The regular season is winding down and this week I’m in the Rio Grande Valley to see the Harlingen Cardinals and the 20th annual Bird Bowl, between the Cardinals and the Hawks of Harlingen South. Whenever I get to a new place, I try to figure out what’s unique about the situation, among the 11 teams I’m visiting. With Harlingen, I knew coming in that the Valley itself is unique within the state’s football picture. In other parts of Texas, the Valley and its football has several strong stereotypes; a largely Hispanic population with teams that rarely advance past the second round when they meet the more athletic teams from “UpTexas” & fanatical fan support. When Harlingen beat Warren High School from San Antonio in the 3rd round last year, they became the first Valley 5A school to advance to the state quarterfinal since 1999. The entire Valley took pride in it and 10,000 fans made the 100 mile trip up to Kingsville to support the Cardinals.
This season has been more challenging for the Cards, losing their first two games and heading into the Bird Bowl with a very uncharacteristic 5-3 record. Many in the Valley believe Friday is the day South will snap the 4 year losing streak to their cross-town rival. South is coming in with a 7-1 record. I’m not here to make predictions, but I really doubt this will be the blowout many seem to be expecting, Harlingen did not start well, but have been playing much better football the past few weeks and seem to be back on track, just as the games are starting to matter. What I do know is that you can often throw out the records leading up to a rivalry game; I’m looking forward to a good battle Friday night.
The other, unexpected and unique thing I’ve learned this week is that 14 of the 16 football coaches at Harlingen are alumni of the school. I wonder if any program in Texas or the entire country could claim such a homegrown staff. Loyalty like this is an amazing thing to see, coaches who, in great number, have decided they don’t just want to coach but carry on the tradition of their alma mater and coach at Harlingen High.
This is not just a strange fact about this program, but a direct reason for its success. Coaching stability is a huge factor in running a successful program and its lack many places in Texas, is a big hurdle programs have to fight. A staff ingrained with all this schools traditions and who see themselves as “Cardinals” as much as professional coaches has got to be a big advantage in promoting the culture of the place.
The only danger to such an insulated staff would be if they hadn’t seen enough of other programs and fall behind in a constantly changing game. As someone who has had the privilege of watching a lot of staffs work this year, I can say that this is not the case. Coach Gomez and his staff have made a point of keeping up with the game and the proof is in the record they’ve compiled over the years. Harlingen is the program they are due to tradition, but also because they work very hard and do a great job preparing their kids. Tradition is great, but good coaching and kids who execute what they’ve been taught is what wins games.