Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007 | Mount Miguel High’s football team, not long ago one of the worst in the CIF San Diego Section, began the year 3-0 under the talent prospecting efforts of third-year coach Tom Karlo.

Michigan State senior nose tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo, a Mount Miguel alumnus that didn’t play football for the Matadors, helped the Spartans to a 4-0 start with a 31-14 win Saturday at Notre Dame.

San Diego State’s 1-2 football team — which has already signed one of Karlo’s Nwagbuo-like finds and is recruiting another — plays host to No. 24-ranked Cincinnati (4-0) Saturday night after winning its first game of the year, a 52-17 romp against Portland State.

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to showing by example that it takes more than X’s and O’s for a football coach to turn around a long-suffering program.

It takes a high school coach to put in the added hours to mine talent where others won’t dig. It takes a college coach that knows how to motivate athletes to play better than they have for their previous coach.

Let’s start with the trail of Nwagbuo and how he earned a free education with a football scholarship, how Karlo works to make sure Nwagbuo-like kids on his campus aren’t overlooked and then we’ll come back to the Cincinnati-San Diego State game.

Karlo hadn’t arrived at Mount Miguel when Nwagbuo attended the school. At the time, Nwagbuo said he considered himself a basketball player, even though he has a body built for football.

In fact, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound lineman might never have earned a football scholarship if he wasn’t spotted playing pickup basketball games at the Southwestern College gym. He quickly developed into an All-Foothill Conference player for the Jaguars.

“Looking back, if I would have played football earlier, I might be better now,” Nwagbuo said. “But the (Mount Miguel) coaches weren’t that good, and I liked basketball better.”

Karlo knows Nwagbuo’s story. The former SDSU graduate assistant (1999-2001) also understands it’s not as unique as it might sound.

“A lot of kids get lost in the shuffle,” said Karlo, who played quarterback at Grossmont High, Grossmont College and Alabama-Birmingham. “There are big guys walking around campus that can’t play football, but they can if you work with them and build them up. That’s the exciting part for me. If a coach relies on just the kids that have played Pop Warner, he’s going to lose a lot of kids that could be star players down the road.”

Juan Balanos is such a player. The 6-foot-8, 305-pounder is a greyshirt for San Diego State — meaning he’ll enroll for the spring semester and have five years to play four seasons beginning in the fall of 2008.

Karlo says Balanos was big but awkward when he first saw him as a sophomore. Balanos didn’t become a starter until his senior year, but by then SDSU was recruiting him against Pac-10 schools.

“The key is not giving up on a kid like Juan,” Karlo said. “A coach could have looked at Juan as a sophomore and said he’s never going to be a player. You’ve got to stick with kids; that’s your job as a coach. Any coach can inherit a great running back or quarterback, but you’ve got to be able to influence kids that don’t have natural ability.”

Yeah, by nurturing kids like Balanos, Karlo wins more games, and his success is reflected in his record. The Matadors improved to 5-6 with a playoff loss last year and are 3-1 so far this season.

But his motivation includes education for kids that otherwise are drifting through school. The same is true for any extra-curricular activity that lacks funding in school systems, but Karlo’s area of expertise is football.

“Once you can tie school and athletics together, their grades go up and school becomes important to them,” he said. “We’ve got 12 kids playing junior college football. The scholarship kids are great, but we get more kids into junior college. That’s where you help kids the most.”

Karlo says his team this year has three or four players attracting recruiting interest. One is Chidozie Ekweozor, a 6-6, 309-pounder.

Unlike Nwagbuo, Karlo and his coaches had a chance to identity him and be patient with him. Now Ekweozor is looking at a football scholarship. He’s being recruited by SDSU, Colorado State, Nevada and Oregon State.

Meanwhile, Ngwabuo is about to finish his education and is helping turn around a football program. Michigan State suffered through three straight losing seasons before Mark Dantonio took over the program this year.

Dantonio arrived from Cincinnati, a team favored against the Aztecs this week, where he built the Bearcats into a bowl team last year. Cincinnati is nationally ranked for the first time since 1976, thanks to Dantonio’s players.

“He is demanding, and I can see why he made Cincinnati so good,” Nwgabuo said. “He worked us a lot harder in the offseason, and he brought a lot of discipline to the program that we didn’t have.”

San Diego State Chuck Long is trying to turn around the long-suffering Aztecs similar to Cincinnati’s rebirth. Long was hired too late to recruit Nwgabuo, but he’s found the recruiting turf of Karlo, a coach spending the extra hours to help Balanos and Ekweozor learn a game that will earn a college scholarship.

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