When he was ready to step down as football coach at John Ehret High School before last season, Billy North went to the front office to ask his longtime assistant, Corey Lambert, a question: “Are you ready?”
Lambert needed his boss to clarify.
“I think I’m going to resign,” North explained during the spring of 2012.
Lambert had been preparing to become the head coach for years. He expected to take the Ehret job eventually, but on that day he “was shocked.” It was the first day of spring ball.
Still, Lambert jumped at the opportunity. But he recently suggested the sudden change may have contributed to a dismal 0-9 season.
The Patriots came within a touchdown of victory only three times, including a 12-9 heartbreaker against West Bank rival Higgins in the final game.
“I took over in June,” Lambert said. “Not having a full offseason with the kids — in your system, with your beliefs, your discipline — is tough.”
Especially at a school with a football heritage like Ehret, in which Lambert played a big part.
Not only had he spent 12 years on North’s staff, he was an all-state quarterback for the Patriots in 1994.
Under North, Ehret had nearly two decades of success. But the Patriots haven’t made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2008. Since 2010, they’re 6-25.
Still, Lambert insists things are turning around.
“Ehret was a reputable place,” he said. “We’re not looking to sit back and say, ‘We’ve got time.’ We’re looking to win and build a program.”
The coaching staff has spent this offseason preaching the importance of accountability. The coaches and players wear shirts with the motto “WE>ME,” meaning, of course, that the team is greater than the individual.
The Patriots also participated in 7-on-7 competition against playoff perennials McDonogh 35 and Dutchtown.
North said he does not view efforts to change the mindset as an indictment on his career.
“He has to change it to something he feels comfortable with,” North said. “Just because he worked for me doesn’t mean he was totally comfortable with everything we did.”
Ehret will get a chance to prove the new culture will change its fortunes when it opens against Cohen on Sept. 5. But the team’s approach on the practice field has already transformed.
Players show up “60 minutes before practice,” Lambert said. “They don’t want to leave.”
One day last week, some players ran kicking drills 30 minutes before practice while cornerbacks reviewed how to cover specific routes.
“(Lambert) motivates us to do better,” said senior running back Darrell Williams. “We had a down year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t compete.”
Williams suggested that last year’s team didn’t function as a unit. This year — in practice, at least — the atmosphere is different.
“Everyone’s helping each other out,” he said.
Lambert may have a greater challenge ahead of him than changing the culture of John Ehret’s team.
North holds that the culture of high school football as a whole has changed, especially since Hurricane Katrina.
“People come into Marrero from Orleans Parish, from private schools, from charter schools, and they steal our kids,” he said. “There’s as much recruiting in this city as in the (Southeastern Conference).”
North said he believes Lambert can slow the trend.
“He knows the area, he knows football,” he said. “He just has to keep kids in our school district.”
The team will receive outside help from transfer running back Darren Williams and Adrian Flag, whom Lambert views as a double threat at offensive tackle and his natural nose tackle position. Williams can play some quarterback, as well.
Williams, Flag and Darrell Williams headline a group of 24 seniors.
Lambert also expects big contributions from a strong sophomore class.
“We have sophomores benching 300 pounds,” he said. “That’s 15-year-old kids.”
Lambert also said he believes Ehret is not far enough removed from its former dominance for other schools to get comfortable.
“We’ve been that sleeping giant for a while,” Lambert said. “It’s time to wake up that sleeping giant.”
It remains to be seen if Lambert’s system, now in place for a year, is enough to turn the program around. If he engineers what he calls a “return to dominance,” he will have the opportunity to ask opponents what was once asked of him: Are you ready?