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AFM’s Annual State Champions Roundupby: AFM Editorial Staff
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State Champ Coaches’ Profile
What are some of the reasons for your success? (multiple answers)
Coaching Facts: Work Ethic
“Teams that are successful over time all have common denominators like planning, preparation, practice planning, equipment, look, attitude, coaching, support, etc. in common. It matters not what size a school you are, but how you approach the game.”
Winning a state championship is the crowning achievement for many coaches. For others, it’s routine. Either way, it’s become a yardstick for measuring high school coaching success.
Each year, AFM conducts a survey of head coaches of state champion teams. While the statistics we gather, particularly the data regarding teams’ style of play, are certainly interesting, it’s the comments and personal stories we receive that reveal the most about what it means to win a state championship.
State champions take home trophies for their trophy cases, banners to hang at their facilities and rings for their players and coaches. But to many head coaches, the most valuable rewards are pride in their team, their school and their community and the satisfaction of knowing that their hard work paid off.
What are the key ingredients of a state championship? One common theme is sacrifice. It could be players putting in extra time in the weight room or accepting position changes that benefit the team more than themselves. Or, it could be coaches putting in additional hours in film study. Either way, winners seem to be more dedicated and make more sacrifices than also-rans.
Another recurring theme is support. Head coaches know that the support of not just players and coaches but school administration, parents, boosters and the community at large are key factors in winning a championship.
Motivation can be an important ingredient. We heard about teams that wanted to win a championship for a coach who was set to retire. There were also first-year coaches that compelled their teams to win by providing a fresh dose of motivation. We heard about schools from economically depressed areas that were determined to give their communities reasons to celebrate. Several coaches had stories of their teams overcoming hardships that generated extra motivation.
Obviously, there is no single factor that can guarantee a state title. Rather, it’s a combination of motivated players, dedicated coaches, well-though-out offensive and defensive schemes, hard work, motivation and sometimes luck that are most often responsible for delivering a championship trophy. That’s what we learned from coaches that rose to championship heights in 2013.
When hit with unexpected hardship, teams either rise to meet the challenge or fail in the face of adversity. For Todd Miller and his Pine Creek High team, overcoming multiple challenges made their 2013 Colorado 4A championship even more meaningful.
Pine Creek was near the epicenter of the Black Forest wildfires that devastated the area north of Colorado Springs in June. Within the district, 60 homes were lost to the blaze, including those of several players. On top of that hardship, one of the coaches’ wives was diagnosed with cancer.
Miller said keeping the focus on football was tough but needed in the early going. “We tried to keep life as normal as possible,” he said. “We went about our football stuff as best we could while dealing with kids who lost their entire house when they had friends right down the street from them and their house hadn’t been touched. There was some remorse and asking ‘Why me?’ as well as ‘Why not us?’ but it brought us together and gave us a purpose and a foundation of where to start from and play for something more than ourselves.”
It was a summer that Miller had hoped would galvanize a program that averaged 11.5 wins during a four-year span from 2008 through 2011 and reached a state final game. But, after their first two games, Pine Creek was 1-1 and Miller feared they might repeat the 4-6 record that they had the prior year.
“We played really poorly in our second game – we had heavy legs and no heart – and we were scared to death about who we were,” Miller said. “We knew we had good kids but we didn’t really know how tough and resilient they actually were. We thought the fires brought us together - and they did - but we needed more.”
Miller decided that they needed more intense practices. “We wanted to push them to the point in practice that the games seemed easy. We didn’t hold anything back. I think that helped unify us as much as anything. For two weeks, they hated me so much that they wanted to go out and take it out on the other team.”
After a hard fought loss in their third game, the coaching staff had a plan to inspire the team and turn the season around. They ordered plain black jerseys and printed “One Team” on the nameplate to go with special numbering and a Black Forest patch. The staff kept it a secret and had the team go through warm-ups for their next game before returning to the locker room to unveil the surprise. “We didn’t really know if they would be ready in time so we had to keep it quiet,” Miller said. “But when they saw them and put the jerseys on they were a different team emotionally.”
“There was liberation in the ‘One Team’ aspect. We could piggy back on all the hardships and get into one, singular focus. We played for the community, our parents, and our high school and it wasn’t about just one person.”
It also produced a 42-7 victory and kicked off a run where the offense averaged 41 points after scoring just 43 in the first three weeks combined. The defense followed suit and only gave up 11 points per game in their remaining games – 11 wins without a loss and a state title.
