Charles James is in his first year as head coach at University City, where the Centurions finished last year with just 24 players but have 50 students out for the varsity team this summer.
Marker firmly in hand, Jeff Olivero scribbles identical shapes on the board, topping them off with lines and directional arrows.
“How do you beat it?” the University City High principal inquires, handing the marker to Charles James during an interview.
Confidently, James simultaneously draws and spouts off football jargon, pretending Olivero is a novice.
Olivero erases and repeats.
“I had to explain the X’s and O’s,” James said. “He’s a football guy.”
Olivero was the last line of defense in a six-part interview process that culminated with James being named the Centurions head coach this summer.
Now, James is explaining football jargon again, this time to his players as they don helmets and pads and gear up for the start of the season.
“They gave me an opportunity,” said James, who also serves the San Diego school district as an instructional behavior technician working with special education students.
James represents another fresh start for University City, a football program that’s been in disarray through the years, changing coaches frequently.
Since 2004, the coaching carousel at the school on Genesee Avenue has spun like a top, slowly unwinding on its tip before wobbling uncontrollably and toppling over, only to be twirled again with a new man in charge.
James, a former junior varsity head coach at Morse, where he graduated in ’98, represents lucky No. 6.
“Is it daunting?” James repeats the question.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Hard to believe, considering five coaches preceded James in a nine-year span, the longest lasting three seasons. Yet, James shrugs it off.
“To the outside eye, it appears that something may be going wrong over here,” he said.
“And I took that into consideration. But every coach has had a certain reason for leaving. Every person has a different situation and different set of circumstances.”
Some favorable, some not.
Unluckily for James, he encountered the latter. The Centurions suited up 24 varsity players under former head coach Eric Perry last season — a paper-thin roster barely capable of fielding 11 defensive and offensive starters.
The return rate? Just south of 17 percent. Graduation decimated an already-depleted roster.
“Four players return,” James said. “And only two of them actually played.”
Fifty players showed up for varsity practice this summer, but conventional wisdom screams that this will be a rebuilding year in every sense. However, James, whose JV teams captured three league titles and amassed a 31-9 record at Morse the past four seasons, shrugs that off, too.
“People will say we recruited,” he said, laughing.
“We’re looking to make a deep run in the playoffs. I’m putting that in their heads now.”
No shortage of confidence or lack of conviction from James despite University City securing only two playoff berths in the past 15 seasons.
“I believe everything that comes out of his mouth because I’ve witnessed what he is capable of doing to a program firsthand,” assistant head coach Jimmy Pham said.
Pham worked side by side with James at Morse. The two actually vied against each other for the JV coaching job, for which Pham was recommended by the outgoing head coach.
“I wanted the job, of course, but I agreed to join his staff,” Pham said.
“Under those circumstances, I came to realize the type of leader he is. I learned loyalty. He delegates a lot of responsibility to me, places his trust in me, so I do everything I possibly can, every waking moment of the season, not to let him down.”
That’s what James wants to build at University City: loyalty, trust, a family-type atmosphere.
After a stint at Mesa College, James played at UNLV for John Robinson. It was under the longtime NFL coach and Hall of Fame college coach that he learned the significance of those values in building a program.
Centurions receiver Kyle LeBlanc said it started with team bonding.
“We took a team trip to Magic Mountain, coach helped some of us get into football camps (USC, San Jose, UCSD), we have team dinners and now we hold movie nights at school,” LeBlanc said.
“We’re becoming a family and a team of players who want to play and battle for each other on the field.”
In addition to the team exercises, James and the booster club fundraised for new uniforms.
“When I was at UNLV, the practice fields resembled California because (Robinson) didn’t want us to feel homesick. He brought in palm trees and made our facilities look just like L.A. so we felt comfortable. Those things made us trust him and want to achieve success for him,” James said. “It’s the little things.”
Pham and James said they believe those things add up. In turn, players develop pride and the culture and mentality to effect change around campus, thus starting a successful program.
“The Oceansides, the Cathedral Catholics, the Helixes, those programs make statements, their names carry weight around the county. You fear them, to a certain extent, no matter who is on the team over there,” James said.
“These programs have earned it, winning championships, so they are held to a certain standard above everyone else based on their rich history, their rich tradition. We are trying to establish that tradition over here, where people can equate success and tradition to the UC stamp.”