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Thinking Small : Ribet Academy and Coach Harry Morgan Bring a Fresh Perspective to New Program

September 21, 1989|GARY KLEIN | Special to The Times

Harry Morgan had served his time. Done his piece. After more than 12 years of coaching high school football, he was free.

It was someone else's turn to shoulder the responsibility.

Then came the phone call.

We're looking for a football coach , Harry . You come highly recommended .

"Not interested," Morgan said.

The caller persisted.

This is a first-year program, Harry.

"First year?" Morgan was intrigued.

The Ribet Academy Fighting Frogs need you, Harry.

"Ribet? Fighting Frogs?"

Just as the words "Notre Dame" lured Lou Holtz to coach the Fighting Irish, so did "Ribet" entice Morgan to lead the Fighting Frogs' 8-man football team.

Founder Jacques Ribet (pronounced RI-BAY) demonstrated to Morgan a sense of humor--and values--by adopting the unusual team nickname when he opened his private school six years ago.

"If they were calling themselves the Fighting Frogs, I figured they must have a tongue-in-cheek approach to sports," Morgan said as he prepared to meet his team for practice this week. "I liked that. That's what sports really is.

"At the moment you're playing, it's the most important thing in the world. But when you sit back and reflect on life, it falls way down the list somewhere."

Ribet Academy, located in La Canada-Flintridge, is a prep school providing instruction in grades K-12. Ninety-five high school students are among the enrollment of 512.

The school has enjoyed its share of athletic success, winning back-to-back Heritage League championships in baseball and advancing last season to the semifinals of the Southern Section boys' basketball playoffs.

School administrators decided to field a football team for the first time this year after an informal poll of students suggested a need. The Fighting Frogs will play a seven-game schedule with home games at Oak Grove Park.

"We wanted to have one for the last two or three years, but it just never seemed to be the right time," said Athletic Director Patrick Moyal, who conducted the search for a coach. "Things were just not perfectly right for it, whether it be finding a coach, having the money or having enough players.

"This year we just decided to start it and if something came up that would force us to call things off with a month to go in the season, we would do that."

The prospect of that happening with Morgan at the helm seems remote.

Morgan, 53, started the football program at Faith Baptist High in Canoga Park in 1977 and was head coach for 12 seasons, retiring at the end of last season. His team won a Southern Section title in 1984 and was the runner-up in 1985.

"The best thing about Harry is he's been through the Small Schools problems before," Moyal said. "When we had five guys show up for the first two weeks of practice, he wasn't dismayed or discouraged. He said, 'Hey, I know what this is like. You'll see when school starts, we'll get a lot of bodies out here.'

"He was right."

Fourteen players, including junior kicker Kate Stoll, were eligible for last week's 8-6 season-opening loss to Pilgrim and Morgan expects to have 18 players ready for Friday's game against Claremont of Garden Grove.

Judging from their performance against Pilgrim, the Fighting Frogs already have a good nucleus.

Ribet was leading, 6-0, but lost the game in the final 30 seconds when Pilgrim scored on a short run, then added a two-point conversion.

"I think we did a pretty good job for the first time," said Keith Henderson, a senior who plays quarterback and safety. "They (Pilgrim) thought we were going to get romped and a lot of us thought so too.

"But we have a lot of heart and we wanted to go out there and at least make a good impression."

Morgan was pleased with his team's effort. "We weren't supposed to come close but I thought we played pretty well," he said. "I don't anticipate beating the best teams in the Small Schools Division, but if we win the rest of our games, we could, conceiveably, get into the playoffs."

Regardless of the season's outcome, the school is already reaping benefits from its football team.

"It's been a very positive thing for us," Moyal said. "We've had people from the community approach us and say, 'You have a football team? Well, we're interested.' We're also hoping its going to be a good way to get the alumni involved."

Morgan, however, doesn't plan to be around to enjoy the long-range effects of what he has begun.

"I just want to put the program together and in a couple of years walk away and go on down the road," Morgan said. "They'll have a feel for what they want by then."

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