Commentary

Legends of the game

When STA's George Smith and DLS' Bob Ladouceur talk, it's worth listening

Originally Published: September 23, 2011
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN Recruiting

Coaching legends Bob Ladouceur and George Smith, with 734 victories, an .888 winning percentage and nine national high school football championships between them, shook hands for the first time Thursday.

Smith, athletic director and former coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helped deliver water to Ladouceur's visiting De La Salle Spartans of Concord, Calif., at their South Florida practice site.

The hallowed programs clash Friday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2, a cross-country contest born from the desire of Ladouceur and Smith to find new ways to grow their programs -- already the elite among all California and Florida schools.

The 57-year-old Ladouceur, a Michigan native, was laid off at a Northern California juvenile hall in 1979 before taking over a De La Salle program with no history of success.

It was much the same story for Smith, 62, in 1975 at Aquinas. Born and raised in Indiana, he struggled to cope with the death of his father as a teenager and arrived in Fort Lauderdale as a wrestling coach.

Smith retired from coaching in February, handing the reins to 34-year-old former defensive coordinator Rocco Casullo.

Together, these programs have produced dozens of NFL players and hundreds who competed in college. More important to Smith and Ladouceur, they shaped the lives of young men who remain loyal to their high schools.

Aquinas holds an evening practice each year on Thanksgiving to prepare for a playoff game the next day. When Smith started the holiday tradition in 1978, a couple of former players came to watch. It's common now for nearly 100 to attend.

"That, to me," Smith said, "is just a testament to what they got from the school."

De La Salle, 2-0 and ranked third in the ESPNHS Fab 50, has won 28 straight games and captured the CIF Open Division championship last year at 14-0. It won a national-record 151 straight from 1992 to 2004. Aquinas, No. 2 nationally at 2-0, finished atop the rankings last year on the strength of a 15-0 mark and Florida 5A title.

Soon, both legends will be gone from the sideline. Ladouceur, who in recent years said he had no plans to retire, talked openly about it this week.

"I'm definitely at the end of my rope," he said. "I'll gauge it at the end of the year, see how I feel. I've got guys here very capable of taking over the program. It won't be much longer. I've thought about it a lot, for sure."

With that, it's a good thing De La Salle and St. Thomas Aquinas are playing this season. In advance of the big game, Ladouceur and Smith chatted with ESPN.com about a series of football topics past and present.

What are your guiding principles in coaching?

Smith: "When I started out, we sat down and said we need to do two things. One of those was to win games and not get fired. The other one was to put kids in college, so we came up with the idea of a press guide and took pictures of all our players. In 1975, I think we sent out over 600 of them. That year, we opened our stadium. We had a picture of it on there. We [got] about 400 colleges to respond, and that became the heart of our mailing list. We put kids all over the country. And then we built on that. From there, it started to take off."

Ladouceur: "My coaches taught me technique work is the foundation of all success. Hard work is the most important thing, what you do Monday through Thursday. Friday should be an outcome or a carryover. I've always believed that practices should be demanding and hard. Whatever we're doing, we try to make it as game-like as possible. We never do anything that you wouldn't see in a game."

Did you have a vision for your program from the beginning?

Ladouceur: "No. Never. I had my hands full, day to day. I always feel that way. I always concerned myself with what we were going to do today to fix our problems. What are you going to do to get better? I don't think you can ever think too far ahead anywhere. Getting ready for this game was a one-week venture for me in a lot of ways. We had two games before that we really had to win, I thought."

Smith: "We felt we could do a lot of things that had not been done here before. Simple things, but other things like improving our practice and weight facilities. We hit the ground running pretty hard and accomplished a lot of those things. I think the first spring practice in 1975, we had 32 guys out. We raided P.E. and ended up with about 50. When I took over the program, our weight room consisted of a universal gym. In 1977, we got seven Nautilus machines. It was a closet, then it was on a stage. Now, we have a 6,500-square-foot weight room as well as a big fitness center."

Have changes to high school football over the past 30 years improved the sport?

[+] EnlargeDe La Salle head coach Bob Ladouceur
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDe La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur has a 373-24-3 career record with seven national championships.
Ladouceur: "Yes and no. The training techniques have improved dramatically, getting kids bigger, faster and stronger. It improves the quality of the game and the speed of the game. Kids are in better shape. But the recruiting process is a little askew. It takes the focus off the team. I've always believed it's my job to create a true team atmosphere. Sometimes, kids lose focus of that [and] think of their college careers or want to play in the pros. It detracts from what you're doing when you work with your kids."