The ‘One Team’ jerseys were used twice in the playoffs and will not be used in 2014. Miller said they were truly the identity of that group, celebrating their moment in time and overcoming adversity.
Codding accepted the challenge of starting the football program from scratch at brand new Ridgeview High School in Central Oregon in advance of the 2012 season. He was an assistant at nearby Redmond High the year prior to the school opening which gave him the opportunity to make sure everything at the new school was being set up to his standards.
Above all, he focused on the weight room. “We put our investment in the weight room and we really have the best in the state,” Codding said. He gave credit to his strength and conditioning coach, Guy Millington, for ordering the equipment, setting up the room to be a place that kids want to be in, and writing a program that works. “We are not blessed with really big or really fast kids here,” Codding said. “We have to make them what we need them to be and they have to be willing to put in the work.”
After putting together the first team in school history, Codding shared his belief that the fledgling team would be winners. “I stood there with a room of kids that were fresh off the junior varsity field and without a senior class and told them they were going to win” he said. “They bought in and we made them believe it. We had a belief and we had hard working kids.”
Despite having a group of players who had never played for Ridgeview and who had never played varsity football, the team finished a respectable 6-4 in their opening season.
Looking ahead to 2013, Codding realized that he needed to shore up his defense in order to take the team to the next level. “Offensively we run the fly offense and that is all based on deception. I can teach that, but I needed help on defense,” he said. “We added a new defensive coordinator and another defensive coach who solidified things that we had worked on the year before. That side of the ball was easily our greatest area of improvement.”
Perhaps the biggest boost to the young program came when John Marshall arrived. Marshall had retired to the area after 40 years of coaching. He won a National Championship as an assistant at USC in 1978 and Super Bowls while coaching linebackers for the 49ers. From 1997-2010 he was the defensive coordinator for the 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, and finally the Oakland Raiders. He became an asset that most high school programs will never experience.
“He reached out and offered to help me out when he first retired here,” Codding said. “He is a mentor for us and coaches our coaches. He helps set our defensive plan and has worked with the kids on psychology and mental preparation for the game.”
It all came together for Codding and the Ridgeview Ravens, somewhat miraculously, in only their second year of existence. The team allowed 48 less points overall while playing four additional games in 2013, going 13-1 and capturing the state 4A championship.
It was part of a process that started with believing, moved to working hard, and was pushed to the finish line with smart personnel choices.
Going out on top
In Lenahan’s first year at Plymouth his team finished 0-6-1. But the next season, Plymouth won the state championship. Lenahan has had 57 and 46-game winning streaks and 10 undefeated seasons. He retires with an overall record of 356-70-1. For the decade 2000-2009, Plymouth’s record was an astonishing 106-3.
“Each of the 20 state championships has been different,” said Lenahan. “But each one – from 1972 to 2013 and the years in between – have been special. This year our seniors rose to the occasion and showed special leadership. There was pressure on all the players and coaches when I announced before the season that this would be my last team. Everyone wanted to go out a winner.”
A disciple of the Delaware Wing T, Lenahan got to know the architect of this offense, legendary coach Tubby Raymond. “We’ve run the Delaware Wing-T since 1971 and visited with Coach Raymond and his staff a number of times,” said Lenahan. “We use the basic team concepts of the Wing-T with two tight ends and lots of misdirection.”
Part of the reason for Plymouth’s success is their preparation. “We pay attention to detail and want to be as prepared as well as we can for our opponent, both offensively and defensively, and excute as effectively as we can,” Lenahan commented. “On both sides of the ball, it comes down to our execution. On defense, we’ve been using a base 4-4 for decades. Offensively, we were on a roll for part of the season by going seven games without commiting a turnover.”
Plymouth has also been blessed by not having many coaching changes among Lenahan’s assistants. In fact, two of his assistant coaches have been with him since the mid 1980’s. “I think that a good portion of our success has been the fact that there hasn’t been many coaching changes in the staff,” Lenahan said. “The kids then know what to expect from our coordinators and position coaches. The other thing that has really helped us is being consistent in just about everything we do – dealing with the kids every day, having structured practices, and the same routine.”
Lenahan’s basic philosophy starts and ends with his athletes. “I think it’s important for every coach to make football important for the kids,” said Lenahan. “That’s done by showing them you care. If they do, they will buy into your system. Always be there for the kids and teach them values and believing in themselves. There’s no easy way to be successful – hard work is at the core of success.”
Lenahan coached the fathers of nine players on last fall’s team. Going out on top, he is looking forward to his retirement. “I’ll be coming to all the games this fall, but I’m really looking forward to spending time with my wife and family. This will be the first fall I’ve had to completely enjoy with my wife and not have to worry about practices, gameplans and how we execute on Friday nights.”
