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PREP FOOTBALL 2000 / SMALL SCHOOLS

At Fairmont, It's Brains Over Brawn

As veteran Coach Tom Caffrey tries to build his second-year program, he finds schoolbooks take priority over his playbook.

September 01, 2000|MELANIE NEFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene was a recent Fairmont Prep football practice. But academics, not athletics, was the topic of a conversation between Coach Tom Caffrey and three parents.

The mothers were concerned about their sons balancing training with a school schedule that includes four honors classes. When the parents left, the second-year coach reflected on it and just laughed.

"Academics is where it's at here," Caffrey, 66, said.

If there was any doubt, Caffrey needed only to glance at the depleted squad on the practice field: Eight seniors were away at an SAT preparatory class and one was at Stanford taking an advanced math course.

"It's a little frustrating sometimes," Caffrey said. "When I coached at Whittier Christian, if a guy told me he had SAT class I would have told him, 'Come on son, you have to budget your time. When it's football season you have to be out here.' Then he would have to do bear crawls the next day at practice. But, that's not the case here."

Not at a school where tuition is $12,000 a year and the average SAT score is 1,300.

Caffrey knew what he was getting into when he accepted the job of coaching the first-year football program last season; in fact, it was part of the reason he took the job.

After coaching 23 years at Whittier Christian, followed by four years at Heritage Christian, he was contemplating retirement when the opportunity at Fairmont arose.

When he heard about plans to start a football program at the six-year-old high school--where, according to Caffrey, 87% of the students are ethnic minorities--he was intrigued.

"It fascinated me to work with a multicultural group," Caffrey said. "And it fascinated me to work with such a high-caliber of student. Plus, it's a great challenge. We started from ground zero last year. This year we're about one step up."

The Huskies, who played a freelance schedule last season, went 2-7, defeating Palos Verdes Chadwick and Southern California Christian, which dropped to an eight-man program midway through the season.

This year, the Huskies will play in the Academy League, and while Caffrey is expecting more victories from his team, he doesn't want to set the bar too high.

"We don't want to put false expectations on the kids. 'Let's win some games. Let's try to have a winning season.' That's a goal and a great expectation. We have a realistic [nonleague] schedule and we could win four or five games, if we get it together."

Since last season, the Huskies' roster has grown from 20 players to 24, with 10 starters returning, including senior quarterback Matt Gomez, who will operate a double-wing offense featuring senior backs Stephen and Jason Park.

Stephen Park, who rushed for 675 yards and eight touchdowns last season, has been timed in 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Jason Park, a soccer player competing in his first year of football, recorded a 4.67.

"We've got definite speed at the wingbacks," Caffrey said. "So if we could just open a hole . . ."

That won't be easy when the biggest guy on the roster is 6-foot-2, 210-pound offensive tackle James Nixon. The rest of the squad averages 179 pounds.

Nixon will get some help up front from senior James Chang, a 6-1, 215-pound rugby player and another newcomer to the program.

"James is a very advanced rugby player," Caffrey said. "So he knows how to tackle and he knows how to move. The rest he'll pick up quick."

Having quick learners is one advantage Caffrey has at Fairmont.

"That is the real key. These kids are really quick studies," Caffrey said. "They pick up the plays and everything faster than most."

Unfortunately for Caffrey, who has a career coaching record of 202-89-4 with six Southern Section championships and 14 league titles, studying takes priority over football at Fairmont. But the coach, who also teaches world culture and U.S. history at the school, says it's something he has to learn to live with.

"I can't get used to it," he said. "I'm from the old school. You just don't miss practice.

"But, this is a great school, with great kids, high values and a tremendous drive to succeed scholastically. Football is just giving these guys a balanced education."

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