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Building character - & team - in that order
East Union head football coach Willie Herrera speaks to his players following a mid-week practice. The Saint Marys of Stockton product who played collegiate football at Modesto Junior College before being awarded a scholarship to play inside linebacker at Eastern Oregon University has been at the helm of the program for the last two seasons. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL

Willie Herrera has goals.

Not the kind that most people think of when it comes to creating a checklist for the future – finish school, get a job, get married and start a family.

The St. Mary’s High School graduate and former collegiate football player has already done all of that. He’s a department head at East Union High School, has a wife of six years and has already welcomed two young daughters into the world.

No, Herrera’s goals – chiefly one in particular – include much less self and affects a lot more people. He just wants to see East Union High School’s football program be successful once again.

For the last two seasons, Herrera – who spent the previous five years as an assistant under head coach Mike James – has been tearing down the framework and laying the foundation for what he hopes will be a model football program that correlates not only into wins on the field, but also in the classroom and society at large.

Translation – he’s not the quintessential high school football coach.

The Bulletin caught up with Herrera after a mid-week practice for a quick Q&A session to find out a little bit more about what makes the one-time inside linebacker tick when he’s prowling the sidelines, and what the most difficult parts of running a high school football program actually are:

What is it that you love about the game of football?

“I grew up playing it and it has always been my favorite sport. I remember being in 8th grade at French Camp Elementary when my favorite PE Teacher, Mr. Troutner (who would go on to become the Athletic Director at Manteca High) asked us what we wanted to do. I, of course, said that I wanted to be a professional football player. But if I couldn’t do that I wanted to teach and be a football coach, and I’m fortunate that this is what I’m doing today. I love the camaraderie of the sport and the 1-on-1 battle in practice and on Friday nights – there are so many parts to the game. It’s the best sport in the world.”

What’s the most challenging aspect of running a football program?

“I’d say the fact that you wear so many hats. You’re a teacher and a counselor and in some cases a father figure. Time management is a big part of it because I have to make sure that I’m also the absolute best Dad that I can be to my daughters – I need to find that happy medium between football and family. Ultimately my family comes first because I want my daughters to know that their dad cares for them and is going to be there for them no matter what. But there’s a lot that goes into the program and pulling both of those things off.”

Last good movie that you saw?

“Probably Brave. We took the whole family to see it when it was in theaters.”

Last book that you read?

“Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games are Won. It talks about playing by the numbers and when you go for it on fourth down and it breaks everything down according to sport. It’s really interesting.”

What do you love about running a football program?

“Honestly, I enjoy the overloaded plate. There are so many things that you have to oversee and so many challenges and at first you ask yourself – ‘Can I do it?’ It’s not made for everyone and it can eat you up. If I went off of success purely by record I’d be devastated – 1-5 is not where we want to be right now. But there are bigger things than just wins and losses. One of the things that we really preach here is good character, and when you’re talking about a football team you’re talking about players and it can get really interesting. You never know how you’re going to do until you’re actually in that position. You’ve got to worry about the finances and the alumni and the current student body and the community and the administration. One of the first things that I learned was that you’re not going to make everybody happy.”

How much behind-the-scenes work goes into pulling everything off?

“That, in and of itself, is a full-time job. You have all of the paperwork and all of the fundraisers and then you have to recruit your campus to make sure that guys are coming back out and new guys are coming out as well. That’s why I’m so fortunate to have so many great coaches – assistant coaches that do a fantastic job. We’re building something here right now and not everybody can see that. It’s a little bit frustrating because everybody wants to win and unless you’re part of the day-to-day you’re really not going to recognize it. But I can say that the parents and the girlfriends and the friends of these guys are all recognizing it. We’re trying to build the future leaders of Manteca here in this program. One day they’ll be Dads and maybe even coaches and we have to set that example. Our time will come for wins.”

Does spending so much time around football take away from being able to enjoy it recreationally?

“I had an agreement with my wife when we first got together that the only football that I would really get into would be coaching and then University of Notre Dame games on Saturday. If I get a chance to catch an Irish game that’s just icing on the cake for me. I already watch a ton of football – breaking down film from the game and then preparing for next week – so I don’t really have a lot of time to really enjoy much else. I used to be a big baseball fan but even in the offseason I’m busy working on things.”

What’s the trick to carefully balancing family and football?

“It’s all about making sure that I’m there. My oldest daughter is already involved in competitive cheer and I’m looking forward to being that Dad that’s just a fan – being behind her 100 percent. And all I can ask of her is that she do her best and be better than the day before.”

Personal outlook?

“Faith is a big thing with me. We go to church over at Calvary, and while everybody might not feel this way I believe that everything I have in my life is faith-based. That’s one of the things that I tell my guys – it might necessarily be God, but you have to believe in something bigger than yourself, be it this school or your team. That makes all the difference.”

How would somebody describe Willie?

“I would hope that they would say that he’s a good guy and he’s genuine and he really does care – the kind of person that gets the big picture. A giver that’s not a selfish person and takes huge job in seeing others reach their goals.”

Idea of a perfect day?

“I’d have to say waking up and prayer with my family and then catching a flight to South Bend to watch Notre Dame on the 50-yard line. My wife and I were able to go back there for a coaches clinic when she was pregnant with our first daughter, and I like to joke and say that it was her first recruiting trip. It’s an amazing place, and I’d like for East Union to one day hold that mystique – to give you that feeling when you first walk on campus.”

Where would like to see the program in five years?

“Ideally being at the top of the VOL continues to be the goal, and I think that we will end up seeing that. I think that we’re building a model program here through character building and I hope that word is getting out to parents that East Union is a place where their sons can come and learn how to be better men. We’ve had some rough stories this year – kids with some tough backgrounds – and to see where they’re at now is amazing. Love is the main ingredient there. The wins will come because the future is being built right now, and time will tell. I mean no disrespect to the other programs in town, but if a Manteca grad, a Sierra grad and an East Union grad are all up for a job I want the employer to take the East Union grad because he knows what we’re building over here.”