BELLFLOWER — At first glance it was just another "Hell Week" afternoon at a typical area practice field: football players sweating out the dog days of summer, plodding toward an annual fall ritual.
The usual handful of spectators--a curious parent, a team manager--groped for shade under a young tree.
Then a whistle sounded and all eyes focused on the stocky man with a mustache, Detroit Tigers baseball cap and sunglasses.
"Gentlemen," said the booming voice of Dave Brown from behind a pack of panting players, "next practice is at 3 o'clock. Don't be late."
As the players walked toward a locker room 200 yards from the practice field, they knew they had better not be late.
For 21 years under former Coach Clay Odell, players at Bellflower High School knew one tradition above all others: discipline. It was always present under Odell. It was his passion.
Brown realizes he must balance that tradition for the sake of the players and to appease administrators and fans. The former Odell assistant returns to Bellflower this fall as its new head coach after four years as a coach in Oregon.
"Clay ran a tight program," admitted Brown. "If you didn't toe the line, he didn't want you. He is the nicest guy, but he had his ways."
Brown has his ways too. One of his favorites is four-a-day football practices.
"I want the kids to be successful and do well," said incoming Principal Don Ashton, "But I'm more concerned with how they represent themselves and the school. I'm confident that (Brown) is very capable in the job."
Odell may be the city of Bellflower's only living legend. He officially stepped down to become the high school's golf coach. It wasn't that football didn't want him anymore, but his passion for the game had disappeared and declining enrollment meant fewer football players.
After failing in the final game of the season last year to land a playoff berth, the man who never hesitated to tell his players how much he loved them, had had enough.
"Sure it hurts me to stay away," he said. "But I'm 55 years old. When you get my age time is important to you."
Odell governed his teams with three simple principles.
"Everyone has to give. Everyone has to love. Everyone is a brother," he explained. "If you have those things than you're going to have a good time."
That "Ol' Buc tradition," as Odell called it, is now in Brown's corner, a line coach at the school in the mid-1970s when Bellflower last won league titles.
"Bellflower has a very fine football tradition," Brown said. "There are good athletes here. You can see the tradition coming in."
Yet, you can almost count the players on your hands and toes at a practice session. In his last year, Odell fielded a varsity team of just 22 players. In his final four seasons the school did not have enough players for a junior varsity team.
On the surface, the student numbers look good. But several years ago the Bellflower Unified School District closed its only junior high school and combined the remaining students at Bellflower High. According to Ashton, the school has 2,000 students, but only about 1,300 are attending grades 10-12, where football players come from.
This season, only 50 boys are out for the varsity and JV programs combined. At Suburban League rival La Mirada, which several years ago combined its student body with now-defunct Neff High, the student population is nearly 2,000. Those differences weigh heavily on the football depth charts, where third-stringers often work themselves into starting lineups by season's end.
At Bellflower High, discard the depth charts. There are no third-stringers. But there is tradition.
"That makes it tough in football at both Mayfair (the other district high school) and Bellflower," Ashton said of the small student populations. "But while Mayfair has had difficulty competing in football, Bellflower under Odell held its own really well."
Now Brown, one of 13 new head coaches this fall in high schools from the Southeast/Long Beach area, has assumed the challenges that Odell painfully walked away from. They are challenges he accepted with new optimism following three years as head coach in Cottage Grove, Ore., a small logging town near Eugene.
At Bellflower he has found challenges, he admits, that are 180 degrees away from his role in Oregon.
"I was overwhelmed by the responsibilities of this job," he said in analyzing his first few months following his hiring in April. "I realized it's a 365-day-a-year job. It was staggering at first."
Brown, 38, quit coaching in 1979 and moved his family north in search of business opportunities. Settling in Cottage Grove, he eventually returned to coaching as a part-time assistant in the community high school. A year later, he was appointed head coach. It was unlike anything he knew here.
"It was a small town," Brown said. "We had five newspapers that followed us daily and we were on the radio live each game. The entire community was involved with the program. We drew only one type of kids: logger's children."