The Antonio Pierce era of the Long Beach Poly football program officially began on Thursday afternoon, when the former New York Giants linebacker was introduced to the public in a brief press conference, and to his team in a closed-door meeting.
“We’re going to do what Poly has done for the last 106 years and kick a lot of butt,” he said. “I was born in Long Beach, I played down the street (at Paramount High), and I understand the tradition and what it’s all about: being a scholar and a champion.”
Pierce, who becomes the Jackrabbits’ 25th head coach, appeared before several TV cameras and newspaper writers wearing a black and gold Poly football jacket.
Co-principals Victor Jarels and Joe Carlson said their search process was as exhaustive as possible, lasting nearly two months.
“We want to apologize to the community for the delay,” said Jarels, “but considering that we’ve only had three head coaches in the last 34 years, we were in no hurry to fill it until we had the right person.”
“This won’t be a rebuilding process,” said athletic director Rob Shock, who introduced Pierce at the press conference. “We got the right guy.”
Poly administration says they had over 100 inquiries and 55 formal applications. From that pool they narrowed it down to a field of eight interviewees, including Pierce, Narbonne coach Manuel Douglas, and current assistants Jeff Turley and AJ Luke.
“All eight of them could be a head coach at any school in the Moore League,” said Jarels. “It was a really difficult decision to get down to Antonio.”
Ultimately, Poly administration felt they had a candidate whose background as a player and interest in serving an inner city community were too good to pass up. Pierce made reference to that himself after the press conference. When a reporter asked whether he’d like to ascend in pay to one of the high-profile private school programs, he scoffed. “I’d never consider it,” he said. “I’m an inner city school kind of guy—this is reality, places like Poly.”
There were some concerns voiced by members of the always-vocal Poly alumni community in attendance. Namely, the fact that Pierce has never coached football at any level—and his desire to remain as an analyst with ESPN, which could take him away from coaching at times during the week.
“I’m not really there that much,” Pierce said referring to the amount of time spent in Bristol, Conn. at the ESPN studios. “There’s a couple of their other guys who are coaches, Keyshawn Johnson and Mark Brunell.” He said it’s his plan that the coaching staff that’s put in place will be more than competent to run practices while he’s gone, when his job necessitates that.
As far as who will be on that staff, Pierce remained tight-lipped. He said he plans to interview every current staffer who’s interested in staying as part of the program, as well as bringing in his own guys. Multiple Poly sources said they are expecting former Bengals receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh and former NFL running back Derrick Ward to join the staff—Pierce declined to confirm that, however.
He did point out that in lieu of coaching experience, he had worked in several camps—he hosted his own in Compton for six years, and has continued to work at skills academies for Nike and the NFL, estimating he’s worked around 50 of those camps.
While there were some rumblings of concern about his lack of coaching experience, the tone among the crowd was mostly optimistic. Longtime Poly assistant coach (and a Jackrabbit himself, class of 1968) Merle Cole Jr. said he was looking forward to it. “I want the whole community to get behind him,” he said. “We might have a real gold nugget here—we don’t know until we see, he could be one of the best.”
Likely All-American defensive back Iman Marshall, the top-rated player on next year’s team with 22 scholarship offers in hand, was also upbeat. “I’m excited for where we’re headed,” he said. “I think they chose the right guy—his mindset is great, and he’s a defensive guy.”
Pierce said he understands and appreciates the expectations surrounding the Jackrabbits’ program. But he also said he wasn’t intimidated by Poly’s notoriously harsh fan base, either. “I played professional football in New York,” he said, “so you’re going to have to really come with it if you want to get me.”
After the press conference, he spoke to next year’s football team in the Poly film room, in a closed-door session. He said he was pleased with how it went. “I could see that connection with a few of them,” he said. “Some of them were a little shocked—but usually if you ask if people have questions, nobody says anything. Today they had ten or so questions, so I think that’s a good sign.”
He added that he doesn’t yet have the answers to the questions people are asking about what system of offense and defense next year’s Jackrabbits will run. Pierce said his philosophy will be to fit the system to the players, not the other way around. “The kids kept asking and I told them we don’t have those answers yet—they need to show me what we’ve got on that field first,” he said.