John Featherstone and Dan Speltz were headed for new horizons when their paths first crossed in 1985.
Featherstone had just been named head football coach at El Camino College after a stint as offensive coordinator at Santa Ana College; Speltz was eyeing a major university after starring at quarterback at Rolling Hills High School.
Thrown into the middle of the junior college recruiting season, Featherstone hit the road in search of talent. Speltz, meanwhile, stayed at home while Washington, USC and UCLA wooed him.
Their paths were headed in opposite directions, and Featherstone knew it. But he offered Speltz a chance to play at ECC.
It was not hard for Speltz to turn down the offer. After all, Speltz would be spending four (maybe five) years at a major university. Featherstone's stint at ECC probably would hinge on his ability to win.
Unfortunately, things did not turn out as Speltz expected. He decided to attend UCLA but was not offered a scholarship. Speltz figured he could benefit from the Bruins' offensive philosophy, knew they were interested in him and clung to the memory of Rick Neuheisel.
A UCLA fan as a youngster, Speltz knew that Neuheisel had won a starting quarterback job as a walk-on in 1979. Speltz took the gamble, joining UCLA as a walk-on. A year later, he was a walk-off.
Featherstone said that when Speltz turned him down, "I told him, 'The door will always be open.' All of a sudden, the door opened one day and there he was."
"I'm not at all bitter about it (UCLA)," Speltz said. "It was a great experience. I totally understood what was going on with the numbers game and how it works."
Speltz said he was one of nine quarterbacks vying for a spot on the team. With so many, it was hard to catch a coach's eye. Indeed, Speltz said he was lucky if Coach Terry Donahue saw him throw "one to two passes per practice. It's pretty hard to move up like that."
Consequently, Speltz was redshirted. He did smell the roses--he was ineligible but in uniform for the 1986 Rose Bowl game against Iowa, even though it was a short whiff. He decided that he loved the game too much to stand around.
"If you take two guys, a scholarship guy and a walk-on, the walk-on has to be much better just to get noticed," Speltz said. "All they care about is whether the scholarship guy four years down the road will produce.
"When you're a walk-on, coaches don't even watch what you're doing. You're not involved in throwing the ball every day, so it's impossible to get better.
"But I understood. That's exactly what walking on is all about."
Now Speltz understands even more. The UCLA experience, coupled with another year on the sidelines at ECC learning Featherstone's system, has transformed him into one of the top JC quarterbacks in the country. In three games this season, he has passed for 799 yards and 10 touchdowns, ranking second in the state in both categories.
Credit much of Speltz's success to Featherstone, who as a player and assistant coach at San Diego State under Don Coryell, the architect of the San Diego Chargers' high-powered offense of the early 1980s. Under Featherstone, ECC is off to a 3-0 start and is rated second in the state. A year-ending trip to the Shrine Potato Bowl may be on the horizon.
This is a complete reversal from last season's 0-3 start, and Warrior optimism is high going into Saturday's South Coast Conference opener at Mt. San Antonio College.
The biggest reason for the turnaround may be Speltz. The offensive captain is one of the many starting sophomores who compose what Featherstone calls "my first true recruiting class."
"He's a throwback to the old roughneck quarterbacks," Featherstone said. "He's out of the Billy Kilmer mold. He's tough, hard-nosed, yet has a feel for the game."
At 6-3, 215 pounds, Speltz has the size and strength to be successful as a dropback passer yet possesses the quickness to scramble and utilize the perimeter of the field.
In fact, Speltz is so strong and quick that UCLA considered making him a linebacker. Indeed, Speltz was an outside linebacker on the Bruins' scout team at practices.
"He does not have what scouts would consider a super throwing arm," Featherstone said. "But he hits hands. If it hits hands and guys can catch it, then I'm satisfied. You can't ask for more than that."
Speltz has been hitting hands at the highest rate in school history. He has completed 60 of 89 passes, 67.4%.
If Speltz thought that the move down from UCLA to a junior college would make practices less strenuous, he must have been surprised when he came to ECC. Featherstone constantly keeps his players working through a program that emphasizes weight training, a summer basketball league and constant review of game films.
Speltz does not mind the hard work nor is he bothered by Featherstone's constant reminders to his players to keep their grades up.