CERRITOS — In left field of the baseball stadium at Gahr High School--a place that has known many champions--a football team that knows little about winning tackled the thick air of a sweltering summer morning.
In the distance, where bleachers rose to meet a smoggy sky, the sounds of the Gladiator marching band echoed.
Heard above the fight songs and the din of traffic on the nearby Artesia Freeway was the voice of Coach Steve Silberman, who patiently prodded and applauded his players.
Silberman is trying to rebuild a program that has not had a winning season since 1976.
His challenge is unlike any facing most football coaches. The Gahr football program has not only been a loser, but worse, according to school officials, a generation of students has accepted losing. It is not unusual to attend a Gahr homecoming game and see more spectators on the opponent's side.
"There was a losing attitude everywhere," said Chet Beatty, a member of the 1976 team that won Gahr's only league title and is now an assistant coach of the freshman football team at Gahr. "That attitude carried over to the players and in the stands and to some extent to the coaching staff."
Gahr won just one game last season--by forfeit. In 1986, Gahr was also 1-9. The best efforts in the past five years have been two 3-7 seasons.
Last year, the Gladiators were outscored, 329-73, and shut out four times.
At cross-town rival Cerritos High, students refer to Gladiator football as "Gahr-bage."
Other problems have haunted the program. A few days before Gahr's season opener two years ago, former star running back Travonne Johnson was killed in an automobile crash. Nine weeks later, Gahr won its only game of the year, but running back Sam Bonanno of Bonita High died of head injuries after a collision in that game with a Gladiator tackler.
About the same time, the school's former administration was embroiled in a releaguing controversy that involved all the public schools in southeast Los Angeles County. Gahr's administration wanted to scrap the San Gabriel Valley League and create a league in which they thought the chances for victory would be greater. But the releaguing plan that Gahr supported would have segregated five minority schools into a league of their own. Minority school officials claimed that the plan was racist, and the Southern Section CIF office eventually rejected it.
But some of the bad blood continues. One successful area coach, who asked not to be identified, who has won consistently with less talent in an economically depressed area, said: "If I got the kids they did year in and year out, there's no way I'd be 0-10."
Players Lost to Other Sports
Meanwhile Gahr could not keep its best players. By the time they became seniors many exceptional athletes chose to concentrate on one sport, and it was not football. And in the last two years, two excellent tailbacks have transferred to Los Alamitos High.
Finally, Coach Darrell Walsh resigned under fire after five seasons as the school's varsity football coach. The program had hit bottom.
"It was time for a change," Beatty said.
Silberman has to deal with more than improving the physical skills of his players.
"It's attitude adjustment we're working on," he said. "We're trying to work on their heads. Every player makes mistakes. But how do you deal with mistakes? That's what we're trying to teach them."
Ironically, Gahr has excelled in many other sports. Its baseball team has won 10 league titles in the past 17 years. According to Athletic Director Ted Teach, if the San Gabriel Valley League gave a supremacy award for all sports, Gahr would have won it the past two years.
Freshman Team Successful
In football, Gahr has been successful on the freshman level, but four years later, with the high dropout rate, the varsity program suffers. The consensus at Gahr is that the pattern has to be addressed for any coaching change to work.
"That is where we have a problem," Principal Nadine Barreto said. "We need to keep (athletes in the program)."
Silberman has developed a reputation as a rising star because he has taken desperate programs to respectability in short periods. In Orange County sports circles he also became known as a climber and quick-change artist. He changed to Gahr after two years at Sonora High School in La Habra, where his record was 10-11-1. In his first year, Sonora made the playoffs. Previously, he was head coach at La Canada High for one season and an assistant at powerful La Habra, where he had a major role in running the team.
"This is a higher level of competition than at Sonora," said Silberman, who speaks through a bushy blond mustache. "It's a nice challenge."
A new administration at the school has helped.
"It makes a difference," Silberman said, "when you can walk into one of their meetings and not get a lot of excuses. The administration here has been very helpful."