For nearly three decades, Newport Harbor High football players have rung a bell while leaving the locker room on their way to the playing field, a rite inspired by legendary former Sailors Coach Jeff Brinkley to motivate his players during a critical time in the 1992 season.

Brinkley unveiled the bell to the Sailors before their Sea View League clash with up-and-coming parochial school powerhouse Santa Margarita in Week 9 – a CIF-Southern Section playoff berth was at stake. The Tars responded with a 27-16 upset victory over the Eagles and went on to the CIF Division 4 championship game, the school’s first CIF title-game appearance in 50 years.

The bell had been in need of repair and refurbishing, a task completed by current Newport Harbor football coach Peter Lofthouse, who was able to save and upgrade it, and has renamed it the Brinkley Bell. A special tribute will accompany the bell on a plaque.

“This bell is the featured piece in our locker room and it has been (restored) and renamed to honor Coach Jeff Brinkley,” Lofthouse said. “This bell has been swung by every Newport Harbor High Sailor since 1992.”

Brinkley arrived at Newport Harbor in 1986 and the Sailors reached the CIF quarterfinals in four of five years from 1987 to 1991, but had not yet climbed the proverbial hump to the semifinals or finals. In 1992, Irvine was the Sea View League football king, while Santa Margarita was playing its first year in the league, 14 years prior to joining the Trinity League with Servite, JSerra, Orange Lutheran, St. John Bosco and Mater Dei.

Earlier in ’92, the Sailors stubbed their toe twice, losing to Back Bay rival Corona del Mar, 17-0, in Week 5 and Irvine, 28-17, in Week 7. After Brinkley introduced the bell and the Sailors shocked Santa Margarita at Davidson Field, Newport shut out Saddleback, 22-0, in the regular-season finale to clinch a playoff spot with an 8-2 record and a runner-up finish in the Sea View League.

What followed has lived in Back Bay football lore for decades.

The inspired Sailors trounced La Verne’s Damien in the first round of the CIF Division 4 playoffs, 31-0, and knocked off Rialto’s Rubidoux, 28-14, in the quarterfinals to reach the semifinals for the first time since the CIF playoffs were expanded in the modern era.

The CIF Division 4 semifinals set up the historic Battle of the Bay II against the rival Sea Kings. The supercharged Sailors rallied to beat Corona del Mar, 28-21, to reach their first CIF championship game since Hal Sheflin’s Tars in 1942.

The year 1992 remains the only season in which two Battle of the Bay contests were played. The Sailors lost to Irvine in the CIF title game, but the breakthrough season remains a Tar Ball focal point and the beginning of the Brinkley Bell.

Newport Harbor football players have been ringing it ever since.

“Coach Brinkley was so meticulous in his ways to motivate kids, it was just insane,” said Matt Burns, a standout junior guard on the ’92 Sailors and now a physiology and biology teacher and surfing coach at the school. “Going up against Santa Margarita – and they had the Finneran brothers (Brad and Brian, who played in the NFL) – we had no chance in hell to win it. But Brinkley came into the pregame locker room, and we’re all watching the highlight video, and he pulled out this bell, with the idea of every time we come in and go out, and after a victory, we ring the bell – and it’s been done by every Sailor since ’92.”

Burns also served as an assistant football coach under Brinkley for 20 years, until Brinkley retired in 2018. Brinkley guided Newport Harbor to eight CIF championship games in 32 years, and captured three section titles, finishing with a record of 244-130-3 and six league championships.

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