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Tips for Rural Schools: Gridiron Success© July 2013
By Kevin Swift, Head Coach Gold Coast High School (OR)
In the summer of 1997, my family and I left the urban football world of Southern California for the rural football world of the Southern Oregon coast. My coaching world was being tipped upside down on me. I was leaving the world of:
· 60-player rosters
· 10 coaches on varsity level alone
· 30 minutes max travel for road games
· 2 to 3 lower level teams
For a world of:
· 20 to 40-player rosters
· 2 to 3 coaches in the whole program
· 3 to 7 hours average travel for road games
· No lower level teams
Needless to say, there were many more subtle differences that would keep my learning curve pretty steep. My first season as the Panthers head coach was a disastrous 0 and 9 campaign. The program has come a long way since that first year, including several undefeated seasons. We really got our program’s foundation set in 2003, after six years of hard work. Since 2003, the Panthers have played in 5 state title games, winning twice. We have captured 6 league titles and advanced to state playoffs in 9 consecutive years. I believe we have learned a couple of things that truly help us maintain success.
* Do not give up - stay the course
* Open the world - show them something different
* Baby steps - what do we need first and not everything at once
* Zero period - building athletes
* Food for thought and productivity - pregame meals, travel meals, food coolers
Do Not Give Up - Stay the Course
Nothing in life really worth obtaining should be easy to accomplish. Instant gratification in our world today has become the norm, yet this approach will not work when developing a rural football program. My first 6 years at Gold Beach truly tested my determination in accomplishing my goal. Living in the past and resisting change are staples in rural communities. When I arrived, I was expecting to immediately have a committed group of players. Instead I was told we do not lift year-round or very hard, we do not participate in spring ball, and we do not really participate in our own summer camp. Oh, and we didn’t win much either. During those first six years, we only had sporadic, at best, success. More often than not we were a game or two below a winning season and out of the playoffs. This resulted in great dissatisfaction from the community that was really not willing to listen to my ideas. I went on to survive several petitions to get rid of me and several letters to the local paper describing me as a “loser”. Thankfully, my administration did not bow to community pressure and the players began to show signs of change. Finally, at the end of a very successful 5 and 4 season in 2003, I had most of my players buying into my ideas for sustained success. Mind you now, my goals never changed and my offensive and defensive philosophies never changed. I never gave up and I stayed the course. So how did I finally bring about this buy in?
Open the World - Show Them Something Different
Since the day I arrived in Gold Beach, I had been preaching lifting year round, spring ball, and summer workouts. Needless to say, all this was met with resistance to change and the opinion that these things weren’t necessary to be successful. Since the early days, I had desired to take a group of players to Southern California, where I came from. The reason for the trip would be to show my players that programs actually did all those “crazy” things I was talking about.
The program I wished to show my players was Mater Dei High School, under the leadership of Bruce Rollinson. I was friends with several of his assistant coaches and at one time had interviewed with Bruce. For six summers, I had tried to make it work. The problem wasn’t financing, but getting 7 to 10 players to give up 8 days of their summer was the real challenge. In the summer of 2004, a group of seniors finally committed. What a trip - seven days of fun, sun, and football in south Orange County. The football days involved arriving in Santa Ana at Mater Dei High School at 7am to workout with the Monarchs varsity football players until noon. Our players discovered that what made the Monarchs different than the Panthers was their work ethic and camaraderie. On the fun days, we watched the Orange County Football All-Star game, visited several colleges, visited Knott’s Berry Farm, and I got to surf at San Onofre and Salt Creek in warm water again. The players came back with a new outlook on what I had been asking them to do since day one. It was my first group of Panthers that were “all in”. They had discovered that teams did work out and lift during summers and actually enjoyed it.
