LA PALMA — Barry Sher knew his friend Mitch Olson's baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox prohibited him from playing football, but there was something peculiar about this player's name he kept seeing in the newspaper.
"I kept seeing a guy named Al Olson doing everything for Orange Coast College," Sher said. "I thought, 'That couldn't be Mitch.' But I knew he loved playing football."
Then one day, Sher ran into Olson and asked him if he knew anything about this Al Olson guy.
"Mitch told me it was him and he was playing under his middle name of Al so the White Sox wouldn't find out," Sher said. "When I went to see OCC play, Mitch was playing tailback, cornerback, kicker, punter, punt returner. They'd even snap the ball to Mitch at tailback and he'd throw it from there."
Olson also played everywhere and about everything at Los Alamitos High. But you don't hear him talk much about his days as a three-sport star at Los Alamitos, his Griffin career rushing record of 2,450 yards that still stands, his stint at OCC as Al Olson, or his promising professional baseball career that was cut short because of an injury to his pitching arm.
As Olson heads into one of the biggest games of his coaching career at Kennedy, he barely acknowledges his athletic career. He is a coach now and he'd much rather discuss how his second career started--as a player/coach for Vantaa, Finland's professional football team.
Olson realizes he probably wouldn't have the chance to break his alma mater's 35-game unbeaten streak had he not spent those two summers in Vantaa, Finland with his football coach at Whittier College, Hugh Mendez.
"I was able to live all summer with the head football coach at Whittier," Olson said. "I learned about the X's and O's, the philosophy of the game and how to handle players. That prepared me more than anything for what I'm doing now."
The foundation Olson has built in eight years at Kennedy is one of the most solid in Orange County. As Kennedy returns to the Empire League after eight years in the Garden Grove, it comes off 8-3-1 and 11-2 seasons. Last year's appearance in the Southern Section Division VII semifinals was Kennedy's best run since 1971, when it won the section championship.
Sher, the offensive coordinator at Los Alamitos for 13 years, said the Los Alamitos staff is aware of what Olson has been constructing some three miles from their campus.
"We're extremely concerned," Sher said. "We feel this might be our toughest preseason game and we also have Carson and (Pasadena) Muir on our schedule. Mitch has really built a power. They're not going to sneak up on us."
When Olson took over Kennedy's program from John Carroll in 1987, the Fighting Irish weren't sneaking up on anybody. In fact, they were stinking up everything.
Kennedy went 2-8 and 0-10 in Carroll's last two seasons, also the school's last two years in the Empire League. Morale was so low during the 0-10 season that only 23 players dressed for games.
Meanwhile, Olson had returned from Finland to coach the Kennedy freshmen to the Garden Grove League title. When Carroll was fired, Olson applied for his job.
Chris Pascal, Kennedy's baseball coach, remembers Olson was one of then-principal Warren Stephenson's final four candidates.
"I was an assistant football coach then and the principal (Stephenson) asked which of the four candidates I could work with," he said. "I told him Mitch was the only one of the four I would work with."
Stephenson, now the principal at Western High, remembers the interviewing process vividly.
"I remember it was a gamble," Stephenson said. "He was a relatively inexperienced young man with great potential. But I had seen him in the classroom and I thought, 'Everything he models is what you want you want our young people to be.' I'm so pleased that he worked out the way he has."
So at 25, Olson took over Kennedy's floundering program. It wasn't long before it became obvious Stephenson had made the right choice. Kennedy was 2-7-1 its first season under Olson, but the then went 8-3-1 and made the playoffs.
Olson didn't make sweeping changes the first few seasons, but said he benefited from watching what didn't work for Carroll.
"John Carroll was an excellent coach, but he tried to install a strict philosophy from Servite into an area that wasn't ready for that," Olson said. "I was on campus for a year and was able to see the type of kids we had. I tried to make it more convenient for the kids to put the time in. I opened the weight room for eight hours, shortened the practices and cut down on the conditioning. I tried to make it more of a festive atmosphere."
The atmosphere wasn't quite as festive the next three seasons: Kennedy made only one playoff appearance. But a nine-victory season in 1992 and a Garden Grove League title in 1993 have livened things up again.
Expectations are high this season as most coaches are picking Kennedy and El Dorado as co-favorites to win the Empire League.