Hometown Report

Dick Sperbeck launched prep football coaching success, Holy Bowl – and some good barbs

Dick Sperbeck, second from right, was a longtime football coach at Christian Brothers. He’s seen with Dave Hoskins, left, Dan Carmazzi and John Fletcher, right, in this 1976 photo.
Dick Sperbeck, second from right, was a longtime football coach at Christian Brothers. He’s seen with Dave Hoskins, left, Dan Carmazzi and John Fletcher, right, in this 1976 photo. Sacramento Bee file

Dick Sperbeck could talk, really talk, and it was wise to sit and listen for awhile.

He wowed his students as an English teacher at Christian Brothers High School in the 1960s and ’70s, and later well into his 60s at Del Campo. He captivated locker rooms as a pioneering football coach at Christian Brothers, launching the careers of some of the region’s most accomplished mentors. He was a driving force in starting the Holy Bowl, a rivalry that endures, by preaching the benefit of competition and memories.

Sperbeck’s sheer will helped raise more than $3 million as the head of the Stinger Foundation fund-raising arm for Sacramento State athletics, hammering home the point that the Hornets could raise the state capital’s profile. And if he got your ear as he held onto your hand after a vigorous shake, Sperbeck would talk up his sons and grandchildren: “Oh, do I have a story for you!”

The voice is gone. Sperbeck succumbed to rheumatoid arthritis in his lungs. He died Thursday night at 84, leaving a legacy sure to last generations.

Sperbeck’s imprint is clear on the local high school scene. His Christian Brothers teams in 1969 and ’70 were the first to include spring drills, the first to initiate strength and conditioning, the first to implement sophisticated passing attacks while keeping the playbook simple. His coaching tree produced Dan Carmazzi, Steve DaPrato, John Fletcher, Mel Fontes, Dave Hoskins and Ralph Villanueva, each a championship coach.

“He was a great family man, a great coach, a great teacher, a great humanitarian,” Fontes said. “Oh, we’ll all miss him.”

Said Carmazzi, The Bee’s Coach of the Year in 2016 at Christian Brothers, “It was his example that steered me in the direction of being a teacher and coach.”

Said Hoskins, “We called him ‘The Duke’ – a John Wayne sort because when he spoke, you’d better listen and you’d better get things done right. We all learned multiple things from him: Meticulous organization, discipline with kids, discipline with coaches. And he knew how to deal with parents. When someone asked about playing time for their son, he’d say, ‘Tell us what play you’d like us to run, leave it on a $20 bill and leave it on my desk.’ 

Christian Brothers is celebrating 100 years, and if there was a Mount Rushmore for campus figures, Sperbeck would be a lock. He coached the 1962 Bishop Armstrong team – when the school went by that name – to a 22-2 mark, earning state Coach of the Year honors.

Holy Bowl XLVII is Saturday at Hughes Stadium between CB and Jesuit. There will be a moment of silence before kickoff. It was Sperbeck who pushed to get the rivalry started despite initial concerns from administrators that football would create animosity between players and fans.

The first Holy Bowl was in 1969. Outside two years when the game wasn’t played in the 1970s, the Holy Bowl and graduation remain two events that captivate students and alumni.

“Football can be a life-altering good thing,” Sperbeck once said.

Sperbeck’s sons, Jeff and Marshall, attended Jesuit (Marshall graduated from Valley High). Grandson Thomas Sperbeck, son of Marshall, was a Jesuit football star who set Boise State receiving records.

“He was a great dad, a great man, very influential in the community and to so many people,” said Marshall Sperbeck, the head coach at Sac State from 2007-13. “And he loved to talk. Very proud man. As a kid, I remember picking up game film with him on Sunday mornings at the bus depot. He’d go over film and me and the Fontes boys and the Limeberger boys would play basketball, baseball, football for hours in a gym all to ourselves. I was lucky.”

Sperbeck grew up in Marysville, a multi-sport star who earned 10 letters for three sports at Yuba College, later playing against Bill Russell and USF while playing basketball at St. Mary’s.

He and wife Helen were married 58 years, living in the same East Sacramento house for 47 years. In that backyard, old coaching friends would stop by to sip beer and flip through scrap books, and the barbs flew.

Sperbeck once recalled how he and Hoskins would fill in as emergency referees for Christian Brothers freshmen home games in the late 1960s because they came cheap, as in free. Never mind the blatant conflict of interest.

Said Villanueva, a Sperbeck protégé, years ago, “Hey, those two were a big reason I went 17-2 one year. I thought they were great refs!”

Sperbeck concluded a gathering by thanking everyone for the memories while petting his little dog, prompting one of his 1970s Christian Brothers All-American players to crack, “I never thought I’d see Coach so happy with a dog in his lap.”

A celebration of life will be held Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Jack Witry Field House at Christian Brothers.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD