Coach and Athletic Director
The Dominance Of De La Salle
The all-boys school in Concord, Calif., preaches respect
and humility while piling up victories at an unmatched rate
Editor's Note: This article was published in October 2009 so some of the statistics may be slightly off but the message of De La Salle remains.
By Michael Austin, Senior Editor
You probably know about De La Salle’s (Concord, Calif.) 151-game football winning streak and six national championships…but did you know the swim team has won 21 consecutive league titles?
You also may know the basketball team is a two-time state champion and is currently riding a streak of 12 straight league titles…but did you know the cross-country team has won 15 North Coast Section championships? Or, that the golf team has won 10 consecutive golf titles? Or, that a combined 28 North Coast Section titles have come from sports like soccer (eight), volleyball (six), baseball (six), water polo (three), wrestling (three) or lacrosse (two)? It could be argued that one of the most famous high school athletic programs in the country should be even more famous, considering how successful every team is at De La Salle.
With the national, state, section and league titles pouring into the school, you might think De La Salle has an entire wing of its facility dedicated to all of its various trophies, awards and accolades. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Upon exiting the school’s gymnasium, there is a small area where some scattered trophies rest. These are some of the national and state trophies, yet they are stored in a standard trophy case with sliding glass doors. There’s no spotlight, no fancy presentation and it’s difficult to tell why the trophy was won until you get right up close to the engraved plate on the front of it.
Well, if De La Salle isn’t spending its money on an elaborate trophy room, then clearly the school is pumping cash into the athletic facilities. To be home to so many of California’s best athletic teams, you might assume De La Salle is playing on the finest fields and courts in the country…and, again, you’d be wrong.
The baseball diamond (yes, the key word is “the,” as in, just one) is shared among the four hardball teams (two freshman, junior varsity and varsity). It features a portable outfield fence (so the space can be used for other purposes) and there is a single batting cage for the entire program.
The football field is a multi-use stadium shared with the soccer and lacrosse teams, which finally is sporting a new turf field (installed two years ago) after seasons of wear and tear. The gymnasium looks like any other school’s gymnasium with standard bleachers, modest scoreboard and walls behind the baskets (instead of extra seating). Wrestling practices are conducted in the old cafeteria. The weight room is small and cramped but serves its purpose.
“The baseball field is about 40 years old with some drainage issues. We re-sod it when we can,” explains De La Salle athletic director Leo Lopoz. “But, that’s our character. We’re humble and not into showing off. Plus, it forces our coaches and teams to work together for the overall success of every team. It’s a blue-collar mentality here. But, we also take great pride in the facilities that we have. We keep them clean and useful.
“And, while it’s hard to find overt signs of the magnitude of our athletic accomplishments on campus, we are proud of them.”
Foundations For Success
Saint Jean-Baptiste de la Salle was born in 1651 in France. He dedicated his life work to helping and educating the poor, eventually establishing the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, known in the United States as Christian Brothers. The staff at De La Salle High School believes the athletic successes come from the core values and beliefs upon which the school was established.
“We follow the traditions of our founder to this day. We are here to give our students the tools necessary to make them successful. That’s the foundation we build upon,” says De La Salle president Mark DeMarco, a 1978 graduate of the school.
“The first active verb in our mission statement is ‘loved.’ The students at this school are loved first…then instructed and guided. And, you can look at all of our programs, including athletics, and the kids are loved.
“We don’t play up the athletics here. The athletics are secondary in nature to this institution. Brother Chris, our principal, tells students at freshman orientation and at the parents’ open house, that if you are sending your child here for athletic reasons only, you need to pick another school. We are academic first, then we are athletic.”
“We support the overall spirit of athletics because it’s part of the overall education of a student…but the coaches know that they are teachers first,” Lopoz adds. “They are here to serve the mind, body and soul and that drives our success. Yes, our coaches are very good at what they do, but they also respect the individuals they instruct and are here to serve the De La Salle brotherhood and tradition.”
“The goals and mission of this school provide the basis and foundation for our success,” says football coach Bob Ladouceur. “It grounds us. All coaches here are an extension of the educational process. Yeah, it sounds idealistic, but it’s true.”
As Ladouceur mentioned, all of this sounds a bit idealistic…and maybe it is. But, the philosophy is working at De La Salle. The sense of togetherness and the genuine care and concern for all the students helps them become better people. Just ask Aaron Taylor, the former NFL offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers.
