Joe Davidson

De La Salle’s rise to football national power tied to Sacramento

De La Salle has gone from a football program starving for success to the national standard of success.
De La Salle has gone from a football program starving for success to the national standard of success. Bee file

De La Salle went from “De La Who” to “De La Stomp” in a hurry.

The nationally renowned high school football team, which rose from humble beginnings in Concord to decades of domination, needed years to get the program started – with a deep link to Sacramento.

Methodical in fundamentals, conditioning and execution, the Spartans for decades have defied the odds, and, at times, common sense. They continue to win at a dizzying rate. They do so with athletes who pass the proverbial “look test” but with plenty more who do not. And by winning with humility and sportsmanship, De La Salle is the toast of high school football in Northern California, if not the state and nation.

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Sacramento will get an up-close peek at the Spartans on Saturday night. De La Salle, the national preseason No. 1 team by MaxPreps, faces the current top team in the country, Centennial of Corona, in the CIF State Championship Open Division game.

In an era of deep playbooks, De La Salle prefers simplicity.

It runs a handful of basic plays. The Spartans spend hours each week perfecting offensive-line technique to remain sharp, to maintain that edge. The head coach, Justin Alumbaugh, works with the line. His mentor, Bob Ladouceur, the man who elevated the Spartans, is an assistant coach – perhaps the most overqualified assistant in the country. De La Salle has become, in the words of decadeslong Cal-Hi Sports Editor Mark Tennis, “the greatest football dynasty in U.S. history.”

So it’s no wonder that when Tennis ranked the 50 greatest prep football teams in state history this week, De La Salle had the top team, four of the top 12 and eight of the top 28, with nine other teams making honorable mention. Yeah, that good.

And all of this started from nothing. Before the Spartans figured out the formula to dominance behind Ladouceur’s leadership – posting a 431-24-3 record since 1980, including 12 undefeated seasons during an all-levels-record 151-game winning streak – they struggled.

Struggled to field a team. Struggled to win. “De La Who” indeed.

De La Salle was founded in 1966 by Brother Norman Cook, a graduate of Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. When De La Salle opened, football was not in the plans, the thinking that it would distract from academics. It took years – and a lot of pleading and coaxing – for Brother Cook to convince the school board to start football.

The Spartans fielded their first team in 1972. It was coached by Ed Hall, a San Francisco police officer who jumped at the chance to lead a new program. Hall walked away after the 1978 season, frustrated by the inability to field a winner. In came Ladouceur, who at 24 was just looking for a teaching job. He took on the football assignment as a bonus.

“Lad,” as people call him, won 399 games before stepping aside following the 2012 season. He had more North Coast Section championships (28) than games lost (25). He produced 21 unbeaten seasons, finished No. 1 in the country 10 times and top ranked in the state by Cal-Hi Sports 20 times. He stepped down to allow Alumbaugh the chance to lead. Not a shred of ego here.

A common theme through the decades has been how the Spartans have dealt with success. In a word: admirably. You never hear an opposing player or a coach complain – on or off the record – about De La Salle taunting or running up the score.

“We had a player a couple of years ago showboat in a game, and he paid for it,” Alumbaugh said recently. “We don’t tolerate that. It’s not who we are.”

Del Oro has faced and lost to De La Salle for the past three seasons. But along with the losses came gains, too.

“I’m very, very impressed with De La Salle,” Del Oro wide receiver-defensive back Trey Udoffia said. “It’s frustrating playing them because they’re so good, so fundamentally sound, but you get better. The best thing is they never say a word, never talk trash.

“I’ll watch them live (Saturday) because I appreciate great football.”

Mitch Stephens, the longtime columnist for MaxPreps, has covered De La Salle since 1984. He said the “program’s humble nature centers around the architect, Ladouceur. Most larger-egos coaches would have made sure to get his 400th career win before moving on, or had some sort of farewell tour, like Kobe Bryant. Ladouceur called either stunt ‘lame’ or ‘cheesy.’

“De La Salle has always been known (as) a team that knows when to take the foot off the pedal. They always take a knee late inside an opponent’s 10, even in title games when bigger scores might look more impressive to national pollsters.”

The Spartans don’t care about national polls. Just getting better and competing the right way.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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