SAN DIEGO — Marcus Allen had a nickname for Vic Player, Lincoln High School's football coach. He called him "Little Napoleon."
It had to do with Player being 5-feet 7-inches tall . . . and tough.
Keith Mitchell, Lincoln's quarterback last year, said he was scared when he heard Player was returning after three years away from coaching. Quarterback Freddie Stokes, a senior this season, was apprehensive because he, too, had heard stories about Player.
Even Player's dark, mirrored sunglasses are foreboding.
"He does that so the kids never know who he's looking at," said Roy Reed, assistant coach.
So Player is tough, and maybe mysterious, too. But he is also more mellow than he was in the old days.
"As you get older, you mellow," Reed said. "He has mellowed, but he had developed a reputation."
Player has another reputation, that of a winner. In his 10 years as Lincoln's head coach, the school has won four San Diego Section championships. The biggest game thus far in Player's 11th season will be the showdown against Crawford for first place in the City Central League at 7 tonight at Mesa College.
But Player had found that being too big a winner can be a stigma . . . and winning big was part of the reason he stopped coaching from 1983 through 1985.
"I had a difference in philosophy with the previous administration," Player said. "I had been called a cavalier coach. If I'm going to be the coach, I'll be the coach in terms of who I play. Members of the administration came on the field when it was 30-0 or 40-0. They would walk on the sideline and say, 'You've scored enough points. Don't pass the ball.' "
Said Reed: "A lot of people complained that Lincoln was running up scores. People didn't realize that we never had more than 25 or 26 players. When we were scoring 40 points, every kid played by the second quarter."
But there was another side to the story. Player says he had his players' futures in mind.
"When you are trying to get scholarships for your players and they are trying to make all-CIF teams, statistics count," he said. "What are you going to tell the kids? Don't pass? It was a ridiculous situation I didn't want to be part of."
But after three years, Player came back for the 1986 season because of the urging of a new administration
"I asked him to come back," said Ruby Cremaschi-Schwimmer, Lincoln's principal since May 1986.
Cremaschi-Schwimmer wanted Player back in the interest of academic credibility. Lincoln had won the 2-A title in 1985, but its coach, Skip Coons, did not have a teaching credential.
"I wanted a coach who had a teaching credential," Cremaschi-Schwimmer said in the fall of 1986. "If you're trying to preach to athletes that they have to study, I want a coach who exemplifies excellence in academics as well as athletics."
When Player returned to the field last fall, his athletes were at least mildly surprised.
"Maybe in the past, he was tough," Mitchell said. "We heard how rough he was with players, that he made them run 1,000 yards after practice. When I was there, he wasn't that tough."
Player, 44, is still tough, and he can make a point with an icy stare, but he believes he has changed in his second go-around as coach.
"I'm not as strict as I used to be," he said. "I don't need to be. These kids are different. Now it's a lot easier to tell them what you expect of them and have them do it."
Former Lincoln wide receiver Patrick Rowe, now a freshman playing for San Diego State, perceived Player as demanding, but also as being his "main man."
"He's a tough coach to play for because he has high expectations for his players," Rowe said. "He won't take anything less than the best. He doesn't want to hear excuses. And he didn't care for prima donnas. But he did things like make us run for our own benefit. To get us in condition. He wasn't doing that to make us suffer."
Player himself doesn't buy the "Little Napoleon" tag.
"People talk about short people having Napoleon syndrome . . . that I overcompensate for being small," Player said. "I don't think so."
When Player stepped down as football coach five years ago, he didn't think he would return to the sidelines. He had already had a successful career, as Lincoln had won three 2-A San Diego Section titles from 1974-1982.
"As far as I was concerned, coaching was no longer a part of my career," Player said. "I missed parts of it, but not a lot of it. I didn't miss the worry over eligibility, the down side of coaching. I didn't even really miss the game. I missed going out to practice every day."
There is more to Player than coaching. Now in his 18th year at Lincoln, Player, the chairman of the school's social studies department, has been selected by the district as a mentor teacher who instructs teachers throughout the city.
In fact, Player has wanted to be a teacher since he was in 10th grade . . . but he has never sought a coaching job.
Player was a player for St. Augustine back then, a halfback and rover back from 1957-60.