Sondheimer: Coach Jesse Craven helps guide Burroughs to first league football title since 2015

Burroughs coach Jesse Craven is surrounded by players from his Pacific League championship team on Saturday morning.
It's not easy to pick out young coach Jesse Craven, in his Burroughs football hoodie, in a crowd of players from his Pacific League championship team. (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Burbank was once one of the most famous cities in America. Five nights a week, "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson, then Jay Leno, let everyone know Burbank was the place to see Hollywood stars.

Jesse Craven, the youthful 30-year-old football coach at Burroughs High, might have been invited to make a cameo appearance if the show hadn’t moved to New York in 2014.

Craven has given Burbank natives something to cheer. When the Southern Section playoff pairings were released Sunday, Burroughs (9-1) still was celebrating its first Pacific League title since 2015.

The Bears are in Division 7 hosting Agoura in their Friday playoff opener between neighborhood teams, far away from Division 1 top seeds St. John Bosco, Mater Dei, Sierra Canyon and Corona Centennial. Craven's story is compelling, showing how a school took a chance, placed its confidence in an untested young coach and was rewarded by finding someone willing to listen, learn and grow.

“We had a lot of applicants,” athletic director Keith Knoop recalled. “He stood out among everyone else.”

Burroughs High football coach Jesse Craven poses for a photo on the school's football field.
Jesse Craven took over as Burroughs football coach in March of 2020 at the age of 26. On Friday, his team won its first league title since 2015. (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

At 26, Craven was hired as coach, just as schools were shutting down campuses in March 2020 because of the pandemic. He didn’t get to meet his players in person for nearly a year. He had played quarterback at North Hollywood High, gone to NCAA Division III St. John’s in Minnesota and helped coach at California Lutheran, UC San Diego, Crespi High and Harvard-Westlake.

“My philosophy has been to maximize the potential of each kid to try to accomplish their goals,” Craven said.

He’s a walk-on coach working in the tech industry and father of two young kids. “Young and enthusiastic” is how Knoop describes him.

Craven listens and reaches out to coaches who can provide wisdom and advice. He invited future Hall of Fame coach Ed Croson to visit a practice.

“He’s a good kid,” the 66-year-old Croson said. “When you get to be our age, 30 is a kid. I like him. He’s tries to find the right answers and if you don’t know them, admit you don’t. He’s a good, young coach who is helping kids and that’s why they play together. The stuff that really matters in the long run is how we can help them become better men, better dads.”

Burroughs used to be one of the top teams in the Southern Section in the 1970s when the legendary Bob Dunivant was coach. Burroughs’ return to league prominence got a lift last year when two players returned to their local school, quarterback Chris Kulikov and receiver Jake Scozzola.

Kulikov, who was a backup at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and Cathedral, has passed for 2,105 yards and 27 touchdowns with two interceptions. Scozzola, who came from Notre Dame, has 55 catches for 830 yards and 11 touchdowns.

At the conclusion of Burroughs' 48-13 win over rival Burbank on Friday night, it was Kulikov surreptitiously helping dump a cooler of Gatorade on Craven's head.

“I don’t think we’d be anywhere without him,” Kulikov said.

Troy Thomas remembers being impressed with Craven during his brief tenure as an assistant at Crespi.

"He wanted to be good," Thomas said. "He was trying to learn and listen and ask questions."

Now the Bears get to see where they fit in as a league champion in Division 7.

"I'm super excited," Kulikov said. "Ecstatic."

Jay Leno surely would honk his car horn in tribute while driving past Burroughs.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.