A massive 36-inch pizza with 50 slices was being devoured in the boys' P.E. office at Verdugo Hills High in celebration of the basketball team's winning its first league championship since 1959, and the boyish-looking coach, Jared Gibson, could only smile at the irony of the moment.
Gibson would never have been given this coaching job three years ago, and become the architect of an improbable turnaround, if an opportunity to run his own pizza parlor had not fallen through.
Winning the championship "means everything to me," he said. "It makes me realize the change in my life was the right change."
How the Dons ended up as East Valley League champions, 51 years after the team last won a title, is a story about a group of players rallying and embracing a once anonymous physical education teacher who grew up in Northern California and somehow persuaded Verdugo's principal to hire him even though he had no previous coaching experience.
"He seemed so enthusiastic," Verdugo Hills Principal Diane Klewitz said, "and more importantly, he's a good P.E. teacher who believes in what he teaches. He's so good for the kids and such an incredible role model."
Gibson, 33, played four sports at St. Mary's High in Stockton, and moved to Southern California in 1999 to live with his sister after graduating from Cal State Stanislaus, where he led the basketball team with 84 three-pointers. He was burned out on basketball and wanted to take time off. One year turned into four years working as a restaurant manager in Santa Monica.
When the owner offered him a business venture running a pizza parlor, Gibson thought he was on his way to becoming the next Thomas Monaghan, who sold Domino's for $1 billion. But it didn't work out, so he became a teacher. He taught at two middle schools in South Los Angeles while earning his master's degree in multicultural education. Then Gibson saw an opening for basketball coach at the Tujunga school and went in for an interview.
He was escorted into the gym, built in 1940 with a court that's 10 feet short of the usual 94 feet and is appropriately called "The Barn."
"It seemed like 'Hoosiers,' " he said. "It looked like such an old, tiny gym. They showed me that 1959 was the last time they won a championship. I knew I had a big step to get over to get there."
He used organizational skills, knowledge of basketball and a calm, reassuring demeanor to bring out the best in his players. His reputation spread in the community after seasons of 18-11 and 19-10.
Sam Colmenero, the team's starting point guard, had been reluctant to attend Verdugo Hills coming out of middle school. "Verdugo Hills had this reputation of being a horrible basketball program, so as a freshman I wasn't going to come here," he said.
But after watching his older brother play for Gibson, Colmenero changed his mind. "The way he ran his system, the way he had faith in his players, that's exactly what I wanted . . . and Gibson has made a significant improvement in the program every year. I think every kid on the bench has so much respect for him. He has credibility as a coach."
The Dons (20-7) were one game short of winning a league title last season, and this year's group includes 6-foot guard Aragad Abramian, a top three-point scoring threat, and 6-7 junior Chris Dees, an All-City volleyball player who has been called "The Eraser" because he blocks so many shots.
On Friday night, some 300 fans jammed into the Dons' gym to witness a historic regular-season finale against Van Nuys. School announcements mentioned that the last time the team won a league title, Dwight Eisenhower was president. Others pointed out that members of that 1959 team were now collecting Social Security.
Gibson was dressed in fashionable Michael Jordan shoes, jeans, a black long-sleeve dress shirt and red tie. When the game ended in a 65-50 Verdugo Hills victory, players dumped water on Gibson, who then climbed a ladder and placed a 2010 label on the league championship banner hanging on the wall.
"It feels amazing," Colmenero said.
Added Abramian: "It's the biggest win of my high school life."
Gibson could be mistaken for one of his players except for the wedding ring on his left hand. Married, and with a 10-month-old daughter, he seems to have found his calling. The Dons are seeded No. 2 in the City Section Division III playoffs, which begin Friday.
"I'm having the time of my life with these guys," he said.
And what about the chance to be a pizza baron?
"I might be making more money, but it wouldn't be as satisfying," he said.