On the eve of a big game, cheerleaders from Carondelet, De La Salle's sister school across the street, might hang signs in the school courtyard. But they do the same for other Spartans teams, many of which have risen with the tide of the football program. De La Salle's basketball team, for instance, won California's 2003 northern district championship.
The football team's staunchest supporters are the students' parents, including a group called the White Coats, who sell tickets and direct traffic on game day. They, too, are cognizant that De La Salle's mission is more about building a healthy learning environment than building a football power. "Sports parents and football alumni have been generous in contributing to the school, but they rarely earmark [their gifts] for football," says De La Salle development director Erin Jones.
Fittingly, in attitude and appearance, the players don't have the aura of blue-chippers. The team is mostly white, with a handful of African-American and Asian kids, a mix that loosely reflects Contra Costa County's demographics. Aside from a couple of beefy linemen, the football players aren't much taller or stouter than the average peach-fuzzed student. This is why the Spartans are rarely the focus of Division I recruiting wars. Last February, when four players signed with Oregon and one with Illinois, it was considered an unusually successful scholarship haul.
"We'll usually have a few really talented skill guys, but this year, for instance, we won't have a single player who can run a 4.5 40-yard-dash," says senior quarterback--safety Anthony Gutierrez. "Our strength, our quickness, our knowledge of the game has everything to do with the hard work we put in." All but a handful of football players have voluntarily dropped second sports to work on football full time. This level of training scares away exactly the kind of player who wouldn't easily survive the rigors of a De La Salle season. For many middle schoolers, on the other hand, the off-season workouts make De La Salle more appealing than the public schools in the area. Senior center Scott Hugo remembers walking by the weight room as an eighth-grader and being struck by the energy that seethed inside. "I knew I had to come here," says Hugo. "I mean, you know they're not doing this at Ygnacio Valley."
There is, as might be expected, an air of intrigue surrounding the man who has conjured this sort of dedication from such a distractible age group. For the past quarter century, the most celebrated high school football team in America has been coached by Bob Ladouceur, a man known by his staff as the Ghost. "You turn around and Coach Lad is there," says offensive coordinator Mark Panella, one of four assistants who used to play for Ladouceur. "It's like he has a trap door," adds Danny Ladouceur, the second of the coach's three children and a senior wide receiver at De La Salle. "And when he appears, he just commands everyone's attention. I've had people tell me that they think he's, like, a higher presence."
And why not, with a coaching record that appears to be a typo? At 287-14-1, Ladouceur has had more undefeated seasons--17--than losses.
Like the campus itself, the coach seems an unlikely wellspring of gridiron greatness. Ladouceur, who also teaches religious studies at De La Salle, has a low-pitched voice and a contemplative way of speaking that seem better suited for an NPR morning show than for calling out coverages from the sideline. When out-of-towners come to a De La Salle game, they often look past Ladouceur--who considers headsets, like hollering, a pointless affectation--and assume the fidgety, gruff-talking Terry Eidson is the head coach; he's actually the athletic director and assistant coach. Off the field, though, there's no doubt about who's in charge: It's clear in the bone-chilling glare Ladouceur turns on a player to convey that, yes, the offensive line will work on a simple footwork drill for yet another hour; or in the quietly powerful motivational speeches he delivers at the homes of the families that host the team's Thursday night spaghetti dinners during the season.
Ladouceur is so committed to his players and program that he has turned down offers from colleges to leave Concord and improve upon his five-figure salary. "The man has no ambition other than to help those boys be successful," says Walsh, who tried to hire Ladouceur as an assistant at Stanford when Walsh was coaching the Cardinal from 1992 to '94. Ladouceur, 50, has thought about retiring from coaching, but the impulse fades as anticipation of the next season begins. "I always ask my players and students what they're passionate about," says Ladouceur, "and I don't want to hear that it's shooting baskets. I want them to learn that it's not so much what you do as how it affects the world. I'm passionate about coaching, but it's not about football. It's about being important to those kids."
If he had any immediate desire to escape the long Saturdays and the countless hours of midweek film work, this winter might have been the ideal time to go. A big senior class was graduating. Young, eager assistants like strength coach Justin Alumbaugh, a former Spartans linebacker who is being groomed to someday take over the program, seem committed to De La Salle's future. And then, on New Year's Eve, after a jog around his San Ramon neighborhood, Ladouceur laid down on his bed with tightness in his chest. Beverly, his wife of 28 years, came into the room to discover him writhing in pain. "Next thing I knew, there were EMTs standing over me," says Ladouceur, who had suffered a heart attack caused by a blocked coronary artery.
Ladouceur spent five days in the hospital, where he received stent implants. When his son Danny visited him, he saw his colorless complexion and the tubes trailing out of his body and asked the question that was buzzing throughout Contra Costa County, "Do you think you're going to keep coaching?"