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PREP FOOTBALL 2000

The Making Of A Monarch

Intensity, Focus Have Made Rollinson Perhaps the Most Successful Football Coach in County

September 01, 2000|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bruce Rollinson had just been named Mater Dei's football coach, and he wanted the whole world to know it.

He whisked his car out of the school parking lot and onto Bristol Street that December day in 1988, his mind teeming with ideas about how to restore his alma mater to the powerhouse it had been when he was a standout running back there in the mid-1960s.

He would bring back the tradition and the winning ways that had somehow eluded the Monarch football program over the last few decades. Pride, poise and courage--the school motto--would once again mean something.

The more Rollinson thought about it, the more enraptured he became. He knew there was no stopping him.

Until he spotted the flashing lights in the rearview mirror.

It was then that Rollinson realized that his foot resting on the accelerator had turned to lead and that the stoplight he had just passed was not yellow but indeed red.

He pulled into a parking lot with a Santa Ana police car on his tail, and jumped out of his car. He was still so giddy about the Mater Dei job that he might have leaped into the air if the policeman, gun drawn, hadn't yelled, "Get up against that car!"

"I just turned around and I'm going, 'I just became the head football coach at Mater Dei,' " Rollinson recalled. "I'm babbling. The guy goes, 'What are you talking about?' I'm lucky I didn't get my head shot off."

Rollinson got off with just a warning. But perhaps the caveat should have been issued to the rest of the football coaches in Orange County that winter day. After all, Rollinson was right: There was no stopping him.

His intensity and singular focus would make him into arguably the most successful football coach in the county. Who else has won 85% of his games, nine league championships, five Southern Section Division I titles and two mythical national championships?

"The only two guys that I can think of that put Mater Dei on the map were Dick Coury and Bruce Rollinson," said Esperanza Coach Gary Meek, a county legend in his own right. "Those two guys go hand in hand when I think of Mater Dei."

Rollinson, tabbed national coach of the year in 1994 by USA Today, is the first to acknowledge that he hasn't done it alone. Top-notch players and a steady cast of talented, loyal assistants have contributed more than their share. So has a principal who has offered unwavering support and scores of volunteers and boosters who have helped turn Mater Dei into the equivalent of a small college football program.

Yet, it is Rollinson who has put the defining stamp on the program.

"I think he's the whole thing. He's a part of every bit of Mater Dei's success," said John Sealy, Mater Dei's outside linebacker coach. "He has a hand in it some way, whether it's the motivation, raising money, coaching or hiring coaches and learning their strengths. Bruce Rollinson is Mater Dei football."

*

His intensity came from his father, his drive to succeed from his former coaches. And his idea of fun? Well, that's uniquely Bruce Rollinson.

"Fun is when you tee it up across from the guy and you just knock his head right off, you drive him off the football, you look at him and say, 'You've got 25 seconds because I'm coming back,' " he said.

Rollinson has been knocking heads off since he played Pop Warner football as a seventh-grader for the Garden Grove Jets. His desire to "get after it," as he puts it, came from his coach, Fred Di Palma Sr., who pushed him to his limit but always treated him fairly and had something positive to say.

As he moved into his teenage years, Rollinson learned the meaning of intensity from his father. Bob Rollinson was a Garden Grove mailman who always ensured that his son finished the list of workouts that Monarch Coach Coury sent home. Then, for good measure, Bob added a few routines of his own to sharpen his son's resolve.

"A lot of my personality, it's my dad," Rollinson said.

In 1965 and '66, Rollinson was an All-Southern Section running back under Coury, who instilled in him a fierce work ethic, a devotion to Monarch pride and a "never-say-die" attitude--principles that remain with him today.

Rollinson went on to play for two Rose Bowl teams at USC before taking a coaching job at Los Angeles Salesian High, where he had limited success.

"I think that was good for me because we didn't win a game one year," Rollinson said. "I saw the other side of football. We got lit up weekly 40 and 50 to something."

He returned to Mater Dei as an assistant in 1976 and began a tenure as a U.S. history teacher that has stretched to today, but six years later he left his coaching position for another one at Rancho Santiago College, now Santa Ana College.

Seven years later, he was back at Mater Dei.

The Monarchs, who had fallen on hard times since the Coury era, brought in Rollinson to shake things up.

Mater Dei had not won a section title since 1965, Rollinson's junior season, and the traditions that had forged a power under Coury had eroded under two successors.

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