In the backyard of Bieber and Kardashian, football stars abound – USA TODAY
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CALABASAS, Calif. — This is the home of Bieber and of Kardashians, of actors, musicians, retired professional athletes, reality-television stars and executives, with a median income that attests to the surrounding wealth: The average household in Calabasas makes more than $120,000 annually, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the local sporting scene is a bastion of country-club pursuits, Calabasas High School Principal C.J. Foss heard upon her arrival in 2008. We’re good at tennis and good at golf, she was told, but football is an afterthought; kids don’t want to get hurt, and families don’t want their kids to play.
It didn’t help that for more than a generation — dating to at least the 1980s — Calabasas High School football sat among the weakest programs in the entire state, with local competition tripping over themselves in an effort to schedule the Coyotes as their homecoming opponent. And why not? Calabasas lost 30 games in a row from 2004-6, won just three times during the ensuing three seasons and went a decade — from 2004 through 2013 — winning a combined nine games.
This began to change in early 2014, when Calabasas found a new coach: Casey Clausen, once a quarterback at at the University of Tennessee so renowned for his poise he earned the nickname “The Iceman,” who was then serving as an assistant coach at nearby Oaks Christian School.
“I was looking for somebody that was going to build character and disciple and bring some success for the kids,” Foss said. “I wanted the kids to go on the field and least feel like they had a shot, that they were competitive. And this happened immediately.”
In the span of two seasons, Calabasas has been remade as a burgeoning powerhouse — winner of 19 games during the past two seasons, including a 13-2 mark in 2015 that culminated with the school’s first appearance in the California Interscholastic Foundation State Regionals.
For years, the program’s lack of success led local prospects with any desire to be recognized by college recruiters to play elsewhere, with many electing to attend one of the numerous private, football-obsessed institutions dotting Southern California. For many, the choice was simple: Calabasas simply didn’t exist as an option.
“If you were a talented player and you lived in Calabasas, you were probably going to a private school,” said Dartmouth-bound defensive lineman Arthur Kaslow. “There are some great private schools for football in the area, so Calabasas wasn’t even a thought.”
The school now houses a number of high-profile recruits, students who chose to help build a championship-level program in their own backyard rather than follow the exodus of talent to the surrounding area. Major college football programs now flock to Calabasas, aided in part by Clausen’s relationships with coaches at Alabama, Arizona, Baylor and Nebraska, among others.
“I just really wanted to be able to bring my city to another level,” said quarterback Tristan Gebbia, who attended middle school at Oaks Christian. “When I first got here, I told people why I came here, to play football. Everybody kind of looked at me like, ‘Do you know how bad our football team is?’ Well, you know, I’m here to make a difference.”
Said Clausen, “Our goal now is keep as many local kids home now as we can. We’ll just build a program that the community is excited about.”
It might not be an altogether remarkable story at first blush — it might be almost common, in fact: school hires coach, coach finds talent, team wins games. Yet there is little that’s common about Calabasas, which has quickly remade itself from punchline to one of the hottest prep programs in the nation.
“This has always been a good public high school to go to from an environment and academic standpoint,” Clausen said. “The one piece that’s always been missing is football.”
This is a public school, for starters, in a region where private schools dominate the standings and the headlines, and a public school with no history of football success. It’s located in high-end Calabasas. The program earns little revenue, making what it can from low-price tickets — even then, allowing students to attend games for free — and a food stand tucked into the end zone of its 3,000-seat stadium.
Calabasas trails in total numbers. There were less than 50 players in the program when Clausen first arrived, and roughly 80 on the roster this spring. Most public schools carry a minimum of 115 players, allowing for varsity, junior-varsity and freshman teams. Calabasas simply doesn’t have the same luxury.
The coaching staff draws no salary: Clausen and his assistants — which include his brother, Rick, who played quarterback at LSU and Tennessee, and former Southern California running back Marshall Jones — work for free, with Clausen moonlighting outside of his normal business hours as a broker at Flintridge Insurance, a company started by his father.
“I had my time,” Clausen said. “I had my glory, I had my fame. I played Division I college football at Tennessee. My job now is to provide for my family, my wife and my kids, and on the other end, in regards to the football side, to provide a great high-school experience for every single individual athlete in our program.”
And the recruits who once left Calabasas — such as Miami (Fla.) quarterback Brad Kaaya and former Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici — are now staying at home. “This school sells itself,” said Clausen. “This program sells itself.”
Calabasas might house the most high-level talent of any public school in the country: Clausen estimates that 85 college programs paid visits to campus during the past year, eyeballing Gebbia, defensive back Darnay Holmes and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson Jr., son of the former USC and NFL star.
Gebbia and Johnson, both four-star recruits, have already given verbal commitments to Nebraska; Holmes, a five-star prospect who might also pledge to the Cornhuskers, has offers from dozens of major programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Coaches are expected in droves beginning today, with the start of college football’s spring evaluation period for prospective recruits.
“Private school or public school, no matter where you go, I think we’re kind of changing it,” said Clausen. “There was this myth out there that just to go to a college in general, you have to go to a private school. Especially if your kid’s an athlete, because that where they’ll get showcased. ‘You’ve got to go to a private school in order to be seen.’ Well, no you don’t. ‘You’ve got to pay all this money to go to these camps to be seen.’
“No, they come right here. From April 15 through the end of May, every college in America.”
Seven Calabasas players in the class of 2016 have signed to college football, at programs ranging from Arizona and Nebraska through UC-Davis and Willamette University. At least four will sign scholarship offers next February, while one 2018 recruit, defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles, earned a dozen FBS offers in a single month after enrolling at Calabasas this spring.
This is how Clausen-led Calabasas measures success: not in wins and losses, but by stressing opportunities on the next level — the chance to use football and the school’s strong academic reputation as the road to a four-year university.
“Our biggest key with our whole setup is getting kids to college,” Clausen said. “We can go 5-5 next year. We can go 1-9 next year. We can go 10-0. We’re still going to have four or five guys sign. So the record is the record. It doesn’t really matter.
“The goal at the end of the tunnel here is college. If you’re gifted enough athletically, someone is going to hand you a check for $250,000 and say, ‘Please come to our school and play football.’ But what we stress to our kids is, the goal is to attend a four-year college. That’s different than what 95% of other public schools are saying. Everything that we do is geared toward college.”
Academics have played a role in the program’s growth. We can win with you or we can win without you, Clausen said in his first meeting with the team, a blistering 20-minute message underlining the NCAA’s eligibility requirements as a baseline for classroom success. Of the Coyotes’ 48 players when Clausen arrived in 2014, 28 were academically ineligible; last fall, as the team prepared for the CIF playoffs, all 85 players on the roster were eligible, in what Foss called a first for the football program.
“I think Coach Clausen has always viewed this experience as a steppingstone, you know,” Gebbia said. “He acknowledges that high school is really just a path to get to college. He just always tries to prepare everybody the best he can. And I think he’s been doing a pretty good job of it.”
In itself, an emphasis on the marriage of academics and athletics doesn’t make Calabasas unique; other schools in the area can offer similar advantages, though at the cost of expensive tuition. But this is a public school, and a school only in the past two years enjoying the type of success typically seen only at its private-school peers.
“I think the word is out now,” Clausen said. “If you want to go spend $25,000 on a private school, go ahead. But here’s this public school down the road that is free, in a great environment, great education, and if you’re good enough, you’re going to be seen.
“That’s what different about the school. When I say we’re doing this for the kids, we’re really doing this for the kids. These kids wanted success, and we kind of laid out this blueprint for them. We pretty much broke it down from the ground up.”
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