These are the dog days in Wilmington. Some of the grass is brown. So is some of the air. When the little stucco houses heat up, the neighbors sit on porches and talk.
When summer melts into fall, one of the topics in the blue-collar port community is Banning High School football. And this year there's a new angle to discuss: There's a new kid in town.
Banning, winner of eight Los Angeles City titles since 1976, will come under under intense scrutiny. The Pilots will be examined for signs of weakness, chinks in the armor, any change that would suggest less wind in its air of invincibility.
All of which is fine with 36-year-old John Hazelton, who is replacing Chris Ferragamo, whose personality and coaching record made him a legend in the harbor area. If Hazelton needs a reminder, Ferragamo is only a few minutes away at Harbor College.
From the time he was hired in February, even though he is not a full-time teacher at Banning, Hazelton has been at the school nearly every day, running the weight program, holding spring drills, taking the team to passing leagues.
"I'm having an absolute ball here," he said in his office a few weeks before school opened. "I can't hide my happiness. I have a love affair with this place and this community. The coach is a big thing here--and I've taken advantage of it. I have a feeling Chris Ferragamo is more responsible than any other person for Wilmington being what it is, because everyone looks at Banning and takes great pride in what they've done.
"I like having Ferragamo nearby. People think they must have hired some kind of fool here because I'm always smiling. Chris is not intimidating as a predecessor because when you see him face to face he's such a down-to-earth human being. I've looked at film of his teams and think they did as much with the kids' spirit and diehardness as with X's and O's."
Hazelton, a Los Angeles native, has been coaching virtually from the time he left high school. He put in two stints, most recently from 1982 to 1985, as coach at Montclair Prep, a small private school in the San Fernando Valley, and was an assistant at Crenshaw from 1978 to 1981. His record at Montclair was impressive, including an appearance in the CIF Inland Conference championship game in 1985.
Last year he was a volunteer assistant to Ted Tollner at USC, and he was set to join Larry Smith's new staff there this year. Then, last winter, he picked up a newspaper and saw that Ferragamo was taking the Harbor College job. He immediately called Banning Principal Estella Pena.
"She wasn't sure Chris was leaving. She said he'd threatened to leave before. But the newspaper article sounded very conclusive to me. I persisted that we meet. I told her, 'Don't you think you should have some option open?' I was probably the first interview. She did a lot of research--somehow that ended up in my favor. I think I got a good recommendation from USC."
Hazelton said there probably wasn't another high school he would have applied to, certainly not on the spur of the moment. "I didn't consider it until I saw the paper. I wasn't looking around.
"When I left Montclair it was to get into college ball and stay there. I wanted to stay at USC. Things were going good there. I liked it. But the Banning name has such a mystique. This was an immediate opportunity to be a head coach at one of the finest jobs in America."
The transition was made official--and easier--when Ferragamo introduced Hazelton to the team and talked to the players about maintaining the Banning tradition. Hazelton said if he went through a testing period with the players, it was ironed out by spring drills.
"I started the weight program and got out on the field with them," he said. "They had to know if I was a good football coach--and they know good football coaches. They also know strategy--the X's and O's. I think it took into spring ball for them to be dead sure they were satisfied with the techniques they were learning and the offenses and defenses we were using."
Banning lineman Mike Alexander, one of two returning starters and a preseason prep All-American, said, "It seems like he knows what he's doing. He knows how to motivate us. He's gotten things together. A lot of people have doubts, but I think we'll dispel the doubts. We have a lot of unity."
Rumors of mass transfers to Carson have not materialized. Alexander said a couple of players may have considered it but "our hearts are at Banning no matter what. Most of the guys feel that way."
Alexander said the players were surprised when Ferragamo resigned but accepted Hazelton by spring. "He seemed pretty good, we just had to get used to it. It worked out good; we adapted."
One piece of advice Ferragamo gave Hazelton was not to over-coach. "These kids will work so hard for you that you can get accomplished anything that you want," Hazelton said. "They'll run themselves to exhaustion. 'Don't do too much,' Chris told me. You have to allow their emotion to come through, not burn them out."