“Prior to coming to De La Salle, I was a ‘D’ and ‘F’ student who was drinking and doing drugs. I was going nowhere quickly,” Taylor recalls. “My mother sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told her I wanted to play professional football. She said I needed to go to a school with structure, morals and values before anything else, so that’s how I ended up at De La Salle. Once there, it didn’t take long to feel the sense of family woven into the school’s fabric. It’s a common cliché to talk about the sense of family at De La Salle or at Notre Dame (where Taylor graduated from college) but it’s a very accurate way to describe it.
“I can’t say enough about that program. I give it singular credit for putting me on the right path in my life.”
While Taylor went on to a career in professional football, he still carries those ideals and values instilled at De La Salle. In 2005, he traveled to Sri Lanka to help in the recovery efforts after a deadly tsunami devastated the area. He spent 10 weeks on the island delivering needed goods and products to tsunami victims. He also helped build a temporary school during his time there.
Cliché or not, the sense of family and traditions of De La Salle obviously have remained with Taylor well after his years competing on a football field.
Ladouceur has patrolled the football field at De La Salle since 1979. As a former college player at Utah, then San Jose State, Ladouceur (pronounced lad-a-sir) arrived at De La Salle as a 25-year-old taking over a fledgling program, which never had posted a winning season. He immediately put his players on a running regimen to build their endurance and an extensive strength program to build muscle.
“I always said that as long as I have a weight room, I can be a successful coach. I wanted to put us in a position to be able to compete.”
Ladouceur’s hiring paid immediate dividends to the football team and the coach never has posted a losing record in his 30 seasons. His current overall record is a remarkable 344-22-3, including that dominating stretch from 1992-2003 when the team won 151 games in a row.
His program has survived constant league shifts, rules changes to balance the power (at one point De La Salle was granted an automatic pass to the playoffs and pulled out of all league affiliations to give the other schools a better chance to compete) and a schedule featuring some of the best teams from the state and the nation. He has done all of this at a school with about 1,000 students while competing against programs that have three or four times as many athletes from which to choose.
“Football is a hard game to play. It’s a humbling game,” Ladouceur says. “We’ve overcome other opponents who had more talent and better athletes than us by bonding together. You can overcome a lot by being dedicated to each other and that’s what our players have done.
“I always have found that on our most successful teams, the roles of the coaching staff diminish as the kids take responsibility and have a vision.”
Ladouceur admits that at times during the winning streak the coaching staff had to take a proactive role to keep players in check. He didn’t want the streak to become bigger than the main goal, which was to see how good each group of players could be from year to year.
“We never really talked about it (the winning streak) much. When we did, I wanted to make sure the players knew that, despite the media attention, we were not here to chase records. That wasn’t our goal. I told them to hustle and play to the best of their abilities. And, when we won some games but played poorly, everyone knew not to be satisfied.”
That’s part of what makes the De La Salle football program so great…and potentially so exhausting for players. There is a tradition established and every player feels the pressure to live up to that greatness. Ladouceur keeps it in perspective but says it can be overwhelming.
“Having the history at this school…that’s a great thing for these players. They have a tradition to live up to. But, it is easier to climb to the top than to stay on top. The expectation level here is high. You can go 13-0, then lose your last game and you have people asking, ‘What happened to you guys?’”
Ladouceur also says he never wanted to get famous from coaching but, when you win 151 games in a row and have a couple of books written about your program, you’re going to get noticed. Despite the media attention and all the winning, he says he’s never considered leaving De La Salle.
“I enjoy working with this age group. From the ages of 14 to 18 is when these kids are going through the most dramatic changes in their life,” Ladouceur says. “They’re searching for their identities and figuring out what they want to be. I find it very rewarding to help them and to be a part of their lives at this moment.”
But, after three decades teaching and coaching football at the highest of success levels, is there a point where De La Salle football moves on without Ladouceur on the sidelines?
“I’m taking it year to year right now. I still enjoy it. When it becomes drudgery for me and hard for me to get to practice, then I’ll get out. There is nothing I’m chasing or wanting to accomplish at this point except for working with these kids every day,” he says.
Ladouceur recalls a time two seasons ago when he claims he was “burned out.” He says the season ended and he experienced the usual fatigue. However, when it was time to ramp up off-season workouts again, he just didn’t have the energy to do it.
He thought that might be his last season as coach but, eventually, the fire returned as players began to develop and grow. It’s not easy overseeing a year-round football power but to compete at this level, Ladouceur says he and the players must be dedicated to the cause.
Owning The Hardwood
Basketball coach Frank Allocco was in a much different place than Ladouceur when he considered a position at De La Salle. The Spartans already had achieved some success on the hardwood with several league titles and a couple of section championships. So, in 1997, when De La Salle needed a basketball coach, the school certainly wasn’t building from scratch.
