A grandfather's legacy

Cal coach Tosh Lupoi's success can be traced back to his Pappy's landmark market

Originally Published: April 13, 2011
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN Recruiting

The giant produce truck chugged along California State Route 24, six days a week for more than four decades, from Walnut Creek to the marina in Oakland now known as Jack London Square. Tony Lupoi rarely left his market later than 4 a.m., and, in the early days -- long before grandson Tosh arrived in 1981 -- Tony ran every red light along North Broadway on the way out of town.

The cops never stopped him. They knew Tony and his truck. The man was an East Bay icon, a Depression-era Italian immigrant who settled in Pittsburgh and sold newspapers as a kid before moving west.

A self-made millionaire, Tony Lupoi defined old-school before the label existed.

[+] EnlargeLupoi Market
Courtesy of Lupoi familyTony Lupoi's drive and passion -- traits his grandson Tosh displays daily -- turned Lupoi Market into a fixture in Northern California for years.
Lupoi Market closed on Dec. 27, 1969, for the wedding of Tony's son, John, and Tosh Lupoi's mother, DeAnne, and six years earlier for John F. Kennedy's funeral. Otherwise, it was always open. Christmas. New Year's. Every day.

"Like something out of the Bronx or Little Italy," said legendary football coach Bob Ladouceur of nearby De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif. "It was like you stepped back into the 1940s. It was classic. You had to go see it to believe it."

Tony Lupoi operated his food market and wholesale vegetable business with a passion, the same passion with which Tosh Lupoi attacks football.

"Absolutely," John Lupoi said. "I see more of my father in Tosh than in anyone else."

California defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, 29, enters his fourth season this fall as a rising star in the profession. He was the youngest coach on ESPN.com's list of top 25 recruiters in 2011 and the youngest football assistant in the Pac-10 last year.

The lack of experience hardly slows him. Lupoi, an often-injured Cal defensive lineman from 2000 to 2005 and graduate assistant for two years before taking the full-time job, produced a first-round NFL draft pick last year in defensive tackle Tyson Alualu. Tackle Cameron Jordan appears set to land similarly high this year.

Despite the Bears' first losing season this past fall in nine years under coach Jeff Tedford, the defense ranked 13th nationally in sacks and 18th in yardage allowed.

Lupoi has especially distinguished himself in recruiting. He directed efforts to sign top players from all corners of the country in 2010, pulling touted defenders Chris McCain and Keenan Allen out of Greensboro, N.C.; Nick Forbes from Frederick, Md.; and Gabe King of Eugene, Ore. -- over offers from the likes of Southern California, Auburn, Alabama, Florida, Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and Virginia Tech.

This year, he had two defensive tackle coups, getting Viliami Moala of Sacramento, Calif., to pick Cal over Oregon and USC and Mustafa Jalil of San Diego to turn down the Trojans and Miami. This year's haul also includes top players from Georgia, North Carolina and Massachusetts.

"For me, it's exciting," Lupoi said. "My nature and character is to feed off the competitive environment of recruiting. You can look at it in one of two ways. You can say you don't want any part of that kind of situation."

Or, as Lupoi chooses, you can embrace recruiting battles with the heavyweights. Lupoi wins his share.

But what exactly goes into creating one of the nation's top recruiters and most promising young coaches?

It's a complex formula.

Passion for football

Tosh Lupoi loves football. He loves lots of things, including bass fishing and collecting lizards. But he really loves football. Obsession probably better describes it.

Lupoi's brother, five years older and named after their grandfather Tony, remembers family vacations before Tosh reached high school.

"He was outside the hotel at 5 in the morning, running in the parking lot," Tony said. "And he's in Pop Warner football. It's been ingrained in him as far back as I can remember."

The kids understand, when they talk to him, how much he cares about this place. Kids want to be around that kind of passion. You look in his eyes, and you see this guy has no quit. Listen to him for 30 seconds, and you feel his heart beat.

-- Cal RB coach Ron Gould on Tosh Lupoi

Football runs in the family. John Lupoi earned a scholarship to Brigham Young and coached at the school before a stint at Cal and in prep football. Still, Tosh's dedication defies genetic explanation.

When Tosh was in the sixth grade, his mother dropped him off at a local field so he could run sprints in the 100-degree heat. He returned home for chicken and broccoli, she said, eating pounds of it over the years, and he regularly shunned her desserts.

That's how badly he wanted to make his high school team, she said. And some team it was.

He played for Ladouceur at De La Salle in the midst of the school's national-record 151-game winning streak. He graduated from the school in 2000.

"De La Salle was a match made in heaven for Tosh," brother Tony Lupoi said.

Ladouceur coached greats such as Amani Toomer, D.J. Williams and Maurice Jones-Drew, but said he might never encounter a player focused quite like Tosh Lupoi.

"He's just incredible," Ladouceur said. "He's going to go far. He loves the game, so this was a perfect place for him. Our guys lived in a surreal atmosphere when they were here. It's kind of strange. But the way we approach football at De La Salle, he took it to another level."

As much as he loves football, Lupoi loves winning perhaps even more.

When young Tosh's teams lost, he locked himself in his bedroom.

"My wife and I really didn't know what to say or do about it," John Lupoi said.

Other kids played outside. Tosh only wanted to practice again. Posted on his bedroom wall throughout his high school and college days, motivational words drove Lupoi: "When you are not practicing, someone, somewhere is practicing. And when you meet him, he will win."

He never experienced a loss at De La Salle. But when he got to Cal, the Bears went 3-8, then 1-10.

"It was a dramatic experience," Lupoi said. "I had no idea how to react to it. I would shut down in my dorm room, feel horrible, almost ashamed."

Roommate and Cal teammate Wendell Hunter was astounded.

