Digol J'Beily dreamed of teaching and coaching at his alma mater, giving back to a school that gave him so much.
A star student-athlete in the late 1980s at Center High School, J'Beily landed a U.S. history teaching job at the school in 1995 and became football coach in 2003. But the dream morphed into a nightmarish spring in 2005.
J'Beily was forced out of his coaching position through a vote by two school board members who were vague in their reasoning, including one who allegedly took it personally that J'Beily didn't start his son at quarterback three years earlier.
The controversy ignited a firestorm in Antelope. Teachers threatened to resign, and players and community members rallied in support of the coach.
J'Beily was quickly reinstated, but it took time to build the football program. The Cougars were 1-9 in 2010 and a playoff team last season that lost to Oakdale in the first round. Leading by example, J'Beily implored his athletes to hang in there and stick with it. The Cougars' breakthrough team has arrived.
No. 10-seed Center (10-2) takes on sixth-seeded Central Catholic of Modesto tonight in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinal. Central Catholic (10-2) has won a section-record 15 small-school titles.
Center has used speed and tenacity to get this far. Tailback D'Juan Bellaire has rushed for an area-leading and school-record 2,081 yards and 27 touchdowns. Quarterback Tyrel Anderson has passed for 1,381 yards and 14 touchdowns, and two-way linemen Preston Dobbins, Jason Perry and Spencer Bracey have helped lead the running game and combined for 34.5 sacks.
"It's been such a great year with so many kids working so hard," J'Beily said. "I've really enjoyed it."
J'Beily said he will always remember the campus and community support in 2005. He said the experience helped mold him as a coach.
"I learned you can't allow one or two people to ruin it for you, and we showed that good kids, hard work, perseverance and effort pays off in time," he said. "And it all reaffirms that you're a decent coach. And I'm a coach squeezing everything out of these kids."
Center games, home and away, are a festive scene. Fans carry signs, bang drums, and wear sky-blue wigs. Among the crazies is J'Beily's wife, Tami. She was so pained by the negativity in the stands in past seasons she elected to work in the snack bar.
These days, she's wearing blue hair. But not daughters Hope (10) and Rachel (14).
"They don't sit next to mom because they think she's nuts," J'Beily cracked. "I know Tami feels good about what we've done. She was ready for me to get out of coaching completely back (in 2005)."