Baby Steps - What Is Your First Priority
Upon arriving at Gold Beach in 1997, I immediately noticed that much of what successful football programs have, the Panthers did not. No linemen sleds, no tackling sleds, no step over or other bags and most important, no real weight room. In a perfect world, upon my arrival, all these needs would have appeared immediately, right? This goes to show that it isn’t a perfect world we live in, so I had to prioritize. I believe most coaches experience this when taking on a new job. Well, I needed to make some decisions. What would be priority number one or in other words, what would the program's first “baby step” be? I chose developing a serious athletic weight room. I figured by spearheading a more developed weight room for all the school’s athletes would gain much needed support. So that was it, I spent the next four years pouring fundraising money into creating a wonderful, small school athletic weight room. While none of our opponents those first six years would really notice, we had laid the foundation of our program. It was my thinking that this had to be the first. Strength, power and speed would be vital to developing a solid program and the only way to ensure these qualities was to create an athletic weight room. The weight room I believe is even more important to a rural school because it can ultimately prevent injuries which could destroy a small school team’s chances for success.
Zero Period - Building Athletes
I’ve often have heard fellow coaches and administrators say they are unsuccessful because they have none or a low number of natural athletes. Well, with barely any elementary or middle school physical education and the onset of video games, our youth is not only un-athletic, but in general, unhealthy too. Here is what we did at Gold Beach: developed a zero period athletic training class. I convinced my district to allow me to teach an early class before the normal school day started. I had to agree to teach this class for free and open the class to any athletes, not just football players and it could not be mandatory. With a new and up to date weight room, the kids rallied to enroll, football players, other athletes, and general students. It began at 7 AM and kids had to get there on their own.
Now being rural and having some kids come as far as 40 miles, we had to work through some procedural issues concerning attendance. The student/athletes all receive a grade and a course or class credit for an entire year. The class involves a full year. The class involves a variety of activities and lessons. We cover all the latest in strength, training and speed work outs. We go over nutrition, leadership qualities and more in an effort to make them superior student/ athletes. This class has made huge differences for our student/athletes in our program as you would suspect. However, a very valuable side effect has also come out of this class. The kids workout, shower, get a school breakfast and head to classes. They arrive to their first academic class awake and alert, not still trying to wake up as many of our other students are trying to do in their first couple of academic periods. If a zero period will not work in your community, I strongly suggest you attempt to put it in as an elective offered early in the academic day. Zero periods offer major benefit for all athletes, not just football, because it doesn’t conflict with specific sports’ after school practices.
Food For Thought & Productivity
Being new to small school rural football when I arrived at Gold Beach 16 years ago, my biggest mistake was not keeping my players’ gas tanks full when on the road. During the first few years, we lost several games late in the second half. After about 3 years, I met with our bus driver to discuss the upcoming road games. She suggested we leave 30 minutes earlier than I planned in order for the team to get a meal on the way to wherever we were headed. She thought this would help their performance. I thought to myself, she discovered a problem I had overlooked that was hurting our end results. I immediately gave her a huge hug. Then the question became how best to fill up a teenage boy’s gas tank to perform at an optimum level athletically. Home games were incredible easy, because upon by arrival I started a Parents’ Home Game Meal Committee. The parents would fix wonderful and nutritional meals and compete with each other to outdo the parent group from the week before. Our road games were where we had to make some serious adjustments. There is a saying in rural Oregon, “if you can win on the road, you’ve got a pretty good team”, so we made some changes to how we would travel. Pre-season and league games under 4 hours away involved giving ourselves an extra 45 minutes of road time to stop at get a hot meal a couple of hours before the game. Our wonderful and sports crazy cafeteria ladies would also feed the team just before we got on the buses to depart for these games.
On games over 4 hours, we always seem to have a couple of marathons every year, we followed the same routine as other road games but instead of stopping once we might stop twice. We also would put two coolers of fruits, lunch meats and cheeses together with some crackers, water and other drinks in locker room before games so they could graze right up to game time. We would do this also for all playoff games home or away. These adjustments to feeding our players made a huge difference for us when traveling. Our kids are warriors when their tanks are full. One last bit of advice is to check their backpacks when they get on the bus. Sugar kills! We allow no candy or sports drinks on the bus, only nutritional snacks are allowed. There is nothing as devastating to a high school football team than the lows after the sugar highs that usually hit in the fourth quarter.
There is obviously a lot more that has gone into maintaining our program over the years, but after much review, we feel these five tools are the foundation for the Panthers of Gold Beach's success. Thank you for your time and I hope these tools can be of use to your respective programs.
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