However, Allocco was in the same boat. He had just completed his sixth year at the helm of Northgate High, which he had turned from an also-ran program into a state champion in 1995. In fact, Northgate was his first head-coaching job at the high school level (he had coached at the youth level prior to Northgate) and it didn’t come until he was 38 years old.
Allocco says he opted to refrain from chasing his coaching dream while his children were growing up. “I knew how much time I would put into the ministry of high school coaching and wanted to make sure that my children had my undivided attention when they needed me most. So, I waited until my children were grown. My daughter was entering her senior year at Concord High and my son was entering eighth grade.”
Being an older, first-time coach didn’t quell Allocco’s passion and drive for the game. He recalls walking into his first practice at Northgate, addressing the players and telling them “we’re going to win a state title and this is how we’re going to do it.” One of the players then raised his hand and said, “Have you ever coached anywhere before, like in high school or college.” Allocco says his response was “no” and the player went on to say, “Are you going to have anyone helping you?”
“That interaction was really funny but it shows where we started in terms of my relationship with the players. I eventually got them to believe in what we were doing and we went 22-8 in my first season.”
During those six years at Northgate, Allocco put together a record of 167-28, and had the pleasure of coaching his son, Frank, Jr. His legacy was well under way at Northgate…then De La Salle came calling.
“I wasn’t thinking about leaving but when you walk on this campus, it just feels different,” Allocco says. “I graduated from Notre Dame (where he played football and basketball) and it has the same feel to it. I felt loyal to Northgate but at De La Salle I knew I could integrate my faith into my work as well…it’s really the perfect fit.”
No one can argue with that assessment as Allocco has a record of 329-40 at the helm of the Spartans. He led the squad to state titles in 2000 and 2006 and has installed a system of play (a variation of the Princeton Offense) that demands patience, fundamentals, unselfishness, defense and hustle. It’s not easy to convince players to take a backseat individually for the betterment of the team but Allocco’s success demands respect from his players.
“We have created an environment where the team is first and the individual is second. I tell our players they don’t have to score 30 points a game to be impact players,” he explains. “Players need to know it’s not the concepts that are making them successful but it’s believing in each other.”
Case in point—in 2000, his first De La Salle state title team won using a five-out offensive philosophy. In 2006, he had a much different group of players, so they won using motion principles. “The goal of a teacher or a coach is to realize the potential you have and use it. You have to mold your athletes so they are the best they possibly can be.”
He adds that getting players to believe in themselves while putting the team first is much more difficult today than in years past. It all starts at home, where Allocco believes parents are doing their children a disservice by taking on teachers and coaches. He says parental involvement has gone overboard and accountability has been lost on this generation.
“The problems that are plaguing society also are plaguing basketball teams. So many kids are out there thinking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ that they lose sight of the ultimate goal. It’s so much harder to coach now. In the long-term, eventually, the players become receptive to our philosophy. But, it’s difficult to get to that point because at home they always hear how nothing is their fault, which makes it harder to convince them otherwise.”
This is a vast contrast from Allocco’s playing days, especially at Notre Dame. As a football player, he understood his role as backup quarterback and was a part of the 1973 undefeated Irish squad (under coach Ara Parseghian) that won the national championship. On the basketball court, Allocco served as a backup guard and was on the team that ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak.
“I learned a lot from Coach Parseghian. He was good to me and everyone on that team bought into what he was doing. No one questioned his authority. And, I played for Digger Phelps. To learn from those coaches while understanding the importance of the traditions at Notre Dame really molded me into the coach I am today.”
The coach he is today is a leader grounded in fundamentals who plans his practices almost down to the minute to utilize every moment he has with his players.
“We really stress fundamentals. Our goal is we have to work to get our players better by March,” he says. “We just want to focus on the techniques getting better rather than dazzle them with how much I know. We’re trying to maximize our time in practice and make it very efficient.”
Success All Around
If De La Salle’s athletic prowess began on the football field and ended on the basketball court, this would be a major accomplishment for an average-sized private school. However, every sports team at De La Salle has experienced unprecedented success.
“I always let it be known that it was not our football program that won the first national championship at the school…it was the 1984 swim team,” says a smiling DeMarco, who served as a coach on that swim team. “But, that’s a great part about this school, there is a sport for every person who wants to play. Look at our water polo program; the kids wanted it so we started it in 1987. We got drilled at the start but over time, we started to win titles.” (The team has won 12 league titles and three North Coast Section titles since its inception.)
And, true to De La Salle’s spirit of team, as all the teams grow and succeed, coaches across all sports are working together and relishing in the success of every student at the school.
