It’s here – high school football. I have three granddaughters in high school this year at Frontier in Bakersfield, CA, so I take great interest in the team – and the coach. Check out the profile I wrote about Rich Cornford, Frontier’s varsity coach – AND the high school coach of the Charger’s Ryan Mathews. If you follow football at all, that name means something to you. All eyes are on Mathews as the pro season begins. Expectations are high for San Diego Charger #24, and it all started right here in Bakersfield, CA! We excel in strange weird media mentions nationwide, but this is one time we are happy for the attention!
So forget about the recent reports of the doctor who died in the chimney when she tried to get into her boyfriend’s house. Instead, focus on Rich Cornford, Mathews’ high school coach.
Rich Cornford is the varsity football coach at Frontier High School. Before that, he coached recently drafted NFL player Ryan Mathews at West Bakersfield High School. Photo by Susan Reep
Wanting to learn from a coach he admired, Cornford turned down scholarships elsewhere to attend Baylor University, where he played as a walk-on for coach Grant Teaff. Photo by Susan Reep
By Susan Reep
Football is its own kind of art, a symphony perhaps, with all the players meshing together as instruments and the coach as conductor. Frontier Titans’ varsity football coach Rich Cornford has gently taken a rowdy sport and elevated coaching to an art form. I became curious about this while attending Frontier High School football games with my grandkids, two of whom are Frontier students. Who was the coach? No one was jumping up and down on the sidelines waving arms or pacing, which is what I expect from a coach. At Frontier, however, that quiet, calm, unflappable man on the sidelines is the coach.
Cornford previously coached at West High, where he turned the program around and developed players such as Ryan Mathews, the 12th overall pick in the last NFL draft and now a running back for the San Diego Chargers. Johnny Guillen, a photojournalist for KBAK-29, was heading to San Diego to interview Mathews after his first pre-season game with the Chargers and I asked, “Please, can you ask him a question just for me when you are finished?” My question was: “How would you describe Cornford’s coaching style?” Mathews’ answer: “He was more than a coach to me; he was more like a father figure. Even now, after my first pre-season game, he called to check up on me. I don’t think I would be in the NFL if it wasn’t for him.”
Cornford says he believes a good coach must inspire players to become better than they think possible, sometimes with something as simple as a word of encouragement, other times by challenging them in different ways. Some kids are easy, like Mathews, he said. “He plays running back, a ‘selfless’ position. He’s a great kid. It takes a community to grow a child. He gave so much and was such a good teammate. He had some rough issues. Had to make up ground academically. Even had some self-doubt. I had to tell him, ‘Son, you’re pretty darn good.’ Naturally honest and humble.”
Cornford himself is naturally humble and honest. Born in Lompoc, California, he became aware of football when he was eight years old and has thought about it every day since, from the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night.
“I remember the hype before the Denver Broncos played in the Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys in 1978 (1977 season),” he said. “As a kid, I loved the Rams, and I’d run home from church every Sunday to watch as much as possible.”
He was hooked as a player in third grade when he played tackle football on a team that didn’t win a single game in the first two years. That didn’t faze him because one of the coaches, his father, made it fun. The experience helped his later development as a coach. “The most important thing for these young kids is that they have fun first, and they’ll learn to sacrifice later for the game.”
Tony Dungy, former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts, is Cornford’s role model. “His style is a lot like mine in that he’s quiet and unassuming. He shows that you don’t have to be a yeller or screamer to be successful. He’s a guy of high character,” said Cornford.
He also admires Baylor University coach Grant Teaff, now head of the American Football Coaches Association. Cornford wanted to learn from Teaff and turned down scholarship opportunities elsewhere to attend the Christian university in Texas as a walk-on, knowing that while he played to the best of his ability, he’d never be a star. He wanted to be a coach.
Teaff remembers Cornford well: “I always had a soft spot in my heart for those players like Rich who didn’t have maybe the playing talent but had the spark and were such good people and had such high goals for themselves that I always made room for them. It’s interesting because I decided to be a coach when I was 14. I assume Rich was impacted by his high school coaches. Most of the guys who go into coaching are.”
He added that he’s not at all surprised by the success Cornford has had. He said coaches like him, that aren’t looking over the fence but doing their jobs as well as they can, build and build and build, and eventually get noticed and their stock goes up.
Baylor had other payoffs: It’s where Cornford met his wife, Susan. The first time he saw her he was sitting on the steps of the gym and watched “the best looking redhead I’ve ever seen” go by. He discovered what sorority she was in and finagled a way to assist in that sorority’s activities, but, he says, “When I watched her play basketball, I fell in love.” The Cornfords now have three children, Katie, Karlee and Marcus, who already are standout athletes in multiple sports. He takes being a family man seriously. “I don’t want to be seen as just a football coach. I put a lot of effort into being a husband and father.”
Cornford’s coaching style explains an incident I saw last year at the quarter-final game, Frontier vs. Garces. The first half was a rout. As Garces scored touchdown after touchdown, I thought, “What happened to the strong Frontier team?” After halftime, Frontier took control of the game and surged ahead to a comfortable lead and win. Something happened in that locker room at halftime, a game-changer.
Coach Cornford said that Frontier does not have a real complicated defense, but it does require players to do some selfless things. The team was not focused in the first half, with everyone trying to make tackles and no one taking blocks. Then came half time.
“I went in (the locker room) and heard two players arguing about how the other wasn’t doing his job. I came into that and I raised my voice and said, ‘Both of you. Just sit down and shut up. This is what we’re going to do,’ and I went over defense. I instantly had everyone’s attention because I don’t raise my voice much. I’m a pretty nice guy but I’m pretty tough, and I think I had that look in my eye and they were pretty scared. We rearranged the focus.”
I like that: “We rearranged the focus.” The game-changer was something as simple as a few words in a raised voice without profanity, followed by calm but focused direction from Rich Cornford, a quiet, dignified and focused high school football coach.