PERSEVERANCE AT ITS BEST
EVERY COACH WANTS TO WIN, BUT SOME SEASONS, WHEN TRAGEDY STRIKES OR BUDGETS GET TIGHT, WINNING ISN’T THE ONLY THING.
COACHES LEAD IN MANY WAYS, BUT PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT IS THE WAY IN WHICH A COACH SETS AN EXAMPLE FOR HIS PLAYERS. IN OUR COVER FEATURE, WE SHARE STORIES OF FOUR COACHES WHO SHOWED LEADERSHIP IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY.
HIGHLAND PARK (TEXAS) COACH RANDY ALLEN SHOWED SUPPORT FOR A MEMBER OF HIS STAFF, BLAKE SPIVEY, WHO LOST HIS 2-YEAR-OLD CHILD IN A DROWNING ACCIDENT BEFORE THE START OF THE 2015 SEASON. ALLEN TAUGHT HIS PLAYERS HOW TO GRIEVE AS A FAMILY.
PAULDING COUNTY (GA.) COACH SCOTT HAMILTON REMAINED COMPOSED AND FOCUSED IN THE FACE OF A TUMULTUOUS PERIOD FOR HIS SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION WHILE WORKING UNDER THREE PRINCIPALS AND FOUR ATHLETIC DIRECTORS IN A SPAN OF fiVE YEARS.
CORONA CENTENNIAL (CALIF.) COACH MARK LOGAN HAD THE FORESIGHT TO UNDERSTAND HOW A SHIFT IN THE HOST SITE FOR THE CALIFORNIA STATE CHAMPIONSHIP WOULD IMPACT HIS TEAM’S BUDGET 12 MONTHS OUT, AND STARTED RAISING THE EXTRA $50,000 HIS TEAM WOULD NEED FOR THE 2015 SEASON.
BRANDON HIGH (FLA.) COACH DEAN EYCHNER TOOK OVER A 1-9 PROGRAM FOUR YEARS AGO, AND ASKED HIS PLAYERS TO TRUST HIM AS HE DEMANDED MORE. THIS YEAR, THE TEAM WAS 9-2 WITH A PLAYOFF WIN.
A FAMILY GRIEVES AS ONE
Clockwise, from left: 1. Coaches Randy Allen (front left) and Blake Spivey pose with players Jack Kozmetsky, Luke Blanton, Matt Gahm, J.T. Dooley, Harrison Murski and Brock Bennett.
HIGHLAND PARK (TX) TEAM SUPPORTS ASSISTANT
THE HIGHLAND Park (Texas) football community rallied around assistant coach Blake Spivey last season after the coach lost his 2-year-old daughter to a pool accident. For Spivey, football served as therapy in his time of mourning.
Highland Park head coach Randy Allen was the first familiar face Spivey saw in the hospital as he sat in the waiting room following a pool accident last August that left his daughter, Hannah, on life support.
Spivey, a running backs coach under Allen, needed support in that moment and several more after, particularly when he received word that his daughter was being care-flighted to Baylor University Hospital
“The only thing we could do was pray and be there for Blake,” Allen said. “We met him when they were transferring Hannah, and he was all alone. The mother [Emily] was with Hannah, and Blake was with us. We stayed with him.”
Hannah died a few days later. Allen continued to provide support for his assistant coach, wife and two daughters (Molly and Claire). He also realized he needed to deliver a message to his team.
“The message was we’re family,” Allen said. “When adversity strikes one member, it affects all of us. When somebody is hurting, we come to their defense. We expressed our love and appreciation for Blake and his family. Our whole community supported us.”
2. Highland Park fans observe a balloon release in honor of Hannah Spivey.
The entire Highland Park football team attended the funeral for Hannah Spivey. Three bus-loads of players – 120 players and 18 assistants – made the trip to St. Pius X Church in East Dallas.
“Coach Allen brought all the guys over, and it meant so much to me,” Spivey said. “It was the Saturday before the first game, so being there showed support. One of my position players gave me good advice because he’d dealt with tragedy in his life.
“The thing I learned is that men and women grieve differently,” Spivey said. “It hit my wife all at once. Coach Allen gave me books to read on how to deal with loss, and they said that men have the tendency to push it off and try to be the stable person in the family. That happened throughout the football season. I didn’t want to disappoint the players, coaches and community. Part of my therapy was getting back to work.”
AN OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT
3. Randy Allen stands before his players during a moment of silence. DAN GUTTENPLAN BRAD BRADLEY
The Highland Park community showed its support for the Spivey family in a number of ways.
While Hannah was in the hospital, a friend of the family created a GoFundMe account to help with the expenses. In four days, more than $60,000 was donated.
