Vance Mueller, a former Los Angeles Raider, has helped renovate and re-energize Cordova football.
By KEITH JOUGANATOS | Contributor
Change does not occur overnight.
Rather, if one person or a group of people are willing to challenge themselves to make a change, it must be done gradually. And though the road may seem hopeless at first sight of the work that must be done, once that transformation is visible, it is a beautiful sight to see and to watch take shape.
Coach Vance Mueller, junior quarterback Unique Perez, and Athletic Director Shane Jackson are key players in Cordova High football’s transformation. Along with spectators attending the Lancers’ 47-0 dismantling of Johnson-Sacramento Sept. 19, the trio are witnessing gradual change, not the least of which is the football program’s first 4-0 start in years.
A Lancers team hasn’t won five games in a single season since 2007, and Mueller has no thoughts of stopping at just five wins.
“So far we have four gold coins” Mueller told his team in the postgame huddle. “Only six more to go.”
Mueller has his sights set well above the recent high water mark of five wins — he wants 10. Cordova has not won 10 games in a season for a decade. That’s how Mueller operates. That’s how he got the job.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
Jackson is a mixture of positive energy and order with a tremendously admirable inability to hide from anything as he provides a tour of the school’s facilities.
Navigating his golf cart around the campus, Jackson animatedly discusses turning track athletes into football stars, the school’s voter-approved reconstruction efforts, and the famous tri-tip sandwiches sold at the food stands. “Best Tri-Tip ever, I don’t care what anyone says “ says Jackson.
He represents a small percentage of people involved in high school sports nowadays that aren’t reserved with the media.
“We’re not trying to hide anything here” Jackson says. “We are trying to showcase our school and players.”
For over 10 years he has served as athletic director at Cordova. Decked out in a red Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and flip flops, Jackson handles his Friday night duties — a mixture of chaos and questions — while simultaneously talking about the football program’s rise and addressing the challenges and issues of the night.
Three years ago, Jackson was faced with arguably the biggest dilemma of his athletic director career. The school had failed to win three games or more for four consecutive years, and had not posted a winning record in five seasons.
“I knew we had to change things” says Jackson. “And I knew that it began with finding a new head coach to lead us in the right direction”.
And so the hunt for a new coach began in 2011. Jackson, along with a panel of 10 members that ranged from the AD to a home economics teacher, interviewed 29 candidates to find out who would be the guy.
“We had to get it right, so I wanted a variety of people,” Jackson said.
From the initial pool of 29 candidates, the field was narrowed to four finalists, including Mueller. He talked for 30 minutes in his final pitch about the commitment to excellence and changing the culture and way of thinking throughout the program. They would no longer accept losing, no longer would take five losses in a season as the norm. Above all, he wouldn’t accept quitting.
He explained to the panel that the road wouldn’t be easy, but if they believed in him and his vision for the program, that one day he could turn the program around if the school and community had faith in him.
“He sold me and the rest of them on that commitment to excellence” said Jackson. “From where this program has been, to where it is now, I firmly believe he’s had a huge impact on that”.
COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE
For as far back as he can remember, Mueller’s whole life has been football. Now, his football life is all about the Cordova Lancers.
“I have ten minutes” Mueller says when asked midweek to discuss the program and the upcoming game with Johnson. “Any chance I get to boost this program to the next level or get it some notoriety I’m going to use.“
Mueller grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where he went on to play college football at Occidental College. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the then-Los Angeles Raiders. He played with the Raiders for five seasons, from which he says he still carries the traditions and mentality of “The Raider Way” at Cordova today.
“You hear all the time about the Raiders and the Commitment to Excellence” says Mueller. “But I took that to heart, and that’s what I’m trying to instill here at Cordova, a Commitment to Excellence. Not just on the football field, but a commitment to make these kids better in life down the road as well.”
He started out building the Junior Football Program at El Dorado Hills, laying the building blocks to raise the program to previously-unseen heights. That led to an opportunity to be an offensive coordinator at Oak Ridge High, where his athletic instincts allowed him to recruit kids from different sports to join the football program.
Success at Oak Ridge then led him to Cordova. Despite posting back-to-back 1-9 seasons in his first two seasons, Mueller’s plan remained the same. Kids began to join the team, buy into the program, and believe in Mueller’s philosophy.
And in a modern day where most coaches try to persuade kids to stay focused on solely football, Vance Mueller encourages his kids to join other extracurricular activities and other teams on campus.
A perfect illustration of Mueller’s impact came late in the third quarter in the win over Johnson.
With a 33-0 lead, one of his linemen expressed that Johnson is picking up on a certain blocking pattern, and that an adjustment could benefit the Lancers’ offense. The next play results in a running touchdown on that lineman’s side of the ball, prompting the player to rush over to the coach in pure joy.
“I told you! See I told you!”
Mueller doesn’t say a word, but with both hands points in pride and joy. As if saying in a silent moment of pleasure, “Yes you did.”
And, for a brief moment, the former Raider in the white visor and weathered coaches’ polo looks on. Not trying to show that he’s satisfied just yet, but enough to show he’s satisfied with where his team is heading.
Quarterback Unique Perez jogs off the field with the smile of a happy-go-lucky kid following the 47-0 victory. He had just finished passing for over 250 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair of scoring strikes to his favorite target, receiver Devin Baldwin.
For both Perez and Baldwin, it marks a start to what could be a bright future in both aspects of their football careers. But the feeling of joy over the win does not distract them from the road they’ve traveled.
Perez is still able to recall the day Mueller took over and the reactions the head coach received from the first team he inherited.
“A lot of guys didn’t take him seriously” says Perez. “But it allowed for us to file out the people who truly wanted to be a part of something special and those who didn’t”.
Said Baldwin: “Once we got to know coach, we understood what he wanted to do. He wants to win. We want to win. He wants to help us, and we want to help better ourselves.”
The tandem have hooked up nine times now for touchdowns this year. Perez has only thrown two interceptions on the year, and looks to be one of the many bright young quarterback prospects in the area. Baldwin isn’t the biggest player on the field, but he’s managed to be able to burn nearly anybody who’s gone up against him in the slot.
Even after a game that has seen his team go 4-0 for the first time in nearly a decade, Vance Mueller allows no time to look back on the successful start.
“No, too much to do going forward,” Mueller says with a smile before calling it a night. ““But we’re making progress.”
Follow Keith Jouganatos on Twitter @KeithJouganatos
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