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Architect at Work

Capistrano Valley's new football coach rebuilds programs

September 15, 2002|DAN ARRITT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In bold, black type on a yellow background, block letters shout "Under Construction." That's the headline over Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley High's football schedule poster.

It's also the team's slogan, a motto adopted by Coach Randy Blankenship, who was hired last winter to supervise a reclamation project.

The Capistrano Valley Cougars, winners of only eight games in the last three seasons, are Blankenship's fourth team in five years. Prominent coaches usually don't skip around so much, but Blankenship has spent most of his 19-year career turning down-and-out programs into winners. Two have won section titles.

Capistrano Valley provides the same challenge as a few of Blankenship's previous endeavors. The Cougars didn't have a losing record their first 21 seasons. Then came 1997, when they went 2-6-2 and missed the playoffs for only the second time in school history. Five years later, Capistrano Valley still hasn't returned to the playoffs.

Hence the construction--or reconstruction--theme. Playing off the motto, about two dozen students wore hard hats to Friday night's opener, and the Cougars showed some progress during a 26-15 loss to Aliso Niguel.

The wing-T offense employed by Blankenship, popular in an era before his players were born, left the Cougars running into each other during most of the first half. But by the fourth quarter they seemed to be getting the hang of it, moving in sequence, churning out yards, and putting together a late scoring drive.

"I had 16 starters who stepped on a varsity field for the first time," Blankenship said. "They're going to have to grow up fast."

With their new coach, they probably will. Blankenship, 49, took his first head coaching position in 1984 at Grass Valley Nevada Union, a school nestled in a former gold mining town between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. That season, he led the team to its first playoff appearance since 1907.

After guiding Nevada Union into the playoffs five of the next six years, he left in 1991 for Clovis West, near Fresno, where he jump-started that program and led the Golden Eagles to four Central Section championships in eight years. He left Clovis West after the 1998 season for Fallbrook in San Diego County, where he inherited a team that had six consecutive losing seasons. Two years later, he was leading the Warriors past Carlsbad in the San Diego Section Division I championship game at Qualcomm Park.

It was then Blankenship took a bold career step, making a move he hoped would lead to a college coaching position. He took his family to Granbury, Texas, a scenic Civil War town of 7,000 about 30 miles south of Forth Worth. Granbury's football team had gone 1-9 the previous year.

The season was all that Blankenship imagined: huge crowds and beautiful stadiums with television monitors mounted above the snack bar. His team showed some life too, finishing 4-6.

But days after the much-improved season, Blankenship was forced to defend himself against allegations from a small group of parents who claimed he had been emotionally and verbally abusive to the players.

"He jumped into the Bible Belt and started doin' things we don't do out here," said Susan Merritt, whose son, Taylor, played middle linebacker for Granbury last season.

Blankenship said the confrontation arose when he didn't nominate their sons for the all-district team. The coach had his supporters, but when the athletic director and some members of the school board started questioning him, Blankenship started looking for a new challenge.

His resume, which included CIF coach of the year honors at Clovis West in 1998, looked good to Capistrano Valley officials.

"He certainly has the credentials to build and develop a program," said Tom White, the school's former athletic director who was chairman of the search committee that recommended Blankenship. "And, like all coaches, he has the ability to have a huge influence on the athletic program, the school and the community."

But Blankenship didn't feel welcome by everyone at Capistrano Valley. Some objected to rumors he was being paid an exorbitant salary, while others voiced concerns that another physical education teacher would be laid off to make room for him.

Truth be told, Blankenship signed a two-year contract worth $70,000 a year to coach Granbury and had to take a pay cut of more than $10,000 when he accepted the Capistrano Valley job. Blankenship thinks speculation might have been spurred by his family's participation in the television show, "Meet the Folks," in which his 21-year-old daughter, Senta, was courted by three blind dates who spent a weekend at the family's Dana Point home.

The show was aired in July, and re-broadcast last weekend, featuring footage of what appeared to be a very luxurious pool home with an ocean view. The home is wonderful, Blankenship confirmed. And leased.

"There's no way with my salary I could even afford a home out here," he said. In Texas, the Blankenships bought a lakeside home, but they couldn't pull enough money out of it after only one year, so they now rent.

"It's kind of a gamble," Blankenship said. Then again, he has rolled the dice before and almost always has come out a winner.

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