In June, Grace Brethren Christian School of Simi Valley hired new football head coach Tom Coate to take the reins of the once-dominant football program. The Alabama native has already become beloved among players and parents as he rebuilds the team and brings a loving, serving culture to the game of football.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the new leaders and new generation be built from adversity,” Coate told the Conejo Guardian of his new team. “These kids and their parents have been through a lot. Choosing to stay at Grace when all your friends and everybody leaves and forsakes the program and school is a tough decision that families have to make, but they were courageous and very loving and forgiving. I want to see that pay off for them, for those families, for those players.”
In the wake of the previous head coach’s exit, Grace Brethren’s powerhouse program dwindled to eight-man football with just seven athletes coming to practice in June. Only one had varsity playing experience.
Pat Shinn, a Grace football parent, says the previous coach and the school board “had two different views for the future of football: [the previous coach] wanted it to keep getting bigger and better, and the school board was for the school and Christian teaching first. Football was the secondary deal, and they felt that the football was taking over the priority of the school … They just agreed to go separate ways.”
Coate calls the transition a “reboot” and says his goal is to rebuild the program — a challenge he’s met before while coaching at Chadwick High School in Palos Verdes, whose eight-man football team needed a “complete rebuild” and only lost three regular-season games under Coate’s restorative four years as head coach.
Aiming for Faith
The opportunity to coach at a Christian school fulfilled a dream for the Air Force veteran, who spent years of his active military duty coaching local football teams in Alabama, Montana, Virginia and California.
“I wanted to always coach and teach at a Christian school,” Coate says. “The opportunity to coach at a Christian school where I can practice my faith was important to me. … I am very grateful to Grace and the leadership here at the school because they have given me some latitude to go make some decisions and build a culture around the belief system here at Grace. They have been receptive and supportive the whole way.”
Coate’s first aim upon inheriting the Simi Valley team was to establish a culture of love and service inspired by his convictions of faith and his 20 years of service in the U.S. Air Force. Coate served as a space and missile officer and a nuclear control launch officer, also working with classified programs, serving in Afghanistan and handling a roughly $8 billion budget for surveillance to space. He says his military service showed him the power of caring for others on your team.
“When the kids love and serve each other, just like any military unit, they bond,” Coate says of his football players. “They have to lean on each other, and we have to teach that culture. My job is just set the culture, a very healthy culture where kids [are] not only learning but having a good time, trusting one another and having faith in one another.”
Coate says his effort to serve and love others is a calling and a command.
“I take that seriously, and my faith is important,” he says. “It shapes and molds my leadership style.”
Already, players, families and the coach are developing what football dad Pat Shinn likens to a “small-town feel.”
“The coaches, the kids, the families, everybody’s approachable — that didn’t used to be the case,” Shinn says. “You never really got much one-on-one with coaches under the old program, where with this program, all the coaches are available to talk to the parents.”
After games, families go out to pizza together, and the coaches walk from table to table talking to everyone.
“We had really close relationships with the families before, but it was literally the families was one, and the team was another,” Shinn says. “Now, the family and the team are all in one. It’s been a blast, and you can’t say enough about what Tom brings to the table when it comes to that because that’s his doing.”
Shinn calls this the most fun year of football in his son’s 8-plus years of playing.
“[Coate is] extremely dedicated to these boys,” says Merrin Avarista, mother to football player Spenser Avarista. “[Spenser] loves Coach. He loves him to death, and I see it when I’m at practice. All the boys are happy. It’s a smaller team, so Spenser’s getting a lot of play time which is great. [Coach is] working them. … Those boys — they’re not standing on the sideline — they’re out there; they are practicing. As a parent, I’m extremely happy that he has a football season.”
The football players’ reports are equally optimistic about the new leadership.
“This is probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing football, for sure this year,” Gabe Shinn, a senior, says. “My favorite part of this season has been just how close we are as a team. Usually, when I was a freshman at least, I would never talk to any of the seniors or anything, but now we have seniors hanging out with freshmen at school and talking to them, taking them under your wing, and pretty much a family.”
Eleventh-grader Spenser Avarista, who plays corner, wide receiver and tight end, says he loves Coate as a coach.
“He’s very fun. He’s loving too, but he will work you. Like he said, he won’t mother you, but he will father you,” says Spenser. ”He’s different from my previous coach because he — I don’t know how to put it — he puts more heart into his players, and he says he’ll love you. You don’t have to love him, but he will love you.”
Coate says players are in his office every day to eat lunch with him. He says players are adapting well to his college-style defense and no-huddle, hurry-up offense. The squad has a winning record and has nearly quadrupled in size to a healthy roster of 25.
Seniors on the team penned the motto: “Rebirth, Rebuild and Restore.”
“I’m happy I stayed, and I’m able to be a part of almost rebuilding Grace Brethren and that I can say that I helped rebuild the program,” Gabe Shinn says.
“I’m looking forward to building a brotherhood with my new teammates, and just having a good season and balling out, and hopefully coming home with the ring,” says Spenser.
Pullquote: “They have to lean on each other, and we have to teach that culture. My job is just set the culture, a very healthy culture where kids [are] not only learning but having a good time, trusting one another and having faith in one another.”