Opportunity awaits Jefferson football
Houston Lillard never set out to be a head football coach.
But once he saw a chance to influence the lives of young people through the sport, there was no turning back.
"I can't say I've always aspired to be a head coach," said Lillard, now the head coach at Portland's Jefferson High. "I'm excited about it. It's something new."
Very new, in fact.
Lillard's first experience coaching a team was in 2019 as the Democrats offensive coordinator under Don Johnson Jr. Prior to that, the former quarterback and older brother of Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard was focused on Team Lillard 7-on-7, a training program for football players he started after moving to Portland in 2015.
When Johnson took a job as the director of high school relations for the Oregon Ducks, Lillard was promoted to head coach of a team that has some highly touted players and had high expectations for 2020.
Jefferson had only four seniors on a 2019 team that finished 6-4. The Democrats roster includes several touted college recruits. Senior running back Damir Collins is headed to Oregon State. Senior defensive end Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge has committed to Oklahoma.
Lillard said he has not yet discussed whether Collins and Rawlins-Kibonge will play for the Democrats if the season happens in the spring, or if either will choose to get started with college spring ball.
Highly ranked 2022 recruits include safety Trejon Williams and linebacker Lamar Washington. Washington has multiple scholarship offers for football and for basketball. That class includes quarterback Dondrae Fair, rated a three-star prospect by 247Sports.
Lillard was looking forward to building upon the program's momentum this fall. He noted that the lack of a fall season means he is uncertain whether the incoming freshmen will turn out in the solid numbers he expected.
Lillard, who turns 34 in October, is the fourth head coach in as many years for the Democrats.
Jefferson athletic director Neil Barrett said promoting Lillard gives the program needed continuity. But that wasn't the main reason Lillard was selected.
"Most importantly, he has the trust and respect of our student-athletes," Barrett said in an email. "Houston has also shown a great capacity to take interest in and support all of his athletes from our future D-1 superstars to incoming freshmen who may have never played football before."
Barrett said Lillard has the right mindset as a first-year head coach.
"I like to tell first-time head coaches very plainly that, 'You don't know what you don't know,' and ask every question that pops in your head," Barrett said. "This is not a concern with Houston as he is very willing to ask questions. Very simply, Houston is interested in being an outstanding football coach and mentor for Jefferson High School, and he'll take the necessary steps to reach his goals."
Lillard said he has used the delay to "ask as many questions as possible" of Barrett and of others to prepare to lead the Democrats.
With the high school football season postponed until mid-March (practices are scheduled to begin Feb. 22), Lillard said he has tried to keep in touch with his players.
"I've been encouraging them to stay active," he said, adding that the discussions with players have centered around life challenges and "haven't been a lot about the sport."
Lillard wants to give Jefferson players the kind of support and mentoring he said he and Damian had from coaches and extended family growing up in Oakland, California.
"Houston's just a good leader. We all look up to him," said Fair, the quarterback who worked closely with Lillard last season.
Lillard was an all-league quarterback at San Lorenzo High, where his team reached the California Interscholastic Federation North Coast Section finals in 2003. After quarterbacking Laney Junior College to a Golden Gate Conference title, Lillard played quarterback at Southeast Missouri State in 2007-08.
Following college, Lillard played in the Indoor Football League, helping the Kennewick, Washington-based Tri-Cities Fever to the championship game in 2011 and 2012.
While those experiences taught Lillard plenty of football, he noted that the coaches who got through to him were the coaches who communicated about life off the field.
"The type of coaches I connected with were the ones who knew their athletes as people," Lillard said.
He said he will "talk to them about regular stuff before I ever even talk to them about football."
Fair said his discussions with Lillard include "a lot of life lessons," and that the coach's guidance is "more about making me a man than making me a football player."
Lillard said some of his players have been more outspoken than others about the Black Lives Matter movement and the push to eradicate systemic racism. He said it's been an eye-opening experience for many of them.
He said Black history was taught when he was growing up in Oakland, but that Jefferson players lack some of that understanding.
"Having awareness and having clarity about Black history is important," he said.
In terms of football, Lillard said he loves to spread the ball around and get it into the hands of athletes. But with Collins to carry the ball, the plan is to be a run-first offense.
"We're going to have fun and play physical football," he said.
As an Oakland native, Lillard said he remains a Raiders fan despite the team's relocation to Las Vegas — though he mostly roots for friends in the NFL such as 49ers receiver Kendrick Bourne.
That doesn't mean he's happy the Raiders left his hometown.
"It takes away one of the positive things we had in Oakland," Lillard said, noting that the Warriors' move to San Francisco leaves only the As as a team that can bring the Oakland community together.
The departure of the Raiders and Warriors has added to the disappointment that 2020 has brought Oakland, Lillard said.
As the waiting game continues for high school football in the Northwest, Lillard is doing what he can remotely to encourage his players to stay connected and to push one another to improve.
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