MARRERO, La. — Corey Lambert grew up on John Ehret football. No, seriously, he did.
At age 5, the head coach of the Patriots football team lived on the Ehret High School campus where the health campus is currently situated. He watched the team practice in 1985 and 1986, closely, and from afar digested what it meant to be a football player at the storied West Bank school.
Lambert, who is Marrero born and raised, quarterbacked Ehret in 1992 and returned to his alma mater in 1999 as an assistant coach. Thirteen years later in 2012, Lambert succeeded Billy North as Ehret’s head coach, who coached the Patriots when he was on the team.
But North didn’t leave Ehret as he inherited it, and Lambert was left to try and pick up the pieces.
Ehret lost its first nine games of the 2012 season and was down to about 40 players left on the roster. Much of the talent from Marrero was instead enrolled at Catholic League schools such as nearby Archbishop Shaw and fellow Jefferson Parish power Archbishop Rummel, while others attended budding West Bank programs such as Edna Karr and O. Perry Walker.
Lambert had his work cut out for them, realizing that he had to make sure that the talent in the city, stayed in the city.
Visits to playgrounds, middle schools and feeder schools resulted in long days and nights of convincing kids and their parents that John Ehret was a program on the rise. An 0-9 campaign to start his coaching tenure didn’t exactly make his job easier, but the promise of molding young men, instilling discipline and lifelong preparation would eventually translate into success on the football field.
Since that 0-9 season in 2012, Lambert has compiled a 30-8 record, including two district championships and a share of a third, and an appearance in Louisiana’s Class 5A title game last December. In the process, Ehret has produced a bevy of SEC talent, including Darrel Williams (LSU), Michael Divinity Jr. (LSU) and De’Jon Harris (Arkansas), who he considers pioneers of the program.
In doing so, Lambert has created a winning culture back in Marrero by getting alumni and other members of the community involved, which is why SEC coaches are constantly stopping by the high school and reaching out to the coach about his players.
Growing up on King Street
Perhaps one day someone will create a Mount Rushmore for Marrero, and the architects won’t have to look far to figure out who belongs.
Lambert grew up on the 1100 block of King Street along several of New Orleans’ most recognized football figures: Mickey Joseph, the running backs coach of Louisiana Tech; his brother Vance Joseph, the defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins; Terry Joseph, their cousin, is the defensive backs coach at Texas A&M; and Tory James, who played at LSU before an 11-year NFL career.
They were all neighbors on the 30-house street, which to Lambert, helped him recognize what kind of talent Marrero bred. Lambert followed Kordell Stewart as Ehret’s quarterback, who then gave way to a future NFL Hall of Fame member, Reggie Wayne.
Lambert, who played collegiately at Iowa State, has constantly been amazed by the talent that’s been around him.
“I was born and raised around Mickey Joseph and Kordell Stewart. There was so much talent in the area and on King Street alone,” Lambert said. “The talent has always been here, so my deal when I became head coach, I told people I just want the kids in my zone and we’ll be fine because I’ve since it since I was young. I knew the talent we had, so if I could keep those kids we’d be fine.”
When Lambert accepted the job at Ehret, there were only 40 players to fill out the roster.
Much of that was a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which hit New Orleans’ West Bank as hard as anywhere in the city and forced many residents to leave. Those who returned came back to an unrecognizable scene, as schools were forced to be rebuild and football programs — like Ehret’s — to restock.
“What the kids saw is a lot of adults guiding kids to do some things,” Lambert explained. “You can go to this school and do this, or go here and do that, and play with guys you’ve never played with before instead of the kids you saw in playgrounds or in middle school. They were kids you don’t know because some adult told you there was a better situation.
“I told kids when I took this job that you don’t have to do these things anymore. I came to Ehret and became successful. We’re building a program and these kids are buying it, and that’s why we’ve been successful.”
Keeping the talent in Marrero
Ehret’s on-the-field drought took place in the years following the storm from 2008 to 2011, so naturally, Lambert faced an uphill battle trying to lure Marrero’s talent back to the local public school.
The easiest sales pitch at Lambert’s disposal was to promise success by staying home. He referred to Ehret’s alumni base, which included Wayne, former LSU defensive lineman Drake Nevis and former LSU wide receiver Chris Mitchell, among others, in the hopes that by keeping the Marrero talent in Marrero, Ehret could once again be an SEC factory.