"He would cry all night," Hunter said. "I was like, 'Tosh, you didn't even play.' He said, 'Man, I'm not used to losing.' For me, I felt like I had finally met my match. I felt like this dude would do anything for football. I felt like I ate, slept and breathed football. But for this guy, there were no off days."

That desire led to an irrepressible coaching work ethic and bred the respect of teammates.

Hunter and Lupoi played at Cal alongside quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back J.J. Arrington. No one commanded more respect than Lupoi, though, according to Hunter.

"He has a way about him," Hunter said, "where he can connect with people in all different walks of life."

'No quit'

Tedford tabbed Lupoi to succeed Ken Delgado as defensive line coach in January 2008 after six straight winning seasons in Berkeley. Before the job landed in his lap at age 26, Lupoi played and coached under Delgado, who left for Louisville and now coaches at Eastern Michigan. Delgado had no doubts about his replacement.

[+] EnlargeTosh Lupoi
Courtesy of GoldenBearSports.comCal D-line coach Tosh Lupoi is a rising star not only because of his ability to recruit but also because he has a way of getting the most out of his players.
"You need something done," Delgado said, "you call Tosh."

During Lupoi's time on the staff under Delgado, Tedford often slept in his office four nights a week. When the coach stumbled out in search of a late-night drink of water, Tedford usually noticed the kid. Still at work.

"You could tell it was a passion," Tedford said. "I think some people who become [graduate assistants] are kind of searching, deciding if they really want to do it or not.

"I don't think there's any question about his dedication."

Lupoi's father said he watched closely as Tosh transitioned from graduate assistant. John Lupoi initially was skeptical about Tosh's ability to coach players with whom he had shared the field only three years earlier. Soon, the concern disappeared.

Tosh skillfully walked the "fine line," his dad said, between friend and mentor. It came intuitively.

And at recruiting, Tosh was a natural.

"Tosh is very pure in his motives," John Lupoi said. "He loves building relationships. I've heard him on the phone, talking to a recruit, and he'll say, 'Listen, I want to do what's in your best interest. If that means I help you get to another school, I'll do it.' And he means it. Kids like that. Parents like that.

"I know, from my days as a coach, the last thing most people in this business are thinking about is the best interest of the student-athlete."

Tosh shrugs it off.

"The last thing I would ever want is to paint a picture that's different for a recruit than when he's on campus," he said.

Primarily, Tosh Lupoi said, he believes in the product he sells.

"The kids understand, when they talk to him, how much he cares about this place," said running backs coach Ron Gould, who is in his 15th year at Cal. "Kids want to be around that kind of passion. You look in his eyes, and you see this guy has no quit. Listen to him for 30 seconds, and you feel his heart beat."

Remembering Pappy

Lupoi inherits his positive outlook on life from his mother, who preaches the existence of a rainbow inside every storm.

[+] EnlargeTony Lupoi
Courtesy of Lupoi familyTony Lupoi was old-school before the term existed, and his grandson Tosh is a mirror image.
And Lupoi has endured his share of storms. Tosh fought a variety of injuries at Cal -- shoulder and knee problems in addition to nagging issues such as the broken thumb that forced him to play his senior season in 2005 while wearing a cast on his right arm. He fought through them, even earning an extra sixth year of eligibility in the process, and finished with 68 career tackles and five sacks.

But that was nothing compared with the 2003 death of boyhood friend and De La Salle teammate Nathan Kirkham. He died when struck on his bicycle by a drunk driver near the Lupois' home in Walnut Creek.

It rocked Tosh. Nathan's drawing of a Spartan, the De La Salle mascot, hangs still in the coaches' locker room at Cal as Tosh's tribute to his friend. The Lupois remains close with Nathan's family and honor his memory every June on the anniversary of his death.

"The day he died, he told me how much he loves life," Tosh said. "It's a constant reminder. I'll never forget him."

Last year, Lupoi served a one-game suspension against Washington after admitting he instructed nose tackle Aaron Tipoti to fake an injury, slowing play in a three-point loss to Oregon.

"Negative or positive experience," Lupoi said, "you can always learn from it and get better."

Sounds like words spoken by his grandfather, who demanded accountability.

If you were 5 or 50, Tony Lupoi expected you to be a man, his son said.

Through it all, the legacy of Tosh's late "Pappy" shines brightly in him, serving as a thread that connects the passion to the work ethic, desire and compassion. It shapes Tosh as a coach and as a recruiter.

Tosh and his brother regularly rode in the truck with their grandfather to the docks in Oakland, where he bartered for fresh fish and produce. En route back to the market on the corner of Ygnacio Valley Road and North Civic Drive, the truck stopped in Lafayette, Orinda and other towns to supply the grocers with goods.

Today, from his condo in Concord, Tosh passes near the old site of Lupoi Market on his way to work in Berkeley. The legendary market is gone, put out of business by bigger stores just a few years before Tony's death, but Tosh's journey winds along the same stretch of Route 24 that Tony traveled in the truck.

Tosh often drives it about 5 a.m., evoking an image of two generations past.

The coach turns 30 in July. His mom says he'll want nothing extravagant -- no surprises, gifts or big celebrations. A month later, the family will remember Tony Lupoi on the five-year anniversary of his death.

The day before his grandfather succumbed to a long illness, Tosh visited him at the hospital. John Lupoi stood outside his father's room and overheard Tosh speaking to the 86-year-old man.

Don't give up, Tosh told him.

Others would examine the situation, John Lupoi said, and say it's OK to let go. Not Tosh.

"A lot of times, I don't know where he gets it," brother Tony said. "It's so easy to just turn the other cheek. But I know he's never stopped. He has a motor that never stops. It's easy to say but so hard to do.

"I look to him for inspiration."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman