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A No-Cut Contract : Everyone Who Tries Out Makes Woodbridge's Track Teams, but That's Only Part of Varvas' Success

April 21, 1998|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Varvas smiles and laughs generously, telling a joke on himself. But there's plenty of evidence he remembers the sting that came with the long-ago verbal slap.

He was an 18-year-old freshman at UCLA when he approached longtime Bruin track coach Jim Bush and asked if he could compete as a walk-on. As a senior at Inglewood Morningside High, Varvas had finished eighth in the mile at the state meet.

"All he said was, 'Did I recruit you?' I got the hint pretty good."

Varvas laughs again.

And hundreds of budding and not-so-budding high school athletes have had the last laugh.

Varvas began helping his former high school coach, Bill Pendleton, at Morningside as a way to keep "the competitive juices flowing," changed his major to get a teaching credential, and in 25 years as a high school track coach--the last 17 at Woodbridge High--he has never told anyone he or she didn't make the team.

"Every kid should have the opportunity to play high school sports, experience the excitement of being part of a team and build self-esteem by being challenged to reach levels they didn't think they could achieve," he says.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 28, 1998 Orange County Edition Special Section Part V Page 3 Sports Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Marathon--A story in the April 21 issue of Prep Extra about Woodbridge Coach George Varvas incorrectly stated what happens to money raised by the Southern California Half Marathon. Proceeds go to Canyon Acres, a residential home for severely abused children in Anaheim Hills, and the Woodbridge All-Sport Athletic Boosters.

"Ability has never been a determining factor in whether or not someone will be on our team. We always find spots for them, and their success is based on the team's success and achieving the best they can for themselves."

In South Orange County, parents of 14-year-old AYSO all-stars hire professional players to train their daughters in hopes they can make the freshman soccer team at schools such as Capistrano Valley and Mission Viejo. All you have to do to make the Woodbridge track team is show up for the first practice.

"We're just as excited for the girl who breaks six minutes in the mile, a girl who won't earn us any points in a meet, as we are for the best athletes on the team when they reach a milestone," Varvas said. "Our philosophy is that if every kid who came out was to do their best, then the team would be the best it could possibly be. And that's all we could ever ask."

Along the way, Varvas has discovered a delightfully rewarding side effect of his no-cut policy.

"I've had kids who showed no athletic potential whatsoever, by all rights you should have cut them," he said. "But you can't just go by a stopwatch because the human spirit doesn't always follow the norm. And sometimes, against all odds, these athletes end up contributing heavily to the varsity program in a couple of years."

*

George Varvas is a coach and a teacher--he would be quick to tell you there is very little difference--who sees high school sports in a way that too few do these days.

"He reminds me of my high school coach," UC Irvine track Coach Vince O'Boyle said. "He makes everyone feel part of the program and I think that's why he gets such huge numbers of kids to come out. Track and field isn't usually the sexiest sport, but it's the talk of the school over there."

Word of mouth is Varvas' greatest recruiting tool. Friends bring friends, sometimes very fast friends. And Woodbridge wins a lot of meets with depth.

Sure, winning is good and Woodbridge is very good at winning. Varvas' boys' and girls' track teams--they train together, often doing the same workouts--have won more than 85% of their meets under his guidance.

But it's not about the victory lap; it's about the lessons learned getting there.

"Preparing to win is very, very important, but if your team performs up to its ability level and you lose and you can't cope with that, then you should be in a another profession," he said. "Sports are a bridge that will help take these kids from being dependent on everything being done for them to becoming independent adults.

"You put them in tough spots. They face failure. But you always give them the opportunity to come back and succeed. These are real-life lessons and kids appreciate that. And that's the only reason you can justify sports on this level.

"We're not professionals. If you're judged on wins and losses, as tends to happen in our society, and if kids see the value placed on winning by their parents and schools, it makes it very tough for us to do the job we should be doing."

Varvas is very clear about his mission, just as he is clear that this philosophy is a widely held belief of many "educator-coaches."

Thus, he's not sure what makes him special.

Senior Mary Moore thinks she knows.

"He's just an awesome coach who's always there for you, whether it's track or school or personal problems," said Moore, who finished eighth in the 1,600 in last year's state meet and has narrowed her choice of colleges to California and Washington. "He helped me fill out all the recruiting stuff, all the questionnaires. He got all the transcripts and SAT scores sent.

"When I went on recruiting trips and talked to other recruits, none of their coaches did anything like that for them."

Meisha Wilson-Duvall, now a junior at Purdue, thinks she knows too.

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