Mike Neubeiser, Northwest High School (MD)
If it were not for losing a game that they should have won, Northwest High likely would not have celebrated a 2013 Maryland Class 4A championship, proving that sometimes losses are blessings in disguise.
After a 6-1 start to the season, head coach Mike Neubeiser said that his team looked past Clarksburg High and fell, 14-13. It was a turning point in the season that forced changes to the lineup. The challenges helped push a program that went 1-9 just two years prior, returned just five starters entering the year, and was an underdog every week after losing to Clarksburg to the top spot in the state.
Neubeiser said that it was two primary changes that the staff made during the season that made the difference. “After that second loss, we took a broad look at our kids and evaluated them individually. There were a couple of major changes we made to take advantage of their strengths,” he said.
The first change came on defense. “We had an outside linebacker who was really difficult to block when he was rushing but just wasn’t getting it done in coverage so we decided we would send him on every single play, no matter what,” Neubesier said. “Instead of asking him to do something he wasn’t good at, we tapped his strength and just sent him.”
The second decision was on offense and one that Neubesier said should have been made sooner. “We had been shuffling our offensive line the first few weeks and we finally ended up with a center that was 165 pounds,” he said. “At first we were afraid to put him out there but he just kept proving to be the best player for the position in practice. We hit our stride once he got in there and settled the line. He was tremendous in the playoffs and I don’t think we would have done it without making that move.”
After the changes were made, the Northwest team then was able to take advantage of other teams being overconfident against them. “Losing to Clarksburg helped us look at ourselves more critically but it also changed how people looked at us and they didn’t take us as seriously,” Neubeiser said. In their next game, they upset powerhouse Quince Orchard and began their run to the championship. “Quince Orchard didn’t take us as seriously as they maybe would have if we had won handily against Clarksburg. Winning that game gave us the momentum. We kind of went on a roll and won out.”
In their first playoff game, against a Gaithersburg team that they had previously lost to, Northwest pulled off another upset, 36-7. A rematch against Quince Orchard was next and a hard-fought 28-20 victory was the result. They cruised in the state semifinals and championship.
Neubeiser said motivation was easy but will have to change entering 2014. “We played the underdog card. It is so much easier as a coach. We didn’t have to push them very hard,” he said. “I suppose the real test will come in the coming months when we have to figure out what the right buttons are to push this season.”
But the missing ingredient from the school’s football program prior to Brent Bruckner being named head coach was a culture of winning. He spent four years as an assistant before getting his chance to steer the ship in a new direction. “It was an evolution, no question,” Bruckner said. “When we started, there were a few kids that would work hard and do the right things, but not enough of them to make a drastic difference to the results. It just wasn’t enough and we needed change.”
One challenge was the small size of the school. Doniphan-Trumball is a Class C2 school with a district-wide enrollment of 479. Its senior class graduated 29 students in 2013.
Bruckner instituted change on several levels. “One change was to focus on youth and get players accustomed to the level of effort that we required. Another change was to make the weight room a place to build football players and not guys that could just lift weights. The third change was to inject pride into what was happening with the program throughout at the school.”
The new course did not take hold immediately as the team was 14-21 in his first four years. “When we first started to make our changes, there wasn’t a lot of interest. Some thought that it was crazy - that it was too much. I talked about winning state and, even as I said the words, they felt like a distant dream,” he said. “Buying into the process and improving every day was a huge part of it. We built it in the weight room and that was part of a shift because of what we did on offense and defense and so the weights had to change, too.”
Bruckner said the team has to adjust what it does schematically based on what kids come out. When he first took over the team had a quarterback that was 5-foot-6 and they ran a lot of zone-read while the last two years they had a pocket passer who was able to throw it downfield more frequently – even setting state offensive records for their classification – with an up-tempo, no-huddle attack.
Eventually, the foundation was built for a 10-3 semifinal appearance in 2012 and the 13-0 state championship of 2013. For the 33-year old, it was a decade in the making and the trophy was tangible evidence that his mission to change the culture of the program and, by extension, the school, was a success. “Confidence in the school and a pride in being there wasn’t there before. Now you can see that and people are proud to say they go to school here and they play sports here.”
The pride of winning the state title is something that Bruckner believes can continue to infiltrate the school. He is stepping aside as the head coach for a seat in the principal office where he hopes he can keep effecting positive change throughout the school. “I think that I can push this culture of success throughout the halls and make this place very special.”
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