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A Players' Coach : Santa Monica's Tebb Kusserow Believes Football Is a Chance for Young Men to Know Themselves

October 13, 1988|RAY RIPTON | Times Staff Writer

There probably are many high school football coaches who believe that winning isn't everything, some perhaps who think that winning comes second to character development among players.

There may not be many, however, who believe with Santa Monica High Coach Tebb Kusserow that football, more than any school activity, is the best way of fulfilling the Socratic dictum: Know thyself.

Winning has a prominent place in the coaching philosophy of Kusserow, 45. In 15 years as Santa Monica's head coach, his teams have won 108 games, more than any other football coach in the history of the school, which played its first game before the turn of the century. His up-to-date record is 108-42-4; Jim Sutherland's teams at Santa Monica were 79-13-3 from 1941 through 1952.

But to Kusserow, putting points on the board is less important than putting young men on the path to self-discovery.

"I think that football offers a young man, first and foremost, the opportunity to find out more about himself as a thinker, doer and feeler than any other activity on campus," he said in an interview.

Football does not build character, either, he said, adding:

"It takes a tremendous amount of character to play it, a tremendous amount of courage to step on the field because football is such an unnatural game. To play it, you have to learn emotionally how to handle and control your natural instincts of not walking into something."

When you are out walking and find a telephone pole in your path, the natural thing to do is to walk around it, Kusserow said. In football, however, players are taught to tackle or block the pole.

He believes all sports bring self-knowledge but that a person can learn more about himself in football than in any other sport.

He likes to remember the words of one of his advisers at USC, the late historian Eleanor Metheny. He said Metheny used to say: "In sports, you can't escape the implications of who you are."

In terms that the ancient Greeks would understand, "You stand naked before the gods," Kusserow said. "The great thing about sport is that it requires you to be the best that you can be; the rules demand it. That's a good lesson for a young man."

If Kusserow's approach to football is that of an impassioned intellectual, it should not be surprising. He holds a Ph.D. in physical education from USC, and in the 1977 and 1978 academic years, he took a leave from Santa Monica High to lecture in his field at the State College of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

His dissertation for his doctoral degree was a comparative analysis of interscholastic sport at secondary schools in California and Australia, and he attempted in his thesis to identify the educational ideas that formed the philosophical basis for interscholastic sport. So his approach to football has been something more than trying to chart the offensive and defensive tendencies of his next opponent.

But if it were not for football, he might not have had the opportunity to go to graduate school after his undergraduate years at USC. He got to USC on a football scholarship after playing guard and linebacker for Coach Jim Powers at Santa Monica College. Before that, he was a two-way tackle at Santa Monica High.

What kind of lineman was he in high school? Don Steere, who retired last year from Santa Monica High after a long association as player, coach and athletic director, can speak with some authority on that subject. Steere said that Kusserow, who was a three-year starter on his high school varsity team, was as good at playing as he is at coaching.

"He would never make any mental errors," Steere said, and he was tough. "He had a serious shoulder problem, and the only thing he could do was use a strap and chain (to hold in a dislocated shoulder). It would come out (during a game), and somebody would pop it back in for him, maybe two or three times."

In 1958, Kusserow started as a sophomore on a Viking team that lost the CIF-Southern Section major division championship game to Long Beach Poly, 31-19. In 1981, his Vikings won the Southern Section Coastal Conference title, defeating Long Beach Poly, 21-8.

His high school coach was Leon McLaughlin, a star center for UCLA and the Los Angeles Rams. Kusserow said that McLaughlin was "a tremendous teacher. He understood the game so well and played the game at the highest levels. . . . He did more to stimulate my interest in football as a career than anything else that ever happened to me."

What happened to him after he left Santa Monica College and went to play football for then-USC Coach John McKay made it certain that his career as a player was over.

After one of his first practices with the Trojans, Kusserow left the field, complaining of a severe headache. "I don't know how it happened," he said, but the headache turned out to be a cerebral hemorrhage, an injury that ended his playing days before he could put on a Trojan game jersey.

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