Ailene Voisin

Grant coach Mike Alberghini pulls himself, Pacers through team’s darkest days and back into spotlight

Opinion

Ailene Voisin

avoisin@sacbee.com

Grant coach Mike Alberghini addresses his team before last week’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division II title game against St. Mary’s of Stockton at Sacramento State. Three tough seasons and three funerals within weeks in 2012  took a heavy toll on the longtime Pacers boss.
Grant coach Mike Alberghini addresses his team before last week’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division II title game against St. Mary’s of Stockton at Sacramento State. Three tough seasons and three funerals within weeks in 2012 took a heavy toll on the longtime Pacers boss. Special to The Sacramento Bee

About 14 months ago, Mike Alberghini looked into the mirror one morning and was shaken by the reflection. His famously red, ruddy complexion was sallow. Dark puffy circles had formed under his eyes. Worse, his blue eyes glared right back, the images chasing after him like the Mona Lisa and haunting him throughout the day.

He was angry. He was miserable. He was overweight.

“I don’t think I ever doubted myself,” the Grant High School coaching icon said the other day in the Pacers’ modest locker room, “but we were in the midst of three tough seasons. We were used to being the dominant team, and we weren’t anymore. But more than anything, really, I didn’t know if I could get it back, emotionally. I had been to three funerals in a matter of weeks in 2012, and it was really getting to me. I kept asking myself, ‘How much more? How much more?’ ”

Longtime Pacers assistant Ed Coleman died in September 2012 in what police believe was a murder-suicide that took the life of his companion, Luv Land. A few weeks later, former Pacers star John Bloomfield was removed from life support after suffering complications from a collapsed lung during his senior season as a linebacker at Sacramento State. Then the grandmother of kicker Charlie Vue passed away, and in tight-knit Del Paso Heights, where the stands on Friday nights are packed with generations of Grant graduates clad in blue and yellow, when one familiar figure passes, everyone feels related.

But here is why Alberghini remains such an endearing, enduring regional figure: There was no way he could quit on his Pacers during the low point of his 23 seasons as head coach, and even more importantly, during one of the more difficult periods for a school that endures more than its share of tough times and economic hardship. That mirror is unforgiving. Alberghini’s red compact car is a familiar fixture near the athletic facilities; he taught at Grant for 46 years, and even though he only teaches part time now, he spends entire days on campus, visiting with students, monitoring their grades, counseling girls and boys alike.

What lesson would he be imparting if he walked away? If he walked away in the worst of times?

Instead, he stuck around and simply started walking. Miles and miles. Six days a week. Up hills, around parks, throughout his neighborhood. A diabetic since his early 50s, he altered his diet and changed his lifestyle, and as he prepares to celebrate his 68th birthday Tuesday, he jokes about discovering the fountain of youth.

“I lost 50 pounds,” said Alberghini, lifting up his sweatshirt to reveal a slight roll around the middle, “and my mindset completely changed. I started feeling good about myself. I stopped being so angry, upset at myself that we weren’t better last year, that maybe we didn’t coach well enough. It was a whole new philosophy. I had a ton of energy and was having fun coaching football again. Life was good.”

Not coincidentally, so are his Pacers. Better than good, in fact. One week after defeating St. Mary’s of Stockton for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship, Grant takes a 14-0 record into Friday night’s game against powerhouse Folsom for the CIF NorCal Division I title at Sacramento State.

While the 14-0 Bulldogs are coming off their own D-I section championship over Tracy, and probably are the favorites because of quarterback Jake Browning’s prolific right arm and the slick offensive schemes of co-coaches Kris Richardson and Troy Taylor, a Pacers victory would be the program’s greatest achievement since its shocking upset of national No. 2 Long Beach Poly for the CIF Open Division state title in 2008.

Grant principal Darris Hinson, who played for the Pacers when Alberghini was the defensive coordinator, said the school embraces the underdog role because, in many respects, it complements the edgy, urban, economically depressed and ethnically diverse region. Grant can sneak up on you, he says, noting that almost the entire football team quietly participated in the school’s attempts to clean up the neighborhood last Sunday by raking leaves, collecting garbage and doing other odd jobs on nearby streets.

“From the outside, people hear a lot of stuff (crime, etc.) about our community that we can’t control,” he said. “But the great thing about Grant – and ‘Al’ is as much a member of the family as anybody – is that you have legacies of kids who come through here, who have older siblings, a father, a favorite uncle who was a Pacer. Just look at Al’s staff; all are former athletes, and most of them played for him.”

As for the enduring excellence and recent re-emergence of the football program, Hinson not only has praise for his incredible (and shrinking) head coach, he has grand plans: Paperwork has been submitted to name the football field at Grant’s Rutherford Stadium “Alberghini Field.”

“We’re hoping to have the dedication on opening night next fall,” added the principal. “Al deserves it. We live in an era of instant gratification, and he is not only a great football coach, he is a great teacher of men, and it passes on down. My son will play for him next year, too.”

But that’s next season. Alberghini – his eyes again alight with humor at times, flashing with competitive fire at others – is still working at it. He is older and wiser, healthier and happier, and walking with a strut in his step.

“They’re going to have to kick me out of here,” he said with a grin as his Pacers began gathering their gear. “These days, I ask myself: Is there anything I love doing more than coaching football? Working with these coaches and these kids? The answer is no. It’s not only my job, it’s my hobby. And it’s so much fun to be feeling so good.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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