In March, as former Archbishop Riordan head football coach Ron Modeste walked through the school’s junior hallway for the first time in 58 years, he pointed to an old brass ship’s bell, mounted high up on a wall.
He looked over at his son, Mark, who was headed to his final interview before becoming Riordan’s next head football coach. Ron told Mark a story he had never heard before: When Ron took over as head coach in 1959, Brother Maurice Miller procured the bell from a World War II battleship at anchor in San Francisco, and the two installed it in that hallway as the school’s Victory Bell, to be rung after every varsity win.
In the last 18 years, that bell has rung just 58 times for football. Yet, with a $2.9 million field renovation underway, the younger Modeste at the helm and a new smash-mouth offense featuring returning playmakers, Riordan now is arguably one of the most intriguing prep football teams in San Francisco, as they prepare to kick off this Friday.
“At the end of the day, being successful, I really think it’s just a matter of time and commitment,” Mark Modeste said two weeks ago, watching his team warm up for summer training camp practice. “Now, I can’t say it’s gonna happen tomorrow. But some days, it sure looks that way.”
Since the start of varsity football at Riordan in 1950, the Crusaders have won just four league titles and one section championship. Since Ken Peralta won the program’s last league title in 2000, Riordan has gone through seven coaches, going 58-127-2. The most recent head coach, Jay’Sen Morris, went 3-17 in two seasons, before taking a role in the school’s administration. Modeste heard about the opening from a friend.
“It was like, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Modeste said.
Modeste played football and basketball and ran track for Mountain View-St. Francis and then football at Santa Clara. He spent nine years at Atherton-Sacred Heart Prep, where, as defensive coordinator, he helped defeat Riordan’s last great team in the 2015 Central Coast Section championship. He moved to Houston in June of 2017 to coach 6A Texas football at Strake Jesuit.
After Hurricane Harvey shortened his first season — forcing him to evacuate his wife and four children to a house on the school grounds — he took a year off with the birth of his fifth child, and began to search for new opportunities.
Neither he nor his wife had any relatives in Texas, and wanted to be closer to family. With his parents still living in the South Bay, he sent an email to Riordan with his coaching philosophy and résumé.
“This is especially San Francisco, and to be part of that, numbers aside, past years really weren’t relevant in the decision,” Modeste said. “It was more about what we could do and what we could do for these young men.”
After getting the job in February, Modeste had meetings with every player individually over a series of trips in the spring. Modeste expressed to his new charges that each individual was as important as the team, and the team was as important as the individual.
“My first impression of coach Modeste was, ‘This guy knows how to win,’” said quarterback Azaan Ledbetter. “I could tell he’s a nice guy at first, but once we’re on the field, it’s all business. I enjoy coaches with that kind of style. It brings up the team, and it lets the guys know that either you’re going to be all-in, or you’re all-out.”
During those meetings, Modeste also revealed his new offense: an under-center quarterback, a downhill run game complete with fullbacks and play-action passes blended with some West Coast principles. Jalen Camp — the team’s leading rusher and a first-team All-WCAL selection — was energized, as was Ledbetter, who ended a 1-9 season in 2018 as the starting quarterback after Adham Abdelghani went down with injury. during a 57-6 Week 7 loss to Serra.
“I was excited to get under center and utilize the jet sweep with the athletes we have,” Ledbetter said. “I feel like the spread system works well, but I feel like, under center, we can open up the offense a little bit more, utilize our threats and utilize our run game a little bit more.”
Offensive line coach Ryan Jones — a former guard for San Jose State — became Modeste’s full-time strength and conditioning coach, and over the summer, prepared Riordan to be more physical.
“The whole environment of the team is just way better. Energy’s up,” Ledbetter said. “Our junior and senior leadership, everyone’s stepping up to the plate … The locker room environment just feels different. I feel like this group of guys have bonded and bought in to coach Modeste’s system.”
Just before training camp began, Camp — the most dynamic offensive weapon Riordan returned — had to transfer, due to financial difficulty, to Terra Nova, who will play Riordan in the season opener this weekend. Abdelghani went down in last week’s scrimmage with a season-ending knee injury.
Until the field is practice-ready before the Nov. 2 game against St. Francis (there will be a ribbon cutting on Nov. 9), the team will hold practices off campus at Gellert Park, 10 minutes away by bus.
The six strongest players literally had to knock the rust off the tackling sled and extricate it from weeds by the old field before it was trucked to the park. “It was like building their own gallows,” Modeste said.
Without Camp, the primary back will be speedy and compact junior Fazon Ruth, who played junior varsity last season, and will spread the ball out between multiple backs, 8-10 carries each. One of those could be 300-pound sophomore Kemoeatu “Atu” Kefu, who can run the ball and play defensive line.
“Working for things, you can appreciate them a lot more,” Modeste said. “That’s what I want these young men to understand. That’s inherent at Riordan. And I always thought that. In the short time being here this summer, now I know it.”
Upon his first win, Modeste will get to ring the Victory Bell the following Monday. He still hasn’t told his team of his history with it.
“That’s going to be pretty neat,” Modeste said. “I’m saving some of the stories for these guys. They don’t know all the stories yet.”