Joe Davidson

‘We changed everything’: How Folsom and De La Salle soared to football prominence

De La Salle’s Allan Marion, left, and Folsom’s Troy Knox collide as they reach for a pass during the Northern California Regional Open Division championship game Dec. 8, 2012 at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento.
De La Salle’s Allan Marion, left, and Folsom’s Troy Knox collide as they reach for a pass during the Northern California Regional Open Division championship game Dec. 8, 2012 at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

In 1962, a school nestled up Highway 50, surrounded by thousands of acres of wide-open grassy seas, finished its football season 9-0.

The Folsom Bulldogs were the top-ranked team in all of Northern California. Few outside Sacramento County noticed.

The roster included eventual NFL quarterback Virgil Carter and an unsung two-way player in Tom Doherty. He would later play a prominent role in Folsom’s real rise to prominence that is at warp speed today.

In 1966, a small Catholic school was built amid the walnut orchards of Contra Costa County in Concord.

The founding principal for De La Salle was Brother Norman Cook, who grew up Sacramento. Cook once told The Bee that the academic start up was simple, but establishing football at De La Salle, “was my greatest challenge in education.”

Imagine that.

De La Salle didn’t just start with modest football beginnings before it soared to dizzying heights in emerging as what Cal-Hi Sports editor Mark Tennis declared, “The greatest football dynasty in U.S. history.” It almost didn’t start at all, and might not have for years without Cook’s dogged determination.

On Friday in Concord, a Folsom program that once couldn’t have imagined rising to national relevance will face De La Salle in a whopper of a season opener, the biggest in regional history. The Spartans and Bulldogs are Nos. 18 and 19, respectively, in MaxPreps’ Top 25 national rankings.

A Folsom victory would add to the Bulldogs’ rich pedigree this decade, one in which they have gone 113-9 with three CIF State championships and six Sac-Joaquin Section banners. The Bulldogs return 15 starters from a 16-0 team. De La Salle? It doesn’t lose to NorCal teams – at least it hasn’t in 27 years.

Both programs soared, learning from defeat. Both run an offense specific to their talent, and both programs stress fundamentals, accountability and sportsmanship. And both boast of some of the best athletes in the state, or, in some cases, the entire country.

“(De La Salle) is the blueprint for how to practice, how to prepare, how to win,” Folsom coach Kris Richardson said. “It’s a great measuring stick for us.”

De La Salle coach and alum Justin Alumbaugh said Folsom poses a “huge challenge.”

“They’re every bit as good as they’re cracked up to be,” Alumbaugh said.

Begging for football at De La Salle

Cook’s suggestion to add to the extracurricular menu at De La Salle was met with resistance by administrators. Blocking and tackling were deemed dangerous, a distraction for academics.

He argued that sports could enrich a teenager’s life, enliven a campus and community. Cook had experienced such wonders as a student-athlete at Christian Brothers in the early 1940s, and as vice principal at the school in the late 1950s.

“I begged and BS’d my way to get football going,” he said not long before dying in 2003. “How could we ever imagine how good De La Salle football would become?”

Folsom ruled the region in the early 1960s under coach Dewey Guerra, but when nearby Cordova High opened in 1965, the competitive balance shifted. Rancho Cordova boomed in population then, much like Folsom would decades later with houses dotting those once-empty fields.

Guerra became Cordova’s first coach. Doherty was on the Lancers coaching staff throughout the 1970s, when Cordova led the nation in victories with 106. Big Red habitually crushed teams with large rosters, swift athletes and the wishbone run game.

Cordova was De La Salle football in Northern California – the blueprint – long before De La Salle became De La Wow.

De La Salle fielded its first team in 1972. Brother Cook hired an eager San Francisco cop to coach, mainly because Ed Hall pleaded for the job.

“I walked in cold into De La Salle, and the secretary tried to shelter Brother Cook,” said Hall to The Bee years later. He still works in athletics at Diablo Valley College. “So I sat and waited. Somehow, I got the job. We had nothing. Think about that era, the early 1970s, and what was going on in society, and we’re trying to start football with kids who never played the sport.”

Hall conducted three-a-day practices to jump-start the learning curve. Once, he tracked down players who didn’t show up for the third session, ordering them off the golf course for more drills. Hall resigned following the 1978 season, burned out that he wasn’t able to field a winner.

Bob Ladouceur never had a losing season with De La Salle. He went 399-25-3 with nine one-point losses. Manny Crisostomo Sacramento Bee file

Bob Ladouceur’s impact

Bob Ladouceur was intrigued by the opportunity to teach religion and coach at De La Salle when he saw the opening posted in a Christian newsletter – and to ditch his graveyard shift at juvenile hall. De La Salle stressed it wanted a teacher first and a coach second, which tells you where football ranked on the pecking order then.

Ladouceur was 24 and had no head-coaching experience. His first meeting with prospective players included teenagers with bandanas. One wore a shirt with a large marijuana leaf splashed across it.

Ladouceur liked the school setting, but the football facilities were scarce. No goal posts, no weights and, seemingly, no chance. His coaching friends advised him to flee.

