After moving to Los Angeles in pursuit of Hollywood stardom, Matt Kerstetter found something else.
The 1995 Cedar Cliff High School graduate discovered the bright lights of Friday night football — the same radiance he grew to love playing under the legendary Bob Craig with the Colts — lit up his ultimate stage.
So while his scene from “How High” hit the cutting room floor, and in the midst of an appearance on the cheesy reality dating show “The 5th Wheel,” Kerstetter stepped back into the realm he knew so well.
He walked down the street to the local high school, Taft in Woodland Hills, California, found the football coach, boasted about his background as a star receiver at Cedar Cliff, then Shippensburg University, then finally Lock Haven, and asked about volunteer coaching positions.
As luck would have it, Taft had a blossoming wide receiver named Steve Smith, who would go onto stardom at USC, then the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, and Kerstetter would become his coach.
That ignited what’s soon approaching a 20-year career in the high school coaching business, as Kerstetter served as an assistant at Taft and Chaminade in California, then as a head coach at Taft (2007-2010) and Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Florida (2011), as an assistant at Trinity Catholic in Ocala, Florida, and now currently as a QB/WR coach and offensive coordinator at Westfield High School in Houston, Texas, one of the Lone Star State’s best programs.
From Pennsylvania to California to Florida to Texas, the now 40-year-old Kerstetter has seen the best high school football in the country.
We recently interrupted Kerstetter’s film study — Westfield sits 9-0 in Texas’ largest classification heading into the playoffs, which start this weekend — for The Sentinel’s new “Catching Up With” series. He’s living in Houston with his wife, Maria, 10-year-old son Tyler, 5-year-old daughter Kylee, and their two dogs. Most of his extended family remains in central Pennsylvania.
Q: Can we get a comparison of football in Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Texas?
A: I’m going to lose my Northeast card, but while it used to be a no-brainer that the Big 3 (Texas, California and Florida) is the Big 3, Ohio and Pennsylvania could fight for spots 4 and 5. But as population has changed — the Coal Region isn’t what it used to be, steel mills aren’t the same — there’s just not as much [talent] as there was maybe 20 years ago. So I’d say you could make an argument Louisiana and maybe Georgia have surpassed [Pennsylvania and Ohio]. Having coached All-American games and Elite 11, you see talent from all around the country, and the rankings and draft picks of the last 10 years would back that up.
Q: How are the states different in terms of classifying football?
A: California never had an actual state championship game until 2006. They had section champs, which is equivalent to district champs [in Pennsylvania], so you had 21 or so section champs across the state, and they would vote for a state champion. [Now they have 20 section champs playing for a state title.]
Florida expanded from six classes to eight the year I got there (2011), but they were watering it down. We were Class 7A, but there were only 72 [Class 7A] schools in the whole state.
Football is king in Texas. You only play one home playoff game [if you’re the higher seed in the first round], and everything else is neutral. We’re playing in college and NFL stadiums a lot. If you truly love high school football, it’s a hell of an experience. Texas has six classes (Class 6A down to 1A), but the top three classes are broken into two divisions.
In Florida and California [like Pennsylvania], public and private schools are all together. In Texas, private schools are almost irrelevant. Only two [private] schools in the state are allowed to compete with public schools. The rest are in a completely different league. In California and Florida, private schools pay well, and they recruit. In Texas, the public schools have the good facilities, the talent and the coaching, so you don’t lose kids to private schools.
Q: Two local influences of yours are Bob Craig (of course), and current Milton Hershey boys basketball coach Mark Zerbe, who was an assistant football coach at Cedar Cliff when you played there. How did they influence you?
A: Zerbe was straight out of college, temperamental, loud, explosive and intense — all things I am — when he started coaching basketball at Lemoyne Middle School, and then he was a freshman [football] coach at Cedar Cliff. Dude would jump in, put on a helmet with no pads and go play guard for our scout team to give our defensive line a different look. It was crazy, but we knew he cared. I was doing the same thing for almost 10-15 years as a coach. I don’t have to do that anymore in Texas because there are so many assistant coaches, it’s unreal. But it was motivating to see somebody out there teaching you the game like that.
Coach Craig, my dad played for him, my brother played for him. We were running the same stuff at Cedar Cliff that my dad did. Schemes never changed. Everybody knew what Cedar Cliff was going to do, and the attitude was go ahead and stop us. We were going to be so good at it, so technically sound, that we would execute. Part of me took those lessons. But the other part of me said, “We gotta open up the playbook!” But there were certain lessons he taught you. He was good at keeping things in perspective. He liked to joke after a loss that there are a billion people in China who would never know the score. The point was well taken. A loss might hurt, but you only lost a football game.
Q: What’s your style as a coach?
A: For 17 years I’ve been a play-caller, an offensive coordinator or a head coach in all but three of those years. I’ve always been a person who likes multiple offenses. I’ve joked that I’m a hybrid between spread and pro style. I went no-huddle in 2008 and never left. But even though I’m no-huddle, I’ve never wanted to be 100 percent spread. I like being under center, taking a snap and handing it off and pounding the ball a bit, then getting heavy play-action, or jumping into five-wide and chucking it all over the field.
Q: While you’ve coached and trained a number of top-notch athletes (like Steve Smith, Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith, NFL WRs Jarvis Landry and Michael Thomas), how else do you keep busy, and what are your aspirations?
A: When I’m not busy coaching, I’m usually still around sports [as a trainer and track coach]. Otherwise I’m 100 percent busy with my family. My son plays soccer and my daughter is in gymnastics, and that is a joy to watch. Moving forward, I would love the opportunity to make the jump to coaching college, but if that doesn’t happen, I would love to be a head coach in high school again.
But that stuff is usually out of your control, and I know that. I can only do my best at the job I have and be grateful for the many opportunities I’ve been blessed with in the last 20-plus years. The experiences I’ve had all over the country have been memorable and nothing short of priceless.