a Spartan?,” the most important component of the program is a commitment to create a brotherhood.
Ladouceur wrote the five-page piece after taking many hits from the skeptics and envious. After all, how could one team, one organization, one entity be so successful without some deceit or dishonor?
“I know people assume that we cheat and achieve success through illegal or immoral ways, but I’ve never cared about that,” Ladouceur said. “I live with a clear conscience when it comes to this football program.”
One night, however, like Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire,” he responded to the pessimists and curious with the thoughtful, heart-felt, piece. In it, he quoted author Thomas Elliot, Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and his childhood hero, Bobby Kennedy. He referred to the program’s backbone, qualities such as commitment, brotherhood and even love. He pinpointed De La Salle’s — and society’s — greatest foe, fear.
Obviously Ladouceur, who normally sleeps quite well at night, contemplates deeper thoughts than misdirection plays.
“This task (commitment to brotherhood) is bigger, tougher, and more elusive than any opponent we ever face,” he wrote.``It’s understanding that I must lose some of myself in order to find others. Individual egos must die in order for a team to live.”
When all said and done, Ladouceur wrote, the Spartans’ success is chalked up to a four-letter word more associated with “Dr. Phil” than with “Sportcenter.”
“The reason we win and what beats at the heart of our neighborhood is love,” Ladouceur wrote. “Yes, we win because our players love each other. They are not afraid to say it or embrace each other as a sign of that affection.”
But the outward signs mean nothing, Ladouceur said, unless you show it day to day.
“Love means I can count on you and you can count on me,” Ladouceur wrote. “This translates into being responsible. Being responsible to 45 teammates is not so simple. It means following team rules and knowing that my attitudes and actions have a profound effect on the success of the whole.
“We pride ourselves on that exact accountability.”
ABOUT THE KIDS
Every Thursday night before a game the team meets at one of the player’s abodes and set goals for the upcoming week. It’s a one-on-one commitment and it can be as ambitious as scoring two touchdowns for the star players to pushing the starters at practice for the reserves.
Every commitment is taken to heart, giving significance to each player.
“I abhor the thought of kids standing on the sideline, giving up on their season,” Ladouceur said.
That’s not to say he doesn’t try to win or that sometimes all the talk about how De La Salle has an unfair advantage doesn’t sometimes agitate him.
“If the Catholic schools have all these advantages, then why don’t all the Catholic schools have a program like ours?
“We play to win here. I am not embarrassed or afraid to say that.”
But when Ladouceur first met then De La Salle principal Michael Meister in 1978, strategy and winning streaks were never mentioned.
The Spartans had six straight losing seasons, yet Meister had a strong hunch about the then 24-year-old Ladouceur, who had just one year of volunteer coaching experience at nearby Monte Vista of Danville.
“Frankly some of the parents questioned my sanity on that one,” Meister told the Honolulu Advertiser.
It wasn’t that Ladouceur didn’t know his football. He was a star running back at San Ramon Valley High of Danville, earning a scholarship to San Jose State.
He started one season before knee and shoulder injuries sidelined him for more than a season. The layoff soured coaches, who eventually moved him to defensive back.
“In hindsight, that probably helped me later as a coach,” Ladouceur said. “I learned both sides of the ball.”
Meister was more interested in Ladouceur as an educator than coach. The two discussed theology rather than three-receiver sets or corner blitzes.
“I don’t know how much he really knew about football; we didn’t talk much about it,” Ladouceur said.
A writer at heart, Ladouceur was supposed to fill out a 15-question application but instead produced a 15-page dissertation on education. He also supplied a letter of recommendation not from a coach but a theology professor Meister respected.
“I didn’t want a yeller and a screamer,” Meister said. “I didn’t want someone trying to live out their own athletic fantasies … I wanted someone who was going to teach more than football; someone faithful to the mission of the school.”
Said Ladouceur: “I didn’t know if they would take a gamble on me.”
Ladouceur, who worked the graveyard shift at a juvenile hall at the time, was confident in his coaching ability despite his lack of experience.
He recalled his one season at Monte Vista coaching defensive backs. A basketball player who had never played before tried out for the team.
“He was a pretty good athlete, but he didn’t know how to hit, how to read a zone, how to play,” Ladouceur said.
Until Ladouceur got a hold of him.
“He got a little better, and a little better, and by the end of the year he was really playing great,” Ladouceur said. “That really got me going. I’m thinking, ‘I can do this.’ ”
And when Meister gave him the job, he did it immediately, going 6-3 his first season with a scrawny 24-man roster.