“We had nothing,” Ladouceur told The Bee in 2013. “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.”

Ladouceur installed the run-heavy veer offense, something he figured would give his overmatched players a chance. His first team went 6-3. And 1979 was also the last year a Sacramento-area team finished No. 1 in Northern California in the final Cal-Hi Sports rankings – Cordova.

A De La Salle victory Friday could well extend that streak, too.

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Ladouceur is now in his sixth season as an assistant to hand-picked successor, Alumbaugh, quite likely making him the most over-qualified assistant in the land.

Ladouceur never had a losing season. He went 399-25-3 with nine one-point losses. When De La Salle lost by a touchdown to Pittsburg in the 1991 North Coast Section final, the Spartans coaches reassessed everything. They changed how they conditioned, how they prepared.

Then came the streak.

De La Salle went on a stunning 151-game winning streak that ended in 2004. That’s 12 consecutive unbeaten seasons.

Ladouceur produced 21 unbeaten seasons, finished top-ranked in the state by Cal-Hi 20 times and was ranked No. 1 in the country 10 times. He had more section championships — 28 — than career losses.

No wonder the school ordered up some bobbleheads in his likeness for later this season, which amused a man best known for his fierce game face.

De La Salle has not lost to a NorCal opponent north of Fresno since 1991, a run of 290 games.

“A quarter century!” said MaxPreps senior columnist/editor Mitch Stephens, who has observed and covered De La Salle since the 1980s. “How could a high school football team not lose against a high-caliber region for a full quarter century? Seems impossible, really. These are teenagers; they make mistakes. Simply, they have done it by keeping it simple. They’ve run the same offense over and over, year after year, and they have had the same dedicated coaching staff, preaching all the same messages: compete, play fearless, play for each other. It works.”

20141212_FOLSOM GRANT_0592.JPG
Folsom picked up steam after Kris Richardson installed a spread-option offense with longtime coaching pal Troy Taylor — now an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Utah — to give the Bulldogs quarterbacks a chance find players in open space. Brian Baer Sacramento Bee file

Folsom’s ascent

Folsom dipped in its football fortunes in the 1970s, hired Doherty as coach in 1981 and made a climb, punctuated by back-to-back section championships in 1989 and ‘90.

Doherty as athletic director in the early 2000s gave Kris Richardson his first teaching job. It was a career break. Richardson was 25 and eager for any job and credits Doherty “for believing in me.”

“What Kris has done here is incredible,” said Doherty, now retired from education but a regular to Folsom practices and games, often tooling around town in his Corvette.

Richardson grew up in the East Bay, “in the shadow of De La Salle,” he said. His mentor at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, where he was a towering 6-foot-7 offensive lineman in 1987, was Hall, the first De La Salle coach. Richardson said without Hall’s direction and confidence in him, he might have wound up working construction. Hall inspired Richardson to get into teaching and coaching.

Richardson’s early teams at Folsom celebrated when it won back-to-back games. His first team in 2005 went 5-4-1, his second 6-5 and third 6-4. The Bulldogs tried to run smash-mouth football and got smashed, including 54-10 by Elk Grove in the 2006 playoffs.

“So we changed things,” Richardson said.

Richardson installed a spread-option offense with longtime coaching pal Troy Taylor — now an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Utah — to give the Bulldogs quarterbacks a chance find players in open space. Then the Bulldogs picked up steam, going 9-2 in 2008 and 11-2 in 2009, bolstered by championship youth programs that fed into the program.

Folsom went 14-1 in 2010, winning its first CIF State title and first of six section banners. Richardson is 148-26-1 at Folsom and 133-13 since 2008.

But it was crushing losses to De La Salle in 2012 and 2013 that derailed 14-0 seasons that really jolted the program. Those setbacks happened in the only two NorCal Open Division title games the CIF offered. The CIF, in effect, deemed De La Salle too good for the NorCal scene after the routs of Folsom, stipulating that as long as the Spartans kept winning their section, they would get a NorCal title bye and automatic entry into the state Open final.

De La Salle is the only team to appear in the CIF State finals every year since their inception in 2006, and the Spartans have won seven titles in that span.

Never mind that it’s still August — Friday’s winner has the inside track to the Open final, where De La Salle has ended its last eight seasons.

“We wanted this matchup,” Alumbaugh said. “When they took away the (NorCal Open final), we were disappointed. Whether it starts the season or is near the end, we’re glad to be playing Folsom again.”

Richardson said his team is bigger and more physical on the lines than the teams that lost to De La Salle in 2012 and 2013. The Bulldogs are in better shape with overall better athletes, particularly the skill players. He thanks De La Salle for the wake-up call.

“When we lost those NorCal games to them, it changed who we are, and what we did and our entire approach,” Richardson said. “We changed everything. We added more strength and conditioning, speed and agility. We swing hammers in the offseason now. We pull tires and pull rope. It’s not just a bench-press thing any more.

“We had to get better, had to learn. You’ve got to look at how and why you lost. It’s not just about talent, and they did have more talent then, but it’s, ‘What can we do as a program to get better?’ And here we are.”

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