Already aglow in victory's unfamiliar warmth, the Gahr High School football players did not need the late-afternoon sun that slanted onto their worn practice field.
It was a Thursday, and the San Gabriel Valley League's surprise first-place team was not burdened by shoulder pads. Some players were even shirtless, but all wore dark blue helmets. They stuck mostly to their work, their attention drifting only when a car, booming music, pulled into a parking lot.
"Let's go, let's go . . . do it again, do it again," Steve Silberman yelled over and over. He appears to be among the new breed of prep coaches: young architects of "programs," strong on organization, motivation and philosophy. Blond, short and wide-shouldered, he held a clipboard in his hand, a pencil in his ear.
"He should be coach of the year, I swear," said Dennis Hildebrandt, a stocky senior linebacker/tackle who stood on the sidelines.
A Christian, Silberman did not swear. He patiently explained to a player, who had dropped a pass, that he had not turned his body correctly before trying to catch the ball.
From the way he stresses fundamentals and his insistence that plays be repeated until they are run flawlessly, it is apparent that Silberman is also a perfectionist.
"When we win, he'll look for the bad points so we can get better," quarterback Randy Donisthorpe said.
Gahr football, long forlorn, has improved greatly since Silberman arrived two years ago. As a result, a wave of relief seems to have washed over the Cerritos school.
"Isn't he wonderful?" Principal Nadine Barreto said this week at the mention of Silberman's name. "I didn't realize what a winning football team can do for a school. We have been successful in other sports, but not football. It has brought a new spirit to Gahr."
The Gladiators, who have 6 wins and 2 losses overall, are 3-1 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for first with Dominguez and Paramount. They are assured of their first winning season since 1981, only their second since 1976.
"We're not ashamed to say we're from Gahr anymore," said tight end Danny Donisthorpe, Randy's brother. "When I go to a party I'm proud to say I play football at Gahr. I look forward to going to school now. Everybody's always saying, 'You guys are really good.' Administrators and teachers praise us all the time."
Silberman, 36, who lives in Fullerton, is a San Fernando Valley native and former linebacker at Monroe High School in Sepulveda and Cal State Northridge. "I was never the biggest or fastest kid on the team," he said. "I had to work my tail off. I had to be stronger and smarter."
After assistant coaching jobs at Crespi and La Habra high schools, Silberman became head coach at La Canada High, which had won three games in three years. In his second season there, he took the team to the playoffs.
He said he left La Canada after the second season because of the school's declining enrollment. During a two-year stint as head coach at Sonora High in La Habra, he also led what had been a struggling team into the playoffs.
In the spring of 1988, Barreto hired Silberman, who had wanted to move to a level of competition higher than that played at Sonora or La Canada. He replaced Darrell Walsh, who had resigned under fire after coaching for five seasons.
On Silberman's first day at Gahr, Athletic Director Ted Teach gave him a Polaroid photo of a 1975 banner that hangs in the gym and salutes Gahr's last league football championship.
"He said, 'We'd like to have another one,' " Silberman recalls.
And so the coach has aimed high. Written on a board in his narrow, high-ceilinged office is his ultimate goal: BEST PROGRAM IN SO. CALIF.
"We have a way to go," Silberman said. "It could take five years. But the kids are starting to believe in what we're trying to do. We have a saying, 'Inch by inch, it's a cinch.' "
The Gladiators already have attained three goals this season:
* They won a league game.
* They won their school district "championship," defeating Artesia, 22-0, and Cerritos, 20-0, quieting the Cerritos students' chant that Gladiator football is "Gahr-bage."
* They're guaranteed a winning record.
Other goals are to win the league title, make the playoffs, win a playoff game, become CIF champions and have a team grade point average of 2.5.
Each player has in his notebook a list of those goals and a message from Silberman on how to fulfill them: "Daily feed your burning obsession to achieve. Look at this list every single day and use the magic of believing in your goals and they will come true."
When Silberman took over and told the players he was going to change Gahr football, Danny Donisthorpe remembers saying, "Yeah, right."
It did not happen immediately. The Gladiators, plagued by penalties and mental mistakes, managed to win two games last season. But that had not happened in three years.
At first, the players were shocked at how hard Silberman and his assistants, several of whom he brought with him from Sonora, insisted that they work.