“After that drought after Katrina, some of the private schools and (other Jefferson Parish public schools) were taking kids from the area and becoming successful,” said Lambert. “But a lot of the kids were from Marrero. Those kids were in our feeder schools, our middle schools and our playgrounds. My job was to keep the kids here. If I can keep the kids here, I can make them successful. That’s what we’ve been doing. ”
Year 1 did not go according to plan. An 0-9 start to Lambert’s coaching career didn’t bode well for his chances of keeping Marrero high schoolers put. In fact, it had the opposite effect.
Class of 2017 3-star cornerback Darius Campbell, who committed to Tulane in February, was hesitant about transferring to Ehret after the winless 2012 season. As he put it, what was so attractive about joining a losing program?
“I don’t like being on loser teams,” Campbell said. “Losing is not my thing, and I couldn’t come to a losing team. Coach Lambert stayed on our seniors so hard and taught us how to be men on and off the field. We came together as brothers and made us better at football and as a program.”
Fellow rising senior Terrell Bailey had a similar take. Bailey, a 3-star cornerback who boasts 16 offers from the likes of Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Tennessee, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, had no intention of joining a winless team.
And there is a twist: Bailey is Lambert’s cousin, and even that wasn’t enough to convince the 6-foot, 170-pound cornerback.
“Scooter (Harris) told me I was sleeping on Ehret, that they needed some help and I could come in,” Bailey recalled. “I didn’t think I was going to do anything, but after the transfer we were grinding hard all summer and during the season, and I’m happy I stuck it out. Coach Lambert stayed on me at practice, challenged me, threw the ball to my side …”
As Harris tried to recruit some of his fellow Marrero residents back to Ehret, Williams led the cause on the field.
As a junior, Williams played a number of different positions for Ehret. The future LSU running back had transferred from nearby Higgins High School, which is also in Marrero, and found success despite the team’s losing record. He became the inspiration for other kids in the city to follow suit.
“What people started to see was Darrel Williams,” Lambert said. “He came here his junior year and from Day 1 bought into the program. Kids saw where Darrel was from and what he did when we went through the 0-9 year. Winning gets kids, but kids recruit kids. They tell you about the program so other kids want to do it.”
Bailey, Campbell and Divinity — who’s now at LSU — all transferred to Ehret prior to the 2013 season despite what had happened the season prior to team up with Harris and Williams. Harris convinced Divinity to return from John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, La., a perennial state championship contender, which instantly provided reinforcements on the Ehret defense and established it as one of the best upcoming units in Louisiana.
At the same time, Lambert was navigating nearby parks and playgrounds continuing to try and impart his message — to stay home and have a chance for success.
He never promised starting roles and often had to fess up about the 2012 season, but Lambert held his ground and continued to campaign for his alma mater, which he knew could return to prominence with the right pieces in place.
“I would never lie. I can’t promise you’ll start, but I can promise you’ll be coached up and be in a good program and we’ll make sure you got the grades and are in a position to be recruited,” Lambert said. “They saw wins and losses, so I told my kids to get wins. We put a schedule together to play against kids at the level we were at. We had to be humble. We weren’t the old John Ehret. We lost too many kids, but we can build it back up to show kids what we’re trying to do.”
And that’s what happened in the fall of 2013, as the Patriots notched a 9-3 record, a district title and secured a first-round playoff victory.
Others in Marrero began to take notice, like Isaiah Windmon, a Class of 2018 safety who has already procured offers from SEC schools Texas A&M and Mississippi State, as well as Colorado and Arizona State.
Divinity and Harris saw their lists of offers begin to expand and the Ehret football team improved its win total by nine games. Very quickly, the Patriots were a force to be reckoned with.
“I didn’t want to be on a losing team,” Windmon said, “but I was looking at Ehret and came here to be a part of something special. I trusted and believed what Coach Lambert was saying. They had some good guys and felt they were going to go on a run. They had leaders like De’Jon and Michael that could take us to the Dome.”
The SEC came knocking
Ehret’s 2015 team went 12-3 and returned to Superdome for the first time in three decades, and did with so a team comprised of not just potential Division I talent, but future SEC stars.
Divinity and Harris represent two of the conference’s next great linebackers, with the former now at LSU and the latter taking first-team reps on the Arkansas defense. Others such as Ca’Ron Baham headed to Colorado, Jerrius Wallace to Arizona, Robert Green to Army and Kerry Starks to Louisiana-Monroe.
Along with Williams, who backs up Heisman Trophy hopeful Leonard Fournette, Harris and Divinity are considered stalwarts in Ehret’s rebuilding efforts. Their success not only helped revive the football program, but grabbed attention from SEC coaches and others across the country in the process.
