By Tony Jimenez
The sun was beating down and the temperature was a warm 90 degrees in northern California, but Justin Labagh knew deep down inside, no matter the type of weather, it was his time to help.
The 43-year-old Labagh spent most of that day earlier last summer helping an old pal in Sonoma, some 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, repair a fence.
It’s the least he could do for 88-year-old Navy veteran Ken Marshall.
Whenever the season starts, though, Labagh turns from good guy and family man – he and his wife Layla have three kids (Steele, 12; Soheila, 10; and Aidan, 6) – to one of the top coaches in the USA, no matter the collegiate level.
Forget that he and the City College of San Francisco operate outside the National JC Athletic Association umbrella. He has had CCSF in the California Community College Athletic Association on top of its game for close to two decades. In the Labagh era, the Rams have won three California state tournament championships, the most recent in 2018; finished in second place twice; and since 2004 have won 15 of 17 Coastal-North titles – 10 in succession. They are 485-60 with Labagh at the helm, finishing last season at 30-0.
CCSF wins and keeps on winning, says Labagh, for several reasons. For one, Labagh has had the same coaching staff for 17 years – Adam D’Acquisto, 43, and Tom McNichol, 60. They add knowledge but, just as importantly, add continuity to the program. Secondly, he accomplishes what countless coaches 37 City College of San Francisco: A dynasty outside the NJCAA Junior Colleges Tony Jimenez nation-wide preach but few finally get when a game is over. His players have worked as hard defensively (think West Virginia) as they did offensively (a la Texas Tech). Labagh learned the latter under Bobby Knight. From start to finish, or at least until they get a big lead, the Rams keep constant heat on an opponent with a fullcourt press on defense and an attacking offense.
“The job is the Kentucky of California jucos,” said Gerry Freitas, who has scouted West Coast jucos for 26 years, 18 at the four-year school level. “It’s easily the best job in the state. They are the standard to measure yourself by in the state of California. They do a good job coaching and recruiting. Normally, you don’t have both. Kids want to go there and then they coach them up.”
Although City College of San Francisco generally plays competition in northern California, it heats up in the playoffs at season’s end.
“Really, competition is the only thing they lack,” Freitas said. “Other than that, they have all the ingredients. They would do very well in the NJCAA and compete for the NJCAA title.”
Kyree Brown, who started about half of the games at City College last season, agrees. “It was everything I heard about it,” said the 5-foot-11 guard.
“It’s a winning culture. The coaches expect perfection, to win every game.”
At least 10 players on the roster, according to Brown, should be in the NCAA’s Division I ranks in the next year or two.
“The depth is incredible,” he said. “Every practice was competitive. Our practices were harder than our games. I think last season we had one of the greatest teams City has ever had, and that’s saying a lot.”
Emeka Udenyi, Brown’s 6-6 teammate, who will play for Seattle next season, agrees that CCSF practices seemed more difficult than games.
“They were like a war,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect my freshman year, but last season was the most fun I had in basketball.”
Udenyi took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to each and every practice.
That alone – a 55-minute one-way ride to a City College of San Francisco workout – was no easy task.
Santa Rosa coach Craig McMillan, who played at Arizona with Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott, said playing the Rams is never easy, City College winning last season (81-64). McMillan said CCSF has had the best program in the state for at least the last 10 years.
“They recruit talented players and use them right,” McMillan said. “Then they get better at the end of the year, in the playoffs.”
Because they have won so much so often, Labagh said he has seen every defense in the book.
“Some teams play the four corners,” Labagh said. “They know they’re going to lose, but I guess they don’t want to lose by a lot. It’s a slow death.”
Salt Lake coach Kyle Taylor, whose team plays in the NJCAA, contends the Rams win so much because “they understand the recipe for success and winning: talented players and good coaching. That creates a winning culture and environment.” The way Taylor sees it, “San Francisco City would be very competitive in NJCAA D-I.”
The ultimate and dream-like scenario would be to have City College of San Francisco play NJCAA teams in March in the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.
But to Marshall, it really doesn’t matter. He sees Labagh as more than a coach. He sees Labagh as a caring human being.
(Tony Jimenez is based in Wichita, Kan., in the heart of JC country and home of the Wichita State Shockers.)