GARDENA, Calif. — The football office at Serra High School is spartan — a large room with a desk in the corner, and a few things hanging on the walls.
A nearby basket overflows with offer letters from colleges. The letterheads are a Who’s Who of college football: Oklahoma, LSU, Washington State, Oregon State and more. The biggest envelope, at the top of the pile, comes from Arizona.
Khalil Tate was a superstar at Serra, rushing for more than 2,130 yards and 26 touchdowns as a high school senior two years ago, and he’s become something of a cult hero since leaving. Nobody at Serra is surprised by what Tate is doing at Arizona now, even if Tucson — and the rest of the country — can hardly contain themselves.
Tate has bucked a long-held trend at a place many in the recruiting world call “USC-erra.” Most Serra stars end up as Trojans, and some of them — Adoree Jackson, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods — move on to the NFL.
Tate could’ve been a Trojan, too, but a variety of circumstances — namely, USC’s reluctance to recruit him as a quarterback — led him to Arizona. Now, the Wildcats are making recruiting inroads at one of California’s top high school programs. The 400-student Catholic school routinely sells out its 5,000-seat home stadium.
Often, it beats opponents with much larger enrollments.
Tate’s development is “a big deal for us because he’s a quarterback,” Serra coach Scott Altenberg said. “We’re known for the receivers, the DBs, the linebackers. To have a quarterback, and someone who so firmly believes in what he believes in … when the decision was made for Arizona it was because Arizona really wanted him.”
The Serra-to-USC pipeline didn’t start with Altenberg. He went to UCLA, as did his father, Kurt, who starred at wide receiver on the Gary Beban-led teams of the 1960s after playing at Serra. Kurt Altenberg was on the receiving end of one of the biggest plays in UCLA history: His 48-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown catch from Beban led UCLA to a 20-16 upset of the Trojans in 1965.
Scott Altenberg walked on at UCLA as a quarterback, but his career was cut short after he injured his knee. He transitioned to coaching and, spurred on by his father, joined the Serra staff as an assistant coach. A few years later, he was named head coach. Over the next two decades, Scott Altenberg built the Cavaliers into a regional power. Now, the school draws players from not only Gardena but nearby Carson, Compton, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, Lennox, South Central Los Angeles and Torrance.
“My first year in 1999, we had 50 guys in the program. We were terrible,” Altenberg told the Star last week. “It was brutal. I called the offense, the defense, the special teams. I lined the field. It was nuts. It was not what it is now. We were just a small school — we still are — but we were a small school that wasn’t very good, so we just kinda slowly, over time, got better.”
Altenberg’s first star player was Eric McNeal, a defensive back who played at UCLA from 2003-06. Then came Woods, who in four years managed 192 catches, 3,310 yards and 41 touchdowns, garnering offers from practically every blue-blood program in the nation. He chose USC and then-coach Lane Kiffin.
That’s when the pipeline started. Serra kept winning, and USC kept recruiting Cavaliers.
This year’s USC roster includes eight Serra grads. Linebacker John Houston intercepted Tate in the Trojans’ 49-35 win over Arizona on Saturday night. Jalen Greene, another Serra alumnus, scored on a blocked punt.
“I think it’s one or two guys that tip the scale,” said Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth, a former USC staffer. “Then all of a sudden, it’s known as that type of place.”
Tate grew up in Inglewood. It didn’t take long for him to set his sights on the Catholic school seven miles away.
He was a Serra ballboy as a sixth-grader, while his older brother, Akili, played receiver there. Akili Tate’s Serra teams were stacked: Jackson, Lee and another future USC player, George Farmer, were always around. Khalil quickly became part of the family.
“It’s not like there was anyone I looked up to, it was more the team,” he said.
Kobe Smith has a similar story. Serra’s star wide receiver was a ballboy in middle school, too, part of the program because his uncle was a athletic director at the school.
Smith watched Lee, Woods and Jackson and played with Tate for a year, and saw what it took to earn major-college offers. Now Smith is a three-star recruit with offers from Arizona, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon and, of course, USC.
“I just kept on saying I want to be like them so bad,” Smith said. “I want to wear the helmets, pads, cleats, all that. Just be a Cavalier. It’s kinda like … not only just the football part of it but to be able say I went to school with Adoree, I knew him, we had the same coach. We did the same things. That’s pretty cool to say. In the games, it’s like … we were on the same field as them.”
Bryan Addison didn’t have the same connection to the program as Smith or Tate, but he knew he belonged from the second he stepped on Serra’s campus. Now, Addison is a four-star recruit with 23 scholarship offers.
Playing at Serra is special, he said, because of the program’s recent history.
“Being able to look up to people that are doing big things, being successful and just being able to (play) back in the same atmosphere that they were in,” he said.
Both players have Arizona (and USC) listed among their finalists.
Credit Tate, who has carried Arizona to bowl eligibility. Smith plans to visit Tucson for this weekend’s game against Oregon State. Tate and Addison still talk frequently.
“Just to see him finally get his shot and see what he’s doing is great,” Smith said. “It’s always good going into a program knowing at least one or two guys there, and for Tate to be that one guy there (at Arizona) that has that much importance there makes a big impact.”
Added Addison: “Just knowing you have people on the team that have been where you’ve been at is good.”
Tate began his high school career as the backup to Jalen Greene, a superstar who threw for 6,355 yards and 68 touchdowns and rushed for 3,040 and 30 scores in three years.
Greene signed with USC as a quarterback. Trojans coaches then moved him to receiver.
Tate is one of Greene’s closest friends. When USC coach Steve Sarkisian began to recruit Tate as an “athlete” — not a quarterback — he figured a repeat might be coming.
“(Tate) was like, ‘OK, I see what they’re going to do,’ and he didn’t want to do that,” Altenberg said.
Sarkisian was fired and his replacement, Clay Helton, liked Tate as a quarterback. So did UCLA. As Tate prepared to enroll at the UA in January 2016 — a semester early — the two Los Angeles schools worked hard to flip him.
Altenberg recalled a day when former UA assistant Tony Dews crossed paths with a UCLA coach on Serra’s campus.
“Tony walked in and he saw the UCLA guy with Khalil, so he’s like, ‘Oh, he really must want to play linebacker or something, because I know they got this kid Josh Rosen who’s a freshman right now. Pretty sure you’re not playing any quarterback,’” Altenberg said.
“So he (Tate) was just laughing, the UCLA guy was laughing.”
Tate wound up at Arizona. The move is already paying dividends at his old high school.
“Everybody else was like, ‘You’d be an NFL wide receiver tomorrow. It’s done,’” Altenberg said. “He’s like, I want to play quarterback. I said, are you sure? He said yes. So they see that and for us, for our kids now, they’re all like, ‘I can do that, I can do what Khalil is doing.’”