During the first game of the season, the Highland Park fans took part in a balloon release in honor of Hannah. The Highland Park players wore the initials, “HS,” as a decal on their helmets, as did one of Highland’s Park’s opponents, Richardson Pearce. After the season, the city of Highland Park honored Hannah in a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Blake spoke about Hannah to the crowd. Emily, Molly and Claire turned on the Christmas tree lights, and the football team joined the choir in a rendition of “Silent Night.”
“I had an emotional letdown at the end of the football season,” Spivey said. “I tried to be strong through the football season. From the beginning to the end, the community showed so much support for me and my family. We didn’t have any financial worries as far as the funeral expenses. It wasn’t just Coach Allen, but he was particularly supportive.”
CALM IN THE FACE OF A STORM
Paulding County coach Scott Hamilton (wearing a red shirt and holding up one finger) led his team to its best record since 2003 despite a high turnover rate in the school’s administrative office.
HAMILTON (GA) KEEPS PAULDING COUNTY ON COURSE
PAULDING County (Ga.) coach Scott Hamilton has seen enough turmoil around him to know that sharing his frustration with his team is never the best option. He preaches “control what you can control.”
Hamilton has learned not to flinch when he hears he’s going to have a new boss. That’s because he’s had seven new bosses – three principals and four athletic directors – in his five seasons as head coach.
Hamilton has ignored the chaos around him to keep his program moving in a positive direction. Last fall, the team went 7-3 – its best record since 2003.
“We have to reinvent the wheel every year,” Hamilton said. “Each principal and athletic director has different ways they want things done. It’s like shooting a moving target. We never know what the budget is going to be. We never know if there’s going to be any money at all. It makes it hard to build for the future when everything changes every year.”
While the rate of turnover has been excessive at the administrative level at Paulding County over the last five years, Hamilton has been able to keep his staff intact. That is due in part to his ability to insulate his coaches and players from the uncertainty around them.
“Each year, the way the school hires is a little different,” Hamilton said. “Guys are here more for the people than the football. The coaches feel that way, and we try to create a culture where we control what we can control.”
Hamilton’s approach has paid dividends for his players. Wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden and lineman Vince Clark will be signing college scholarships. Gandy-Golden, who hauled in 65 catches for 1,083 yards and four touchdowns last season, has offers from Elon, Kennesaw State, Liberty and Samford. Hamilton said two more players may have the opportunity to sign scholarship offers as well.
“It was the best season we had in over a decade after all the things that went on,” Hamilton said. “When I talk to the kids, I tell them, ‘Nobody guarantees or promises you anything. Control what you can control, and you’ll get better.’ They showed up to work every day. We’ve had plenty of adversity and we get better and better each year.”
A TRAGIC OFFSEASON
Paulding County coach Scott Hamilton prayed with Nicholas Wright just a few days before his former quarterback died in a car accident. DAN GUTTENPLAN MICHELLE SAMPLES
Hamilton and the Paulding community was devastated by a tragedy in June 2015 when former Paulding County quarterback Nicholas Wright died in a car accident just months before the start of his senior year. His girlfriend, Janeal Priester, was driving the car, which included one other passenger, who survived.
“He was 17 years old, and we saw each other that Sunday,” Hamilton said. “We were speaking at church, and we talked about how he got saved at a camp the year before. We were talking Wednesday, and he got killed in that wreck.”
Wright had agreed to make the transition from quarterback to linebacker for his senior season.
“The program was in disarray when he got here, and he kept us competitive,” Hamilton said. “He agreed to go to linebacker because we had another kid ready to play quarterback. He was looking forward to his senior year. It was tumultuous. Besides losing him, his girlfriend – our team manager – was killed. She was one of the first people in her family to go to college. It was bad.”
WINNING: AN UNEXPECTED COST
USA Today High School Sports All-USA Coach of the Year Mark Logan
CENTENNIAL (CA) FORCED TO RAISE $60,000 ON SHORT NOTICE
The Centennial Corona (Calif.) football team had only 45 miles to travel for each of its five state title appearances between 2000 and 2014. When Centennial coach Mark Logan learned his team would have to travel 430 miles in 2015, he started saving.
The California Interscholastic Federation changed the location of its state championship games in 2015, marking the first time that all state-title games were hosted in Northern California. Corona is about 40 miles south of Los Angeles, so it helped that Logan received word almost a year in advance.
As the head coach of a perennial state championship contender, he decided to earmark a fundraising account specifically for the potential travel expenses his team of 125 players might incur if it played for a state championship.
“We knew if we had to raise funds in a short amount of time, we couldn’t raise it that quickly,” Logan said. “We did our normal Bingo fundraisers and things like that, and earmarked it for the state championship.”
Centennial athletic director Bill Gunn estimated that the Centennial’s travel expenses for the state championship game against De La Salle at Sacramento State came in around $50,000. The team traveled with 126 players, 100-plus band members, 40 coaches and support staff and approximately 30 cheerleaders.
