USC

Simi Valley football: From dumpster fire to contender

How one historic coach elevated a losing program to a winning one

A photo of the Simi Valley High School football team.

In the spring of 2017, Jim Benkert, who had just taken over one of the worst football programs in Ventura County, walked into the Simi Valley High School football locker room with a plan to change everything.

“Put it in the trash,” Benkert said. “All of it.”

One of the most revered coaches in Ventura County football was rebuilding an entire football program from scratch.

“There were no traditions here that were positive,” Benkert said. “[Our Staff] set out to change the complete character of the program. Complete overhaul.”

When he first talked to Simi Valley employees and football parents, he promised them he was committed to building a winning football program at Simi.

At the time of his hiring, Benkert was the third coach in the last three years to take over Simi Valley’s football program. The two coaches before him had made similar promises, and their seasons ended in disaster. Why should these Simi Valley parents believe this coach was different from the others?

Well, because he is Jim Benkert.

Before coming to Simi, Benkert coached at football powerhouse Westlake High School for 27 years and Oaks Christian School for three. At those schools, he went to seven California Interscholastic Federation title games and won five of them. His 2003 Westlake team was ranked No. 1 in the nation. He’s had over 140 of his players play college football and has been named coach of the year by several different publications.

If there was anyone to turn Simi Valley football around, it was him.

Before Benkert arrived, the school had consistently been the laughing stock of Ventura County football. Upon his signing, there was no coach in the program’s history who had a record above .500. Before his second season in charge, the team had a single 8-win season in the past 71 years.

Joelle Cardona, the school’s athletic director, has witnessed the football program first-hand for years. As a student at Simi in the early 2000s, she recalls the football team winning just one game in her four years.

“I saw as a student how much you want your football team to do well,” Cardona said. “There is a lot of love and desire for football, but we just have not been able to get our organization together.”

From the football equipment to the mental and physical shape of Simi Valley’s players, everything had to change.

Benkert started with his players’ grades, forcing students who were underperforming in the classroom to march around the perimeter of the campus instead of doing any football related activities.

No football.

No weight room.

Just march.

If the kids continued to underperform, they would continue to march — the next week, holding weights. When Benkert started this exercise, there were 60 players marching. Three weeks in, there were only 10. He wanted to instill in his players that there are no excuses. Get the job done.

Next, he wanted to teach the players to play for something greater than themselves -- their teammates.

In the locker room, the Pioneers call themselves the band of brothers, an homage to the men who fought in World War II. The players are given personalized dog tags with different goals, most circling around being a great teammate.

It’s what standout linebacker Malachi Hannah loves about Benkert. “Coach Benkert lifted up this program for me,” Hannah said. He said that his head coach consistently preached believing in his teammates at practices and games. Through that, Hannah became not only one of the best players on Simi Valley’s defense, but also a team leader and captain.

Before Cardona even saw a play on the field, she knew Benkert was different from the coaches who preceded him. “He comes in with passion and confidence,” Cardona said. The impact was immediate. After just two wins the season prior, the team went 8-4 in Benkert’s first season.

The next year, in 2019, the team lost in the CIF finals to Crescenta Valley by a field goal. From the bottom of the county to a CIF finalist, Benkert’s formula had worked again. Even Cardona, who signed Benkert and knew he would have a positive impact on the program, did not expect a finals appearance two years into the rebuild.

“Yes, I thought we could get there,” Cardona said. “Did I think it would happen this quick? No.”

The trust players had in Benkert was one of their greatest strengths. They knew he would put them in the best position to be successful. Over the years he has developed close relationships with his players that move beyond football.

In his early days as a football coach, Benkert said he was too focused on the product on the field, making sure his team was winning. As his coaching career progressed, that changed.

“Now, I am much better at focusing on things past football and being able to be a much better mentor to [my players] in their life,” Benkert said.

At Simi, Benkert opens his office at lunchtime for his players and their friends to come in and hang out. Each day he provides the kids with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

It is one of the reasons players like Hannah decided to go to Simi instead of one of the more well known football schools in Ventura County. It is how Benkert was able to instill confidence in players and in a program that had been kicked around for years.

In the 2021 season Simi Valley was 10-1, including an undefeated league record. Their one loss was to the eventual CIF champions, Orange Lutheran.

This is not the Simi Valley of old who celebrated a single win in a season. This is a new-age Simi Valley, feared across Ventura County and on the hunt for titles.

“I’ve got a whole team of under the radar guys that won’t go under the radar much longer,” Benkert said.