LONG BEACH — The mornings, with their quota of sweat and instruction, run out slowly at Poly High School where another glittering season is expected.
Time is on their side, Co-Head Coaches Jerry Jaso and Thomas Whiting figure. In an inner-city Long Beach neighborhood where boys can become men too fast, Jaso and Whiting prefer that the maturing of football players be unrushed.
This will be the fourth year that Jaso and Whiting have run the Jackrabbits. Jaso is in charge of the defense, Whiting handles the offense.
One of Nation's Best
It is an uncommon setup, but one that has yielded success: records of 11-1-1 in 1985, 7-3 in 1986 and 7-4 last year, and three Moore League titles. This year's team has been projected by USA Today as one of the best in the nation.
"They've seemed to work it out, to make it operable," Dave Radford, coach of Poly rival Millikan High, said of the co-coach arrangement. "Certainly there's enough work for two coaches."
Jaso and Whiting share a small, gloomy office that is full of 8-by-10 reminders that Poly is a rich spawning ground for football talent. "Some people might not want to coach here," Jaso said. "I think it's a plum, all you have to do is walk in here and look at the walls."
The walls hold pictures of ex-Poly players posed in college stadiums. "If you want to coach, you want to coach the best players," Jaso said. "I think we have the best athletes."
Linemen Big for Their Age
Most of the players at a recent practice looked fast and agile, lean and tough. And then the linemen appeared, impossibly big for their ages.
Whiting and Jaso worked. Without a break, they threw scores of passes, as determined as the jack hammer that pounded at a construction site across California Avenue.
"That's pretty darned good, George," Jaso said to a player who had grasped a subtlety of pass coverage. Whiting also complimented, although his adjectives were more associated with the language of the streets.
Both coaches are 37. They are close friends but contrasts in personality.
"I'm more intense," Jaso said. "I'm a little more serious than Thomas. He has a tendency to be more joking, he keeps things loose."
"I'm the emotional one," Whiting said.
'Both of Them Care'
John Tai, a maniacal defensive lineman with a mass of hair resting on the back of his neck like a furry animal, agreed: "(Whiting) is more fun and (Jaso) is more serious, he can get mad. Both of them care, they help everybody out, treat everyone the same. Before a game, both will psyche us up."
Whiting, deep-voiced, 280 pounds and with a black beard that has begun to turn gray, looked the more imposing of the pair. But in demonstrating skills to the players, he was animated in spite of his bulk--a dancing bear with a whistle hanging from his neck.
Jaso has kept the trim figure of a defensive back, which he was two decades ago. He did not wear gaudy gold, as Whiting did, but preferred a subdued shade of Poly's other color, green.
Jaso and Whiting played and learned football in the late 1960s and early '70s--Jaso at Poly, then UCLA; Whiting at Hamilton High in Los Angeles, then Santa Monica City College and Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.
'It's Like a War'
They became friends, Whiting said, because the nature of football almost demanded it. "You go out every Friday night and it's like a war, and if you don't go in that war with friends you usually come out a loser," he said. "If you don't like each other, it's real tough. Good teams love each other."
As practice proceeded, a player yelled: "Hey, Whiting, can we have a ball?"
It was always "Whiting" or "Jaso," never "Coach."
"We don't stand on a lot of formality here," Jaso said.
"We got that Al Davis approach--just win, baby," Whiting said.
"But," Jaso said, "we've modified that to, 'Just win and go to class.' "
There was discipline. Players who were late for practice ran as punishment. Helmets were kept on until the coaches said they could come off. Water fountains were approached only by running.
"They know where the line is drawn," Jaso said.
Neither coach dominated the other.
Egos Are Set Aside
"Thomas and I set out without the idea of outdoing the other guy," Jaso said. "We split it right down the middle, tried to be a family, and it works. We're very competitive, but not (to the point of) trying to outdo each other in front of kids . . . or at all, really.
"If someone said, 'I'm No. 1,' there would definitely be a problem. But we tell the kids to set egos aside and pull together. It would be hypocritical of us to say the defense is better or the offense is better."
Whiting and Jaso--Poly assistants for several years when they were selected as co-head coaches by then-Principal Bob Ellis to succeed Jim Barnett in 1985--have blended nicely.