High School Sports

Elk Grove hires Burbank’s John Heffernan to lead high-powered football program

John Heffernan, calling for a timeout while coaching at Burbank High, takes over a traditionally successful Elk Grove High football program.
John Heffernan, calling for a timeout while coaching at Burbank High, takes over a traditionally successful Elk Grove High football program. rbenton@sacbee.com

John Heffernan has been hired as the next football coach at Elk Grove High School, a move anticipated since the weekend and confirmed Thursday morning, when he formally accepted the post.

Heffernan leaves Burbank after guiding 12 consecutive playoff teams. At Elk Grove, he will take over a powerhouse program that was shaken after the 2016 season by the dismissal of longtime coach Chris Nixon.

Heffernan, 44, has a strong regional reputation for leading teams that play old-school football – running the ball – play hard and with sportsmanship. The Sacramento State graduate from San Mateo held players accountable as students and athletes and helped many of them land scholarships.

And that’s why it’s hard to leave a place fondly known by staff and athletes as “3500 Florin Road,” he said Thursday morning by phone.

“I definitely have mixed emotions,” Heffernan said. “This is the hardest decision I’ve made in my life. I loved my time at Burbank. I told our players there was only a small handful of high school jobs I’d leave Burbank for, and Elk Grove was at the top of that list.

“Elk Grove football matters. It matters to the school. It matters to the kids. It matters to the community.”

Heffernan will coach in the powerhouse Delta League that includes three of his closest coaching friends: Mike Alberghini at Grant, Joe Cattolico at Sheldon and TJ Ewing at Monterey Trail.

“It’s fun when you can compete against coaches you love and respect,” Heffernan said.

Burbank is inching closer to hiring one-time Titans star Eddie Elder as coach. Elder coached at West Campus the previous two seasons.

Before his departure, Nixon led six successive playoff teams at Elk Grove, going 12-1 in 2011 and following with marks of 12-2, 12-2, 10-3, 13-1 and 11-2.

But he was involved in a controversy over the construction of a team room next to Elk Grove’s football stadium. An investigation by Elk Grove Unified School District found the building lacked proper permits and was unsafe. Construction stopped last summer.

The fallout included termination of a district employee who oversaw the construction, the removal of athletic director title and duties for another and Nixon’s departure, despite an outpouring of community support at the district office on his behalf.

Elk Grove expects to name a new athletic director this week.

Heffernan’s longtime assistant will be joining him at Elk Grove. James Pale will teach English there after doing so for years at Burbank.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD