Times have changed for Carl Sweet.
In 1984, Sweet went home to Northern Orange County, where he grew up; to El Dorado High School, where he was an assistant coach for seven years; to the winning traditions the Golden Hawks had established during the 1970s.
But for Sweet, the homecoming has been a rocky one.
"It's been frustrating," he said.
Sweet gave up his position as head coach of Hart High in Newhall--where he had a 31-15 record and had taken his team to three playoffs and one Coastal Conference championship in four years--to return to El Dorado in Placentia, this time as head coach. In the last three seasons, Sweet's teams have struggled to a 11-19 record, including a 2-8 mark last year.
Nothing illustrates Sweet's frustration better than El Dorado's record against crosstown rival Valencia High. In the 1970s, when both teams were members of the old Orange League, El Dorado had its way with Valencia, winning seven straight games from 1974-1980.
But Valencia has won the last two meetings of the renewed, now nonleague, rivalry, including last year's 41-10 rout of the Golden Hawks.
At 7:30 tonight at Valencia High, in what Sweet considers a pivotal season for his football program, El Dorado will try to improve its record to 3-0 as well as gain some revenge against Valencia.
"If we can pull it off (tonight), it will go a long way toward solidifying our support in the community," Sweet said. "It's not a make-or-break game, but we'd like to win and regain a little pride."
Sweet's pride has taken a bruising since he came back to El Dorado.
In 1980, after serving as both offensive and defensive coordinator on El Dorado teams that had a combined 61-17-2 record, Sweet was passed over as the successor to the late Glen Hastings, who had retired as head coach. El Dorado hired Mel Morales, and Sweet accepted an offer from Hart to coach a football team that was on the brink of greatness.
"It was just one of those times when everything falls into place," Sweet said of Hart. "There was good chemistry between the kids and the parents and the school. The time was right. They were ready."
The chemistry remained the same, the time continued to be right and Hart continued to win. But when El Dorado came knocking, after firing Morales in early 1984, Sweet accepted the position.
"First of all, my family was still here, and we're very close-knit," said Sweet, who attended Brea-Olinda High where he played football for Hastings. "We wanted a situation where we could be closer to them, where our kids could be closer to their grandparents.
"And there was the challenge of coming back and competing in a league like the Empire league, with quality teams and quality coaches. I felt it was a real challenge to come back and try to compete and build the program, adding something of my own."
But things had changed at El Dorado. Declining enrollment had affected the school and the football program, natural attrition had eaten away at the coaching staff, the Empire League was tougher than the old Orange League and the magical chemistry that existed at Hart didn't seem to follow Sweet back to Orange County.
"It's not what I expected it to be," Sweet said. "I expected to do better. You lie awake at night and wonder what you're doing wrong. You do a lot of second-guessing and a lot of soul searching."
Though Sweet says he would probably never have left El Dorado if he had originally been offered the head job in 1980, now he can see the benefits of leaving the nest and establishing new winning traditions rather that trying to recapture old ones.
"There's a natural tendency to feel the pressure (of tradition) and start comparing kids with past kids, teams with past teams," Sweet said. "I know people in the community do. But we want to take those past traditions and make a go of it."
Last year, traditions had to be put on hold. The team had just two returning starters, had been debilitated by injuries and had never gotten off the ground.
But this year, Sweet is optimistic. He has 14 returning starters. For the first time since returning to El Dorado, he has coached the seniors through their entire four years, and he believes El Dorado has a good dose of that magic ingredient, chemistry.
"I look at this as a pivotal year for us," Sweet said. "We have to get last year behind us and move in a positive direction. I think we have a pretty good football team."
Meanwhile, Hart has been rolling along, under its new coach, Rick Scott. In the three seasons since Sweet left, Hart has a 30-7-2 record and has been to the conference championships twice, winning it last year.
But Sweet says he has no regrets.
"You think about what could have been. On a personal level, I have no regrets, my family is very important to me, but from a professional standpoint, especially in the middle of a 2-8 season when the other team (Hart) is 13-1 . . .," Sweet's voice faded. " . . . But I like where I'm at. I don't plan on going anywhere."
THE BIG GAME VALENCIA VS. EL DORADO