Justin Mesa said he heard a ruckus in the locker room last week on the first day of San Marino High School’s new year.
Mesa, the new Titans varsity football coach who spent two years on the recruiting side of the game at the University of Wyoming, said he was meeting with his assistant coaches in an adjacent office that Wednesday afternoon. When one of the boys knocked on his door, he said, he thought at first he might need to put the kibosh on some disorderly conduct.
“So I’m like, ‘Are they fighting?’ I get nervous, right?” Mesa explained.
The coach was painting a picture for an engaged Rotary Club of San Marino audience last Thursday, giving the traditional football season preview hours before the team’s three-way scrimmage with Pasadena Polytechnic and San Gabriel High School. It transpired, Mesa said, that his team was simply enjoying a fun moment after practice.
“That was the first time they pumped the music,” he said. “That was the first time that team — as a whole, together — was dancing in the locker room, minus the coaches. Those guys were boogieing down and they were having a great time. That made me feel good as a coach, to know that we’ve created this environment where they can go out and they can work hard, and then they can step off the field and enjoy each other’s time after we just put them through a tough practice.”
Before joining the Titans in May, Mesa served as the director of recruiting at Wyoming, helping produce the highest-rated Mountain West Conference recruit class since 2011. Mesa was offensive coordinator for Loyola High School in Los Angeles from 2012-15 and worked a variety of administrative and coaching jobs with the USC Trojans from 2007-12.
At SMHS, Mesa replaces Mike Hobbie, who spent eight seasons turning the Titans into a Rio Hondo League powerhouse that earned a CIF Southern Section championship in 2015. Mesa retained one of Hobbie’s assistants and brought aboard four new assistants to help implement his system for the Titans.
Citing his newness to the area, Mesa hesitated to forecast too much about San Marino’s conference competition aside from highlighting a Titans goal of repeating as Rio Hondo champions. He added that, at the time, he had not named any starters except for quarterback Connor Short, whose job was “his to lose.”
“I’m here to make zero promises,” Mesa said. “On a daily basis, we are focused on getting better on ourselves. We have a very limited number of starters returning and a relatively inexperienced team. We’re not going to make excuses for that, but all I can say is that we will continue to move forward by getting better every day by focusing on ourselves.”
Mesa, who also teaches physical education at SMHS, added he tries not to think about filling Hobbie’s shoes because, at the end of the day, each coach has his own systems and programs to run and each has his own strengths and weaknesses.
“That’s an unfair comparison to yourself,” he said. “Coach Hobbie laid a really, really good foundation. The proof is in the pudding in terms of his success and his ability to coach, but if I start to worry about whether I could measure up to what the standards were to Mike Hobbie, that’s unfair to me because there’s different circumstances. It’s a different team. It’s a different time.”
The L.A. County native said taking the Titans coaching gig was the easiest professional decision he’s made, even if it was difficult to leave Wyoming. It represented a return to coaching, an art he learned under Rocky Seto and Pete Carroll at USC before they moved to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Addressing a safety question, Mesa said he’s been adapting a tackling style developed by those two mentors that emphasizes the shoulders, with the intent of reducing the chance of concussions.
“So we’ll have a couple of sore shoulders, but it really focuses on keeping your head out of it,” Mesa explained. “So that’s a priority for us. Anybody that’s involved in our program, they’ll learn it that way and we’ll keep them safe. Will the head be involved unintentionally sometimes? Yes, and sometimes that’s going to be unavoidable, and that’s the game that we play.”
One of Mesa’s major adaptations, he explained, has been contending with the reality of a public school roster in a small district. Loyola, a private school, could recruit a larger roster of dedicated position players. San Marino’s Titans have 34 varsity players and 23 on the freshman-sophomore squad.
“With a roster size of 34, yeah, you’re going to have to have a few guys who go both ways” — play both offense and defense — the coach said. “The offensive line is critical to have some synergy, and with the schemes we run and the combinations that we have, we really like those guys working together. So as much as we don’t have to rotate on the offensive line, we’re going to try to avoid that.
“As we see it here — and it’s not just in this community but kind of across the country, really — is that numbers of players are dwindling and that’s the reality we have to face,” Mesa said. “Our priority is to be able to teach the game, and not necessarily teach the game the way it’s been taught in the past, but the way it should be taught moving forward.”
As for going from the collegiate ranks to high school, back to college — before joining Wyoming, he also had a stint at Dixie State University in Utah — and then to high school again, Mesa admitted to experiencing growing pains in the beginning and said he uses those early experiences to dictate his coaching style now. Coming from the Trojans family, he added, ended up being a humbling experience for him.
“I’m this hotshot guy in my own mind, right?” he said, referring to leaving USC to go to Loyola. “The ego is inflated and, gosh, what a mess I was coming out of USC. So I go from USC and I go to Loyola, and I think I’m going to be the best college football coordinator that Loyola has ever seen. What a huge mistake. Complete fail of an approach there, because I wasn’t willing to adjust.
“You have to be able to create a learning environment where these kids can actually learn it,” Mesa added. “It doesn’t matter what you know. It matters what you can teach them and get them to execute. So I had to learn that.”
In introducing Mesa to the club, Rotarian and City Councilman Steve Talt — whose son, Glover, plays for the Titans — said he came away from watching summer practices impressed with the way Mesa coaches and mentors the city’s young men who are on the team.
“I will tell you that our new coach has more energy than the entire football team combined,” Talt said.
Asked by Huntington Middle School teacher Denise Wadsworth whether his team would accept girls as players, Mesa said he couldn’t say how many were interested in joining but he would admit them regardless.
“Without a doubt, no hesitation,” he said. “It creates a challenge in terms of locker room dynamic, but that’s why they pay us the big bucks.”