The CIF-State office covered half of those expenses, and the Corona-Norco Unified School District agreed to lend some assistance, as did parents and members of the community.\The Centennial football program’s last overnight trip was in 2008, when the Huskies journeyed up to Fresno Clovis West. The program turned down offers to play teams from Northern California and other states in recent years due to the expense.
The cost of travel was so high due in part to the fact that Centennial football coach Matt Logan does not make cuts to his roster. Players that tryout and follow the rules get to be a part of the program. Logan does not choose a selected portion of the roster for long trips.
“When we pull up kids from a certain part of the program, we want them all in,” Logan said. “Everybody is important. Everybody travels.”
Centennial traveled with a chaperone, and assistant coaches were assigned to their specific position groups. Centennial fell to De La Salle, 28-21.
From left, Tanner McKee, Mark Logan and Anthony Cataloano DAN GUTTENPLAN TRE ANTHONY
COACH OF THE YEAR
Following the 2015 season, Logan was named USA Today High School Sports All-USA coach of the Year.
Logan, 49, coached Centennial to a 14-1 record, the No. 7 spot in the Super 25 football rankings, a second consecutive Pac-5 title and a runner-up finish in state Open Division. He has taken Centennial to 10 CIF Southern Section titles since 2000. He won his 200th game last season and boasts an overall record of 211-46 in 19 seasons.
When asked to reflect on the secret to winning state championships at a public school, he told USA Today, “The kids who come here know the expectations and obviously want to compete and that’s all we ask of them. Do the work, do what we ask and we compete every week. I always say, ‘We may get beat, but we always compete.’ I don’t care how tall they are, how fast they are, how big they are. We just want good football players.”
Although Centennial’s top recruits were rated as three-star athletes, the team competed for a state championship due to its depth. Players from last year’s team will attend Washington, Cal, Stanford, Arizona and Boise State.
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM
Brandon High coach Dean Eychner DAN GUTTENPLAN BILL WARD
EYCHNER LEADS A BRANDON (FL) RESURGENCE
DEAN EYCHNER took over as head coach of a struggling Brandon High (Fla.) football team in 2012 knowing full well the program needed an overhaul. Four years later, that overhaul appears well under way.
Eychner’s record speaks for itself. The Brandon High football program has seen nothing but progress since he took over as head coach.
The Eagles went 1-9 in 2012, 3-7 in 2013, 7-3 in 2014 and 9-2 in 2015. Last year’s team was the first Brandon squad to win a postseason game since 1985. The Eagles’ season ended in the FHSAA Class 6A regional semifinals with a loss to Armwood.
“We’re not satisfied with that,” Eychner said. “We want to take another step, but that was our first playoff win in 30 years.”
Upon accepting the head coaching position in 2012, Eychner took the long view, recognizing sustainable success is rarely achieved overnight. He asked more of his players under the premise that consistent improvement would come only with an increased commitment.
“I think any coach has to have a vision of what he wants to ideally accomplish to put a stamp on the program,” Eychner said. “I don’t think you can entirely anticipate everything that’s going to come up – all of the challenges you’ll encounter.”
Because Eychner was taking over a program that had grown accustomed to losing, the players and coaching staff welcomed his vision to change the collective culture. Eychner laid out a recipe for what he believed would make for a winning program.
“I think one of the great things was we had to raise the bar on our level of expectations and our level of trust in the players,” Eychner said. “If they put in the effort and have the attitude and toughness it takes to play this game, they will be successful. You can continue to sell and believe that. Until you overcome the disappointments, it can be difficult. There were some long evenings.”
Eychner started to believe his team was on the brink of something special in 2013 – despite the fact that the team won only three games. A handful of the team’s seven losses came down to the final possession.
“When difficulties come up, there will be doubters,” Eychner said. “We believed in the group of guys and stuck with them.”
THE STRENGTH PROGRAM
Brandon High coach Dean Eychner and Ryan Bjelke
Eychner established his expectations for his players through the strength and conditioning program, which is led by assistant coach James Grant.
Eychner said the players learned the importance of being prompt, prepared and present through the offseason program.
“Much of the strength and conditioning program is James Grant’s design,” Eychner said. “A quality strength and conditioning coach can foster character in football. Too many kids out there haven’t been built to withstand the rigors of the sport. It’s a void in football.”
Eychner and his staff maintain meticulous records tracking the players’ attendance and progress. Since the Brandon coaches started tracking each player’s commitment level, they have noticed improved attendance and marked strength gains.
“They have to believe it’s worth their time,” Eychner said. “There has to be a measure of consistency and balance in the program. Kids have to understand: We start at this time. We’re going to do this workout for this result. We’ll end at this time. If that occurs and the staff is committed to helping the players through the difficulties, the commitment takes off.”