“Our football success has spurred motivation for all of our sports to be good across the board. It has pushed our coaches to be the best they can be,” says Lopoz. “The expectations are high here. When you wear De La Salle on your uniform, it means something. But, the coaches also understand that the past is the past. Each season starts new and every coach is dedicated to educating that new group of students.”
For Lopoz, being the athletic director at a school with this kind of track record can be a daunting task. Every team is successful and every team has needs.
“I approach it as giving each sport as much support as possible. It’s time-consuming but it’s not fair to give any particular sport more attention than the others,” Lopoz says. That is why De La Salle goes out of its way to host many “signature events,” as Lopoz calls them, in sports like swimming, cross country and track.
These are large invitationals that require a tremendous amount of work but also offer a huge reward that is two-fold — the best athletes in the area are competing on one stage and it provides De La Salle the opportunity to be recognized as an organization that works hard to put on a top-notch event.
“The signature events help build our community here because it gets the players, parents and outsiders involved to make the event happen,” Lopoz adds. “We want to put on the best show possible because we are proud of our school.”
Ladouceur and Allocco both agree that being proud of the school is important. As the two most recognizable programs at De La Salle, both coaches are intent on showing their support for every sport and believe winning breeds success for all programs.
“Every championship earned is good for the school, no matter what sport it comes in,” Ladouceur says. “Across the board, there are outstanding coaches here.”
“At a lot of other schools, there seems to be jealousy between the coaches and the sports…not here,” Allocco says. “I understand that football drives athletic programs at most schools. There are more players on a football team and it generates money.
But, everyone in the football program here has appreciated what we do on the basketball court and has welcomed our success. Bob and I are good friends and he’s been really happy when we’ve won our state titles. All of the coaches here are comfortable in their roles. We are pieces of something bigger at De La Salle.”
Resentment, Jealousy & Recruiting
Of course, with dominating athletic success come hordes of naysayers. By drawing from the entire Bay Area, De La Salle doesn’t have a geographic community from which to gather fan support. So, it’s no surprise that some of the biggest crowds at the football and basketball games are when there is a chance the Spartans are going to lose. Plus, the rumblings about athlete recruiting do not go unnoticed.
In response, DeMarco explains that it is a blind process for admissions and financial aid, meaning that there are separate committees that decide who gets into the school and who receives monetary support. At no point do admissions and the financial-aid department get together to make a joint decision, according to DeMarco, who says sometimes a student is accepted and no aid is provided, and other times a student is denied but the financial-aid committee gave that person an award.
“I hear people say we recruit. It’s funny because I’d love to film our freshman tryouts so those same people can see what we start with,” Allocco says. “I enjoy coaching too much to recruit. I just don’t see how much fun it would be to bring in a bunch of recruits.”
“Our detractors complain that we have an unfair advantage and that we are pulling recruits. It’s just not true,” Ladouceur adds. “I have faith in our program that we are working to create the best players possible and we have no need to recruit. All of that talk just makes us work harder to achieve our goals.”
“People have a lot of preconceived notions about us…both good and bad,” Lopoz says. “We are under a bigger microscope than most schools, so I think we are even more cautious of rules. When it comes down to it, people respect us but they may not like us.”
Graduating Men Of ‘Faith, Integrity & Scholarship’
Love them or hate them for their athletic prowess, the students graduating from De La Salle excel in the classroom, on the field and in life. They don’t believe their way is better than everyone else’s but it’s what works for this group of 1,000 males in this area of the country and at this moment in history.
“There is a special feel here and it’s not easily replicated. Some people joke that we have ‘drank the Kool-Aid’ but I just see it as having a strong sense of community at De La Salle. Once you experience it, you’re hooked,” says DeMarco. “I am proud to say we are graduating men of faith, integrity and scholarship.”
“The athletics at De La Salle contribute to the players’ success in the classroom. These players know they belong to something special here and do not want to let anyone down,” Lopoz adds. “There is a lot on their plate but it’s impressive to see students balance all of their responsibilities. And, it’s great to see alumni come back to provide guidance for the present students.”
The aforementioned Taylor never has forgotten the place that set him on the proper path. He still returns to speak to players about the importance of academics and to remind them how lucky they are to attend a school like De La Salle. Taylor knows that this program saved his life, allowed him to attend a top-notch college and to become the best player and person he could be.
“I blew out my knee at my third pro practice with the Green Bay Packers after college,” Taylor remembers. “As I lay there on the ground, I thought to myself, thank God I graduated and have my education. I knew that I could do anything with my life even if football wasn’t part of it.
“At De La Salle, they are developing people first and athletes second.”