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A door swings open in the back of a musty weight room, and out shuffles George Rush, a white sweat shirt pulled over his gut, a pair of slick black warm-up pants rustling with every step. He's a short, ruddy guy in his 50s with a tight, brisk stride, and now he's surrounded by a handful of wiry 20-year-olds. They're football players, mostly black, and they're ripping off bench presses and flexing in the mirror. Their pants ride low on their hips. One of them screws in an earpiece for his cell phone.
Rush wends his way through the room -- swishswishswish go his warm-ups -- and heads down a hall skirting the locker room. He's the coach and athletic director here at City College of San Francisco; he's coached the Rams since the '70s, in fact. He spent two years here as a player, too, a teammate of O.J. Simpson in 1966, which means he's been a part of the program for more than half its existence. It means he's won four of the school's six national championships. And it means the guy he's now cornered in the hall hadn't even been born when Rush yelled at his first linebacker.
"You've got to be behind that guard," Rush is saying to the player, who nods. "But you're, like, wayout there." He's talking about the kid's play in last weekend's game, a relatively easy win over Chabot College. "You're all over the place."
And he's off again, past his cramped office, lined with photos of former players, down a narrow hallway with its faded paint job, past a trophy case stocked with bronze footballs and wooden plaques shaped like California, out the door of City College's ratty South Gymnasium, and into the warm sunshine of a Monday afternoon.
On the field, two high school teams are slogging through a Veterans Day makeup game. It's a sparkling stadium, recently outfitted with a new track, new artificial turf, and a new press box. It all cost about $4 million. There's a scoreboard adorned with a Pepsi logo, and next to it a bigger sign that ticks off the Rams' accomplishments, a breathless roll call of regional- and national-championship seasons. Three former players, all of whom went on to the NFL, paid for the board. The constant updates have jumbled the fonts a bit and given the thing a patchy appearance, a look that falls somewhere between résumé and ransom note. But more than one recruit has stood in its shadow and made up his mind right there to attend City College.
The coach moves past the board and takes up a spot near the end zone. City College's wind-blasted campus hovers around him. It's here, at a two-year school on a small slope near Balboa Park, that Rush has built his football powerhouse.
In the past 10 years, City College has won four state championships and five Northern California titles, in addition to the national honors. During a recent 42-game stretch -- from the season opener in 1999 until the seventh game this season -- the Rams didn't lose once, a national junior-college record. "Ridiculous," Rush says. "Forty-two wins in a row is ridiculous." What's more, Rush has scattered his former players across the major college football landscape; they growl from photo spreads in Sports Illustrated and toss game-winning touchdown passes on national TV.
It's an unlikely spot for a long career -- the low-rent limbo of junior-college football, a first job for coaches and a second chance for players. You play to half-empty stadiums; you fill trophy cases no one looks at; you win a big game, and the next day's paper sticks it under the girls' volleyball scores. A junior-college coach has an awkward role. His instincts (to win at all costs) don't always jibe with the school's mission (to educate at low cost), and his career is often built on someone else's bad news: poverty, failing grades, rescinded scholarships, the things that lead a reluctant blue-chipper to a junior college's door.
A few years ago, the University of Southern California offered Rush an assistant-coaching position; he said no. He says he's happy with his job. He preaches about saving his players, turning their lives around, even if that means showing up in court when his star wide receiver gets caught with nine rocks of cocaine jammed up his ass. Rush is an institution at City College, a wildly successful coach, maybe the best at his level -- a Lombardi of college football's lowest tier. The king of a foothill.
"Hey, Coach," someone on the field calls out to Rush as he hustles by. "Congratulations." For what exactly, it's not clear.
"Thanks," Rush says, and he keeps walking.
The junior-college national championship is decided by a seventysomething man working out of a cluttered office in his home in Orange, Calif. There's no big game, no bloated, corn-chip-sponsored event that pits California's best against 11 farmers' sons from Illinois. It's just Hank Ives and a humming fax machine.
Ives has published the J.C. Grid-Wire newsletter since launching it 43 years ago. He follows the 145 or so junior-college football teams around the country -- half of which are in California -- then compiles the results, cobbles together a ranking, and anoints a national champion at the end of the year. The three-page newsletter goes out weekly to most major four-year schools, providing them with a menu of the country's juco talent. Ives won't give out subscription data, but he guesses the number of colleges that receive J.C. Grid-Wire has quadrupled since the newsletter's inception. "I try to help kids get looked at by four-year schools," Ives says. "They're playing big-time ball -- a lot of junior colleges would whip a Division II school."