Esteemed Norco Coach Gary Campbell Remembered

Connor Forbes
Connor Forbes
7 Min Read
The late Norco High football coach Gary Campbell visiting the program he elevated to prominence, in 2018. Photo by Jerry Soifer

By Jerry Soifer

Football was a part of Gary Campbell’s life, not all of it.  

If it had been more important to him, the immense numbers measuring his success would have been even greater than they were: 275 wins at Norco, three Southern Section division championships, three runners-up, countless playoff semifinal appearances and innumerable league championships.

Campbell died at age 79 on Feb 11 in Payson, Ariz., where he had moved since leaving Norco.

He retired in 2003 after a section finals loss, but with the cupboard full of returning players including future Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart. Campbell’s first grandchild was on the way and he wanted to be a family man, said Alan Krueger, a former player and longtime assistant coach.

Early in Campbell’s career, Norco was a little-known football outpost. He changed all of that, coaching waves of college and pro players. Many players followed his footsteps into coaching.

Former offensive lineman James Cregg has championship rings. One from the Super Bowl as a Denver Broncos assistant and another from a national championship as a Louisiana State University assistant.   

Corona Centennial’s Matt Logan, one of the more successful public school’s coach’s nationally, is another mentee. And former Norco quarterback Kyle Wachholtz has a Super Bowl ring with the Green Bay Packers. 

Campbell had a charisma that bonded players to him. Even parents whose sons had been disciplined severely, remained loyal to him. Campbell was a pallbearer at the funeral of Paul Chastain, the late father of former Norco quarterback Charlie. Campbell had kicked Charlie off the team after a temper tantrum at a 1981 game in Palm Springs. Then Charlie criticized Campbell for being unfair to him in an article in The Press-Enterprise.

But years later, Charlie Chastain came back to be an assistant coach to Campbell before going on to be one of the leading officials refereeing high school games. Charlie’s son, Chuck, quarterbacked Norco and was its head coach before resigning last week to take the head coaching job at Eleanor Roosevelt.

“He did his job,” said former Norco High girls’ basketball coach Rick Thompson of Campbell. “He turned boys into men.”

Campbell’s son, Steve, 47, said his father did so by holding them accountable while showing them how much he cared about them. He went on to say, that if you’re the son of a coach, you are going to love the sport or hate it. Steve coaches at Williams High School in Arizona, and says he loves the sport because his father always included him in team activities, including practices and games from the time he was 5. Steve was a ball boy for Norco with future baseball major leaguer, Mike Darr.

Friday night could be a time of both triumph and anguish for Campbell.

Early in the 1992 season, Steve, now playing for his dad, suffered a broken ankle in a game. Team physician, Dr. Lawrence Nelson arranged surgery the next day.

That enabled Steve to return in time for the playoffs, demonstrating, in his first game back, the toughness imbued in all Norco players by taking off on several long runs, showing no fear from the injury.

Campbell never tried to build the stats of his player, including his son, Steve, a quarterback. He tried to never to run up the score. “You have to respect the dignity of the other players,” he said. 

He could be a genius at improvising plays under pressure. At the end of the 1989 Mountian View League championship game against Moreno Valley Canyon Springs, Campbell drew up a razzle dazzle play. Future USC Trojan and Packer Quarterback Kyle Wachholtz flipped a sideways pass to wide receiver James Ridens, who flung the ball downfield to Tyrone Harts who barely got into the end zone for the 28-24 victory.

Wachholtz’ mother, Judy, said she was pleased with the way Gary coached Kyle, the discipline he instilled in her son.

Corona investment advisor John Weyhgandt credits playing as an undersized offensive lineman for Campbell in the early 1980s, for his success as a businessman which included being chairman of the board of the Corona Chamber of Commerce.

Weyhgandt reflected, “I think what I appreciated the most from playing for coach Campbell, was that he knew football was not the only thing in my life.  He was tough on me and made me a better person, learning to persevere. One time, the practice field was wet, and we were all tip toeing around, not wanting to get dirty.  He stopped practice and had us all dive into the mud.” 

Pat Harlow, another offensive lineman who went on to the pros with the Patriots and Raiders, relates that, “Gary had a huge impactful on my life and obviously football career   He taught me toughness, grit, work ethic, loyalty. Qualities that have stayed with me throughout my life. Gary believed in me which in turn made me believe in myself which was huge in my development as a football player and person. I consider myself blessed to have been coached by such a great mentor. I am sure everyone that played for him feels similarly to me about Gary.”

Longtime Norco High Football Coach Gary Campbell (right) seen with Assistant Coach Rheinhold “Rheiny” Klein (left) during the 1981 football season. Photo By Gary Evans.
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