Who: Mike Alberghini
School: Grant (Sacramento, Calif.)
Sport: Football and baseball
Years coach: 39
Highlights: 15 league, 5 Section titles; 615 wins between varsity football and baseball.
By Mitch Stephens
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Grant football coach Mike Alberghini wrestled with one of those fandangled cellular contraptions and finally found the green button Thursday morning.
After a few scowling seconds the grizzled 61-year-old and 39-year coaching vet recognized the voice and immediately backtracked to the early 90s when he first took over head coaching duties.
It was Alieka Mafua, a reserve defensive tackle on one of his first teams, calling from Utah.
Mafua phoned to congratulate “Coach Al” and the Pacers on their 10-0 regular season and wished them well heading into Friday’s bear of a first-round Sac-Joaquin Section playoff game against perennial area power and visiting Granite Bay.
More so, he called to say thanks, which caught Alberghini a bit off guard.
Mafua, unlike his all-everything brother Tuaesa, wasn’t very good. He didn’t play that much and Alberghini thought he didn’t have a great experience.
“But he said playing in the program helped make him a better father,” Alberghini said. “He said it made him a better person. And that’s why he really called — to tell me that, to thank me for that.”
Call it by any trite or sports-clichéd metaphor but such phone calls and re-connections — which occur more often than his meager Grant Union Joint District stipend — is what truly feeds this prep legendary figure.
After all, Alberghini, who recently retired from teaching, has experienced and accomplished it all around coaching circles.
He won 427 games in 18 seasons as head baseball coach, including a then state-record 37 contests in 1989.
When he quit that in 1991 and took over Grant’s football team, he immediately led the Pacers to one of 15 league titles and to a section-best 18 consecutive playoff berths with five section crowns.
His overall football record is 188-32 but has easily been part of more than 300 Grant victories since he started at the school in 1969 as an assistant and defensive mastermind.
He’s coached and mentored some of Northern California’s top athletes, including major leaguer Ricky Jordan and numerous NFL talents like Donte’ Stallworth, C.J. Wallace, Perris Warren, Ontario Smith and Aaron Garcia.
But clearly what nourishes Alberghini and the legacy he’ll leave behind is that kids, their future, school, team and the Grant community come first. The wins and losses come second.
“I’m just trying to help kids become better people,” he said. “If we can win some games and championships all the better.”
The fact that he’s succeeded on his terms at every level over five different decades makes him about the richest man in these parts.
And though Alberghini and his gruff, old-school style will never be confused for Jimmy Stewart or George Bailey, and the Del Paso Heights region of Sacramento will certainly never pass for Bedford Falls or Mayberry, "Coach Al” is certainly living a wonderful life.
“I love this place,” he said. “It’s been a perfect fit. I’ve had some other chances to coach at a higher level but I’m going to start and finish right here. I’m completely attached.”
Make no mistake. None of it has come easy.
Del Paso Heights where Grant sits is considered one of the toughest most crime-ridden areas of Sacramento.
As important as drilling opponents, Alberghini made it his mission to defeat the region’s stigma by attacking at its roots, with an endless amount of sweat, accountability and pride.
Sacramento Bee sports writer Joe Davidson, a native Sacramento son, 20-year scribe and one of the profession’s jewels, said Alberghini was just the right man for the job.
“Mike is just as hard boiled and tough as the community he works,” he said. “He attacks with an iron fist with one hand and uses other for a hug. He’ll sit on their (butt) if they need to hit the books and get eligible. He’ll crack the whip. He’ll bark and then hug. … But bottom line he believes in his guys and the community.”
He had to take a hard line just two months ago when he suspended seven of his players for violating school rules on campus. It was before a big game with playoff team Oak Ridge (El Dorado Hills), which the Pacers eventually defeated 34-7.
Though retired from teaching, he’s still clearly educating. And his belly is still on fire. He still draws from his own hard-line coaches growing up like Jesse Payane (Mira Loma High), Jim Morgan (American River College) and Cal Boyes (Sacramento State).
“We’ve built a lot of pride and tradition here,” Alberghini said. “We’re not letting it go now.”
Alberghini said an old white man using old-school tactics at a racially diverse place doesn’t always resonate. But if he can’t get points across, his coaching staff can. They’re almost all former Grant players.
“We have a lot of good examples of how it works and how to be successful right in front of them,” he said.
Two more examples are starting defensive players at Cal, fourth-year starting linebacker Worrell Williams and three-year starting cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson. Both have good shots at reaching the NFL.
“Both will tell you the two most influential people in their lives are Coach Al and their moms,” Davidson said.
Davidson said the Grant family and community is one of the largest and most fervent in the Sacramento area. They sometimes don’t fully appreciate Alberghini’s wide open attack and fearless play-calling.
Alberghini took major hit when he went for a 2-point conversion in the waning seconds in a 2003 Section title game against Jesuit. Williams was stopped short and Grant lost by a point.
“He went for the win and he lived with it,” Davidson said. “People ripped on him but his players backed him. He believed in them and they believed in him.”
For all his support, Davidson said the Grant community “is among the most critical in all prep sports. They’ll climb out of the stands and challenge and question him. At the same time there is a huge outpouring of love for him. Every year the (paper) gets flooded with e-mails from Grant fans nominating him for Coach of the Year.”
He might very well earn that award this season if the Pacers win out and get invited to a State Bowl Game. Two years ago his team was passed over by a CIF selection committee despite Grant’s 13-0 record. They picked perennial national power De La Salle (Concord), which lost in the state finals to Canyon Country.
Alberghini earnestly thought that Grant team should have been selected, but understood and had a feeling De La Salle, a six-time national champion, would be selected for its collective piece of work.
He called the 2006 team one of the four best he’s ever coached – his 1996 squad featured Smith and Stallworth, two 1,000-yard backs and a quarterback who threw 49 touchdowns.
“The (2006) team was a remarkable team and it was a shame they weren’t selected,” Alberghini said. “I think we’ve had three teams in the last seven years that could beat De La Salle. But realistically, I had a feeling they would go with De La Salle that year. Everything is about timing.”
If both De La Salle and Grant win out, there’s a good possibility both will go, one in the new Open Division spot and the other Division I.
The Pacers this season feature a flood of talented running backs led by junior Devontae Butler (1,311 yards, 26 touchdowns), an athletic dual quarterback in Kipeli Koniseti (1,627 yards) and college-bound receiver Darvin McCauley (35 receptions, 9 TDs).
The line of Darryl Paulo, Alesana Laban, Ramon Williams, Ronald Rylance, Faigame Lopa and Aaron Jones is, as usual, stout and physical and senior Jeremiah Toma (115 tackles) is one of the best linebackers in Northern California.
Alberghini thinks this is one of his fastest teams, particularly on defense, but as far as his best team ever? “We haven’t finished the task so it’s hard to say,” he said. “A lot of what we do depends on (Friday).”
A victory and eventual selection into the state's pinnacle game would be a feather in Alberghini's hat, not that he ever wears one.
He'd gladly settle for many more phone calls like he received on Thursday.
"Every once in a while you make a difference," Alberghini said. "And really, that's what it's all about."
CoachSpeak is a weekly feature on a those making a monumental difference coaching high school sports. Know a coach worthy of a story? E-mail Mitch Stephens at maxpreps.com.