CONCORD Humble surroundings and a mountain of work are what Bob Ladouceur recalls thinking when he toured De La Salle High School in 1979.
Ladouceur, then 24, studied the place, then exhaled. Friends told him to run, insisting he couldn't win there.
The classroom setting at the small Catholic school was fine. But the football facilities? No goal posts, no weights and, seemingly, no chance.
But Ladouceur relished the challenge and wanted to leave the graveyard shift at juvenile hall.
At his first team meeting, there were more empty seats than curious prospects. One teenager wore a T-shirt with a marijuana plant splashed across it.
"We had nothing," Ladouceur says. "A brother brought in an Olympic weight set, and it was stolen two weeks later. We asked kids to bring in their own weights, those old plastic ones. I had a coaching friend, a great handyman, who welded together three bench presses. That's how we started."
But from those humble beginnings, the transformation was swift.
Ladouceur's intensity and focus on fundamentals, brotherhood and year-round strength and conditioning helped create arguably the greatest high school football program in the country.
"De La Who" soon became "De La Stomp."
De La Salle, which went 12-0 in 1982 and has dominated ever since, comes to Sacramento for the first time Saturday when it plays Folsom in the first Northern California Open championship game. It's billed as the area's top high school event because it features "the greatest football dynasty in U.S. history," according to Mark Tennis, the editor of Cal-Hi Sports.
Ladouceur has built a résumé that almost seems full of typos. He has more North Coast Section championships (28) than career losses (25). He has never had a losing season, including his 6-3 record in 1979, the school's first winning season. His teams went undefeated for 12 seasons while winning 151 consecutive games, a streak that ended in 2004.
Ladouceur's overall 397-25-3 record includes nine one-point losses, he has ended the season ranked No. 1 in the state 16 times, and his teams have won the last three CIF State Open championships. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that De La Salle is undefeated against Northern California opponents since 1991, a span of 237 games.
Ladouceur stresses a simple approach of blocking and tackling. He says he tried a headset once but threw it to the turf during a game in 1982 when a rival coach picked up his frequency, though Ladouceur occasionally will slip on a set.
Ladouceur, who quotes Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as much as Vince Lombardi, credits others for De La Salle's success. He points to his assistant coaches such as his right-hand man of 30 seasons, Terry Eidson and "our kids who give so much." They, in turn, credit the man they call Coach Lad.
Bill Walsh, the late Pro Football Hall of Fame coach, attended at least one De La Salle game each season. In his second stint at Stanford, Walsh tried to pry Ladouceur from De La Salle.
"I've never seen a better-coached team at any level," Walsh once said. "(Ladouceur) is as fine a coach as the game has ever seen."
But Ladouceur has always insisted he could help shape young lives more at the high school level.
Facilities remain modest
Despite De La Salle's tremendous success, it still operates a relatively modest program.
The school's brick building and football field are wedged between a quiet boulevard and homes. There are no signs proclaiming athletic greatness. If you're looking for Notre Dame West, you'll be disappointed. The weight room is so small that many players lift outside. There are goal posts now, and FieldTurf, but the stadium is average size for a high school facility, forcing the Spartans to play postseason games off campus at larger venues.
"We kind of like it this way," Ladouceur says.
Like most private schools, De La Salle has detractors, with most of the criticism focused on the perception that private schools can recruit when public schools cannot.
"Trust me, if we broke any rules, we'd be on the front cover of every newspaper in America for it," De La Salle athletic director Leo Lopoz said. "We do it the right way."
Over the years, De La Salle has dominated with more 5-foot-10, 200-pound guards and linebackers than Division I recruits.
This season, De La Salle does have several college prospects, including linebacker Michael Hutchings, a USC commit who says, "Most teams we play may be better in some ways, but we work harder."
Running back Tiapepe Vitale, who leads the Spartans with 1,734 yards and 28 touchdowns, however, is an example of the program's many overachievers.
"We're all pretty ordinary people," defensive end Austin Hooper said. "We're taught to play and compete above normal."
Added Lopoz: "We work harder than anyone. That sounds bad, but it's true. And we've got the greatest coach in America."
Coaches are welcome to visit
Ladouceur says De La Salle's doors are open for any coach in the country who wants to visit. There's no secret sauce or pill here, he insists.
"I appreciate the coaches who stop by to see what we're all about," Ladouceur says. "It's all about education and the kids learning. We work hard. We've earned everything."
When Ladouceur walks across campus, it's almost a parting of the green sea as scores of students wearing school colors follow his every move.
Ladouceur's players revere him, considering him too special to disappoint. He isn't a yeller, but his words resonate.
"We tell the players exactly how we feel if he's doing a good job, if he's not, if he's a good teammate," Ladouceur said. "We're not afraid to confront a kid."
Ladouceur, now 58, looks exhausted and admits it. He hints he could step down after this season or next.
"I appreciate what we've done here, how hard the kids and coaches have worked," he said. "It's been a good life. I've enjoyed it."