“I had a big-time player in Darrel Williams that started the whole thing,” Lambert said. “He was on the 0-9 team, and the difference in this program was when I told kids I’d rather lose doing it right than win doing it wrong. Those are things I constantly instill in them, and the kids that bought in — the De’Jon Harrises and Michael Divinitys — that’s the success of this program.”
This summer, Ehret has hosted college coaches on the Marrero school’s campus on a near-daily basis. And if they aren’t visiting, they’re constantly calling, texting and even direct messaging his wife on Twitter.
Much like he did with Divinity and Harris, Lambert reaches out to people nonstop about the talent that he has on the field, which now includes more than 100 players and 44 freshmen, a high since he returned to campus.
After all, nobody represents Marrero harder than Lambert, and the new-look Ehret football program is beginning to churn out college studs.
“Coaches are trying to reach out to me about kids every day. Sometimes my phone locks up,” Lambert said with a serious smile. “I’ve built relationships with 90 percent of college coaches, personal relations like ‘How you doing. This is Corey. How’s your mom and dad?’ Not only do they see good talent here, but the kids are academically qualified. Their grades are 2.5 and above, so they can work toward a degree and they’re prepared for college.
“I can call a coach right now and tell them about a kid and they trust me because the product speaks for itself. These Ehret kids stick it out, they qualify and they have the grades. Why? I hold them accountable, and those are the principles they teach in college.”
Windmon was once hesitant about making the move to Ehret, but years later has a pair of SEC offers to prove that it was the right decision.
If he had never transferred, he doesn’t believe he would have any offers to show going into his junior year.
“I’m blessed to be here,” the 6-foot-2, 180-pound safety said. “I work hard in the weight room and on the field, but also off the field in the classroom. I don’t believe (my previous school) would have been on us like Coach Lambert would. He instilled that in us. I’m glad I stuck around with this program because I see big things happening for us.”
It’s a similar story for one of the newest Ehret enrollee, Jammal Houston.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound athlete has earned 12 offers in a two-week span, including overtures from LSU, Mississippi State and Arkansas. Not surprisingly, Texas A&M and Ole Miss may follow suit in due time after Houston clocked a 4.45 40-yard dash at a camp last month.
Houston is Harris’ cousin, and transferring to Ehret was his “life-changing moment.” Without it, college football may not have been in his future.
“Scooter (Harris) told me to come to Ehret because Coach Lambert could help me get scholarships,” Houston said. “I would never have these scholarships otherwise. But at Ehret, we work hard and go to camps and coach puts me out there. He cares about all of us, and that’s why 11 players signed with colleges last year.”
A community in arms
Lambert’s ties to Ehret go way beyond his role as head coach and assistant principal. The Ehret alum not only grew up on the campus, but his grandfather, uncle and mother all held custodial jobs with the school.
That type of dedication has spread rapidly throughout the Marrero community, and as the program continues to develop into a Louisiana powerhouse and national recruiting ground, those around it have found ways to lend a hand.
Stewart, who preceded Lambert as Ehret’s quarterback, and Wayne, another alumnus, were both on the sidelines during the team’s Class 5A championship game appearance last winter. Not only are they loyal fans, but both delivered locker-room speeches beforehand.
They’ve also used some of their success to contribute to that of the current players, donating everything from shorts, jerseys and helmets to ensure that Ehret looks the part of champions.
“They’ve had great support for us to make the kids in Marrero understand they’re not short of anything because they’re a public school,” Lambert said.
Numerous local restaurants provide meals to the players, including Capdeboscq Catering, which supplies pre-game meals comprised of gumbo, jambalaya, meatballs and potato salad. Others, such as D&R Community Kitchen, have provided daily lunches following summer workouts. Not surprisingly, one of the kitchen’s organizers, Ron Simmons, is a John Ehret alum.
Like the football program, Ehret’s success is a product of the community. Players have found landing spots at LSU and Arkansas, and the 2017 and 2018 classes could lead others elsewhere in the SEC.
After all, Marrero has a reputation for yielding elite talent. Look no further than Williams, Divinity and Harris, and then to the future with Bailey, Windmon, Houston and Kyrin Jones, all of whom could also take the SEC route. That’s a credit to Lambert’s philosophy, which is why the coach continued to stand by the John Ehret way he was raised on.
“This is where I wanted to be a head coach otherwise I wouldn’t want to be a head coach,” he said. “As head coaches, you’re passionate about what you do. But I’m passionate about John Ehret and Marrero and passionate about our community. I got 100-something kids and they all have a place where they belong. They’re being guided and directed, held accountable and have a sense of belonging.”
Sam Spiegelman covers LSU football recruiting for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play in Tigers Stadium.