When Dennis Keyes was hired to coach football at Campbell Hall High in 2014, the job figured to be an interesting challenge since it was Keyes’ first opportunity to be a head coach and shape a program in his vision.
But Keyes faced a bigger challenge than just wins and losses. He had to reinvigorate a team and campus on the value of playing the game. Interest in the sport had waned so precipitously in 2013 that the Vikings were forfeiting games because they didn’t have enough players.
Keyes — now in his third season — has turned it around.
The 2016 Vikings are 6-0 overall, and 2-0 in the Southern Section’s four-team Gold Coast-Valley League, going into this week’s home game against rival Calabasas Viewpoint High on Friday, Oct. 7. The offense is explosive, averaging 37.6 points per game. The defense has posted three shutouts and given up a total of 20 points in six games.
“The hard part was getting the kids to believe they can play and can win football games,” said Keyes, 31. “The program was in a tough place and on verge of collapse. There was a feeling that the football team didn’t matter, and the kids had picked up on that.
“All that we’ve asked the past couple of years is to give the guys an opportunity to compete, and for them to believe in themselves. They have bought in and believe in our philosophies.”
His most important philosophy is a simple one, Keyes said.
“Do your job. I preach that every day and every week,” the coach said. “Football is a team sport, the ultimate team sport. As long as you do your job and your teammates trust you, they will do their job. If guys are doing the job of another, things get messed up.”
Athletic Director Juan Velasquez was impressed with Keyes’ athletic and academic background — playing football at Birmingham High and UCLA and a graduate of both schools, plus a brief NFL stop with the Arizona Cardinals. But Keyes also had a presence and presentation during his interview that stood out.
“He has played the game and, without telling kids what to do, he can show them what to do. He understands how to communicate with kids at levels much different that older coaches might do,” Velasquez said.
“That calm demeanor of his is there all the time. And knowing this wouldn’t be a fast process, he was willing to grow not only with the program, but also with the school and community.”
His coaching career before Campbell Hall was brief: Keyes was a volunteer assistant one season at Birmingham under Coach Jim Rose, then spent three years as an assistant for Coach Ed Croson at Chaminade.
Croson — who also coached Keyes as a player when both were at Birmingham in the early 2000s— is not surprised by the success of his former pupil.
“This is a guy with great mental toughness,” Croson said. “He was never the kind of guy to complain or whine. That is a great attribute in a person. You may not get your way, but take the job you get and embrace it. That is a trait of a good coach, because you don’t win all your games.
“I think the world of him. He was great for us, and I was sorry to see him leave. But this was a great opportunity for him.”
For the players — especially ones like seniors Antonio Brown and Jimmy Hutchins who distinctly remember the awful times in 2013 — Keyes not only revived their desire to compete, he restored their faith.
“My first year I played both JV and varsity,” said Brown, a wide receiver and defensive back. “And it was kind of heartbreaking to find out we were canceling games because we didn’t have enough guys. It was a little unsettling for the future of the Campbell Hall program and my football career.”
Hutchins, an offensive and defensive lineman, said the indifference to football inside and outside the campus was difficult to accept.
“I remember my sophomore year, and even my freshman year, people asking me if we still had a football team,” Hutchins said. “Being on the team, you’d definitely lose confidence in yourself … No one even congratulated us on games back in the day, because they didn’t know we’d played them.”
Keyes spent his first two seasons repairing the team’s psyche and raising performance expectations. It’s not as if the Vikings were deplorable; they finished 5-3 last year, and 6-3 in 2014. But it’s apparent the 2016 team is playing at a much higher level. Even Keyes admits the team “is ahead” of where he thought it might be this season.
Keyes is not interested in being a megalomaniacal one-man show at Campbell Hall. He has put together a tremendous staff: defensive coordinator Jarrad Page, passing coordinator Marcus Everett, run coordinator Chris Markey and line coach Kevin Brown were his teammates at UCLA. And special teams and linebacker coach Luke Laolagi played with Keyes at Birmingham.
“When I first reached out I wanted to make sure I had guys around me I knew know the game and I had a relationship with,” Keyes said. “I wanted guys I trusted, and there would be no egos involved. They would grow with me and the players. We’ve all learned from each other.”
He is eager now to see how this season plays out, as are the parents, administrators and fans. Keyes said the last three games against Viewpoint, Los Angeles Brentwood and Lancaster Paraclete will be the hardest part of the regular season schedule. Then there is the Division XIII playoffs.
But Keyes has already solved one dilemma — making the game important again to the players and the Campbell Hall community.
And, in some ways to Keyes as well.
“(The job has) revitalized my love for the game,” Keyes said. “It has given me a different aspect of the game. It’s another way to compete. I no longer play, but I still compete in everything I do.
“My anxiety was, ‘am I ready?’ But the exciting part was, this was a new challenge. Coaching was something that was always back in my mind because I never wanted to remove myself entirely from the game. But I didn’t think [this level of success] would happen so soon.”