Chris Crespi was one of the 24 and now, at age, 39, still recalls the team’s drastic turnaround.
“Overnight, there was all this attention to detail and you knew that this was going to be a very different kind of place,” Crespi told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We didn’t have a whole lot of talent back the, but Bob brought out parts of us that we didn’t know we had.”
The team hasn’t lost more than two games since and by his fourth year they were undefeated and winners of Ladouceur’s first of 18 North Coast Section championships.
Even though winning football games was never a priority, Meister, now a vice president at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., admitted that hiring Ladouceur was “The best decision I ever made,” he said.
OVER THE TOP
So if Ladouceur doesn’t scream and yell, how does he get his point across?
“It’s really kind of a look,” Chan said. “It’s a guilt thing, like we disappointed him. And you never want to disappoint coach Lad.”
He believes the key to success on the field is based largely on explosion off the snap. His lines are constantly much smaller than oppositions. Against Long Beach Poly and St. Louis, his offensive line was 35-pounds-per-player lighter.
“There is a real science to it, a real precision,” Ladouceur said. “A lot of outsiders believe football is a game of brute strength, but that’s not all there is. Precision and proper techniques carry a team over the top. We work on that every day. We insist that it’s done the right way.”
To the point of nausea.
“It doesn’t really even matter if you make the block, if you use incorrect steps or technique, you’re going to hear about it,” Chan said.
Said Ladouceur: “I’ve always kind of been a stickler of detail. I believe in repetition.”
And eventually, the work pays off.
His teams invariably improve dramatically, no better demonstrated than this season.
The Spartans team struggled — relatively — early in wins over Mitty of San Jose (24-0) and St. Francis of Mountain View (14-0). Longtime followers of the program noted a smallish uninspired line and lack of big-play prowess as possible negatives.
But by postseason, they were, as usual, living up to their moniker, De La Stomp. They opened NCS 4A playoffs with a 62-13 win over Antioch. They had a 35-0 halftime leads over Hayward and San Leandro, then the eighth-ranked team in the state, before cruising to wins of 47-7 and 42-14, respectively. Hayward and San Leandro came in with a combined record of 23-1.
Eidson, who has been Ladouceur’s defensive coordinator the past 22 years, said the bigger the game, the better coach Lad calls the game.
“He definitely knows how to attack,” Eidson said. “The bigger the circumstances, the more things he’ll try and the more things he’ll exploit. Some coaches shut down somewhat, but he opens it up even more. That’s what I love about him.”
Ladouceur has been approached more than once about coaching at the college level. He’s certainly accomplished everything possible at the prep level.
But selling a program — namely recruiting — and facing the stress of a tenuous college job, doesn’t appeal to Ladouceur. He’d rather stay connected to this age group, a vital age group that much of society denigrates as lazy, irresponsible or defiant.
It was a stereotype Ladouceur believed when he worked at juvenile hall.
“I don’t believe that as much now,” Ladouceur said. “A lot of kids need second chances, and an adult figure who believes in them and who will guide them.”
On all counts, Ladouceur is the right man for the job, Eidson said. Students and fellow teachers say Ladouceur may be even better in the classroom, where he teaches Senior Religion Seminar.
Football is rarely the topic of discussion. In fact, Ladouceur ultimate bond with players has little to do with touchdowns, win streaks or records.
“In all the years I have been friends with Bob since I played for him, he has never started a sentence or conversation with some comment about football or his teams,” Crespi said. “Unlike many football coaches, Bob has a life outside of football.”
Even though he’ll spend 14 hours a day at school during the season, players recognize Ladouceur’s all seeing, all-knowing ways.
“He just connects so well with teen-agers,” Eidson said. “He understands their psyche. He’s best in one-on-one situations. Something will go on and I’ll overhear him tell a kid something and I’ll think to myself, ‘God, I wouldn’t have thought of that.’ He’s very insightful. He says a lot of the right things and he’s usually right on the money.”
Ladouceur will likely never move on because he revels in this age’s fearlessness. If you challenge a teen-age boy they will usually get it done.
At De La Salle, make that always get it done.
“Every class is different and offers a whole new set of challenges,” Ladouceur said. “You have to approach this like a teacher. It’s our job to take them as far as we can take them. Every year we ask ourselves, ‘how far can we take this group?’ ”
Every year, it seems, the answer is the same.
“All the way,” Chan said.
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.