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AFM Magazine

Getting Big Results at Small Schools

by: David Srinivasan
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What are the keys to building winning programs in schools so small that just fielding a team can be a challenge? In this, part two of AFM’s series about how some of the smallest high schools in the country have built dominant programs, we examine how Alcoa High School (TN) Coach Gary Rankin and Harlan Community High School (IA) Coach Curt Bladt have established winning traditions and taken home multiple championships.

Alcoa, Tennessee, population 7,744, sits in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains, just north of Maryville. As its name implies, the town’s industrial heritage is in aluminum. But it is high school football that forms a stronger bond among its residents. The Alcoa High Tornadoes, who count NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann among their alumni, have won a total of 11 state titles overall, including the last six in a row. They are a central part of the town’s character and spirit.

Head Coach Gary Rankin, who’s entering his fifth season at Alcoa, believes that a small town is the best coaching environment. “It’s an ideal place for football – a great place to coach and a great place to play,” he said. “It’s one of those small towns that’s right out of ‘Friday Night Lights.’ You see the kindergarteners wearing school shirts. The expectations and pride within the community for our team are huge.”

The history of winning at Alcoa creates its own advantages. “We have a lot of good athletes at Alcoa,” according to Rankin. “A lot of the parents played at the high school and a lot of our coaches have been here a while. We’re not in a situation where our coaches are looking to leave.”

Besides continuity, another advantage for Rankin is very strong participation. Despite having only 500 students in the school, the Tornadoes field full squads every season. “In the four years I’ve been there, we’ve averaged 80-85 boys on the team. When you’re talking 250 boys in a school, having a third of them playing for the team is pretty high,” said Rankin. “We have a lot of kids coming out to participate on our team. Having these numbers in a small school is certainly an advantage. We’ve even been able to platoon.”

It’s the winning tradition at Alcoa that drives the desire for more students to be part of the football program. “Being on the football team is an important thing,” said Rankin. “It’s not just being a starter or all-state. It’s common-sense. You are going to have more participation because of the winning. It’s a hard game, so if you aren’t getting the rewards on the field, it’s hard to put up with the challenges.”

Beyond upholding their championship tradition from year-to-year, Rankin believes that the Tornadoes have an additional responsibility to the community and to their families to do well in school and be good role models. In that, he has the school’s full support. “Our school board and our superintendent understand the importance from a coaching standpoint about making kids do the right thing and get good grades.” One of the keys to small town success is discipline and working year-round with the student athletes. “We work our kids extremely hard and we work them all year,” said Rankin. The parents are all for letting their kids invest that kind of time. We run a very disciplined program and it’s not only about winning. We expect the kids to do well in school.”

To say that Alcoa is run-oriented would be an understatement. When the Tornadoes won their sixth consecutive state title last season, they made just one passing attempt. “We’re probably a little old school,” Rankin said. “We run a lot of I-formation, a lot of power football. We’ll branch out and get as multiple as our quarterback will allow us to do, but we run the ball and try to stop the run on defense. We’ll be a little more versatile depending on the abilities of our quarterback.”
For Gary Rankin, there’s more to success than just winning. “If you look at a program that has long-term success, you’ll see a lot of discipline,” he said. “It’s more than just football. Winning starts it and keeps it going, and having continuity in the coaching staff is a tremendous plus. We try to take that guy who’s average and make him a little bit better. If you can make a player above-average, you’re on to something. We think the star players will take care of themselves. You can do a lot with a kid from the time he’s a freshman with strength-training and coaching.”

Like Alcoa, Harlan Community High School in western Iowa has established a tradition not only of winning, but of dominating opponents. Last season, Coach Curt Bladt’s Cyclones captured their 12th Iowa 3A state championship, the 11th under Bladt, and in the process outscored their opponents 565-86 while running up a 14-0 record.
As you would imagine, the Cyclones are front-page news in Harlan, population 5,282. Coach Bladt is a larger-than-life figure in the community, having coached at the school for over 30 years.

As in most other successful small-school programs, Harlan’s continuity of coaching staff has been a critical factor in establishing their tradition of winning. “Our coaching staff changes very little from year-to-year,” said Bladt. “Everyone knows what page we are on and what to do in preparation for each game. Our staff has been together for over 30 years in most cases. The newest member of the staff would be my son, who has been on staff for two years. Each member of the staff is responsible for his area and has ownership in the outcome of our efforts. This is not a one-man show, but rather a group effort.” This mirror’s Harlan’s school slogan: “Joined as one, we get the job done.”

The Cyclones employ a base I offense, and the team usually uses a 40 front on defense. “We do not try to feature one individual, but rather try to take advantage of the players’ individual talents,” Bladt said.

Another of the keys to Bladt’s success is getting everyone involved. “We don’t give up on anybody,” he said. “The lowly sophomore may someday grow into your best player if given the opportunity. We try hard to find a place for a senior who has been with us all three years of high school and maybe isn’t the best player to find a place to contribute. Special teams can work for you to get the senior a chance to play and contribute and be a part of the team.”

Declining enrollment looms as a future challenge for Harlan and rural farming communities throughout the Midwest. Bladt’s pool of players currently averages 70 to 90 in the top three grades, but the future is unsure because of smaller class sizes everywhere in rural Iowa. “Enrollment has definitely gone down over the last decade,” said Mike Oeffner, sports editor of the Harlan Tribune. “In Iowa, Des Moines and the surrounding area west of Des Moines are growing. The farming communities are getting less and less.”

Oeffner has seen the Harlan program evolve and adapt over the years. “For a long time, Harlan football was all about three yards and a cloud of dust,” he said. “In 2001, we had a quarterback named Joel Osborn who later played at Northwest Missouri State. He took over the starting job as a sophomore, and he set all kinds of school records. They still run the football well at Harlan, but they are now much more prone to throw it. They are still known as a very physical football team. Coach Bladt took a little convincing to see that football was changing and that he needed to change with it. But once he saw how much fun it could be, he was all on board with it.”

Oeffner feels the Harlan players have developed a will to win. “There’s a tradition in place. Kids whose fathers played for Coach Bladt now want to play and win for him,” he said. “These kids don’t want to be on the team that fails to make the playoffs. For a long time if they didn’t get to the state semis, they considered it a lost season. They don’t want to be the team that ends it. They really have a tremendous belief, no matter the obstacles. There’s not a cockiness, just an incredible will to win.”

Expect the winning ways to continue at Harlan. “Tradition is a starting point,” said Bladt. “But if you can see you have a chance to win, it fuels the fire for them to know that winning is possible against big odds.”


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