Smith: "The computers and the Internet, Twitter and Facebook have taken over. Social media runs our country, and it certainly runs the youth. Talking has been replaced by texting. National signing day is almost as big as the NFL draft, and that is all because the word's out there now. It's accessible, and people are interested. I think these are good things. It gives our players a chance to deal with people from all walks of life from all across the country who are different from here in South Florida."

How have you dealt with embracing trends in the game?

Ladouceur: "You have to stay current and to adjust, for sure, but I've always believed that it doesn't matter too much what the other team is doing. If you can't block and get off blocks, if you can't be in the right spot or read the right keys, it doesn't matter; you're not going to be successful. It comes down to being disciplined, seeing what you're supposed to see and lining up in the right spot, running the correct routes. It starts with body placement and foot placement. We spend more time on that than anything else."

Smith: "Everybody's a copycat. Who invented the wheel, so to speak? You run the ball and the defense stops the run. Basically, what we all forget is that you've got to be able to block and tackle. All that other stuff doesn't count. I spoke at Oklahoma a year ago this past March, and all I did was talk about practice. Practice intrigues me. If you take a look at education in America, the attention span of a student is not very long. And I was always amazed that teams would practice two and a half, three and a half hours every day. A lot of those were high school teams. How can you get those kids to learn anything by practicing that long? We cut back in the early '90s. Our practices went to an hour, hour and a half, and since then we've played in 13 state championships and won two national championships. Did that do it? I think it helped a lot."

What's been the impact of a consistent message and values in your program?

Smith: "That's absolutely the key. A lot of the staff that coaches here played here. They've been through it. They know what's expected. They know how the drills are run and they pass it on. You tweak it here and there, obviously, but we've got a new coach and they're still practicing an hour and a half a day. The best thing you can do is try to make it better."

Ladouceur: "I think it's real important. I've had a lot of coaches who've stayed with the program. We're teachers first. We teach at the school. We like working with kids. We're not looking to coach in the Rose Bowl. We're not seeking any personal recognition. We just want to provide the kids with an experience they can enjoy, prep them as best we can and bring them up to their ceilings to be the best football players and students. That's why we're here in Florida. I don't know what the outcome is going to be, but I know we're playing one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the country. That's a good opportunity for our kids to experience whatever happens."

What should be changed about the college game today?

[+] EnlargeGeorge Smith
Courtesy St. Thomas Aquinas George Smith finished with a 361-66 career record with two national titles before retiring after last season.
Smith: "When all this stuff about different scandals came out, people said 'Why didn't the coaches know what's going on?' Well, that's the NCAA's fault. Coaches can only be with the players 20 hours a week. How are they supposed to know? There are so many things that are illegal and so nitpicky, I think the NCAA needs to really get rid of all the rules right now and start over. Every year, somebody does something to make a new rule until the book just gets bigger and bigger. Now, it's impossible for these guys to know the rules. Some of these things are just incredible."

Ladouceur: "I don't think anybody should be offered a scholarship until they finish their junior year of high school -- not until the fall season of their junior year is over. And the worst thing about it, I'll have kids who are borderline, who could be Division II-type players, and they believe they're Division I. Or their parents believe that. And their parents are in their ear about going to this combine or that event. These are kids who need a lot of work. That becomes their focus, not the team. No 40-yard dash or shuttle run is going to improve you as a football player. It can only take your focus away from what's really going to get you there."

What's your message to players as they begin the recruiting process?

Smith: "When you're getting recruited, it's Christmas. There's a whole bunch of presents under the tree, but you better make sure you unwrap the presents and see what's really in them. Everything looks great. But I've never really had issues with recruiters sneaking around on us. We've had a couple bumps, but for the most part, it's always been a good process."

Ladouceur: "A lot of times I'm not even kept in the loop. They're getting offers, and I read about it on the Internet. It'll be news to me. It's just strange. When I do talk to them, I tell them to look at the whole school, the social situation. You've got to visit. You've got to see if that's where you want to live and if they have what you want to study. And mainly, I tell kids not to worry about that stuff. If you're successful on our level, they'll find you. Those guys don't leave any rocks unturned. They'll know who you are."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com.

Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman