Monthly Archives: February 2014

Big & Bright Chapter 10 Excerpt: Harlingen Cardinals

Texas is the most diverse state in the country, but I don’t think people who live elsewhere are aware of this fact.  The common stereotypical Texas of oil-wells, cowboy hats and Longhorn cattle does exist, but it is only a small part of the picture. One of the fascinating aspects of my journey was seeing the different parts that make up this huge state.

South Texas is unique as is the passion this part of the state has for high school football. These two exempts, I hope, captures some of what Texas really is and  what a rivalry game can be like.

When Texas was admitted into the union in 1845, the United States Congress offered the new state a unique option. If the legislature ever chose to, the state was given permission to separate into five separate states, thereby increasing its representation in congress. Texas Pride being what it is, the likelihood of this happening is remote, but the option is there.

In many ways, Texas might as well already be multiple states. Texas State University geography professor Donald Huebner pointed out that Texas is one of a few states that describes its regions in terms usually reserved for separate states. There is no North California, West Tennessee or South Nevada; instead the suffix –ern is usually included.  In this state however, North Texas, West Texas, East Texas and South Texas are the correct usages. The terminology recognizes these regions as very distinct places.

            In essence, Texas is a borderland where four separate cultures meet. The American Southwest enters Texas from the west, the Midwest from the north and the South from the east. Mexican culture comes from the south.

To confuse things even more, the Gulf Coast crescent from Beaumont through Houston and around to Galveston is part of the Tidewater South, stretching east to New Orleans and Gulf Coast Mississippi and Alabama, while the rest of East Texas is effectively part of the ‘Old South.’

 The Metroplex is its own little world. Dallas is almost like a northeastern city stuck in the middle of Texas, while Fort Worth, just 50 miles away, belongs to West Texas. Central Texas is an entirely different mess, with the crashing together of cultures from the four compass points on top of the academic-liberal enclave of Austin and the German and Czech influences of the Hill Country.

             Texans from other parts of the state hardly recognize South Texas as part of the United States, much less Texas. Every Texan loves San Antonio, but the triangle of land to the south of Alamo City is described as North Mexico as often as South Texas. At the bottom of this triangle is the Rio Grande Valley, often referred to within the state simply as “The Valley.”  One cannot go further south in Texas and still be in the United States. West and south of the Valley is the Rio Grande River, and Mexico; east is South Padre Island and the Gulf of Mexico. To the north, 250 miles of sparsely populated farmland and desert separates the Valley from San Antonio…

South’s buses arrive right behind the Cardinals’ as they pull into the stadium parking lot at 5:30. The kids and coaches file off, but not a word is spoken between the players or coaches of either school. Harlingen is a small town, some of these coaches know each other and you’d usually expect them to shake hands and make a little small talk. Not tonight. A Harlingen assistant tells me about the relationship between the staffs: “There is no love lost between us.”

Kickoff is still two hours off and the Card players and coaches sprawl on the floor and on the bleachers around the gym next to the stadium. Position coaches with portable whiteboards meet with groups of players going over the adjustments for tonight. Trainers and student-trainers tape ankles on the tables they’ve brought for this purpose.

The stadium is buzzing tonight, and the crowd arrives early. By 7:00, with a half hour to go until kickoff, most of the 9,000 seats are full. Harlingen South is dressed in white tops and white pants, the Hawk uniforms resemble the University of Miami Hurricanes’, with orange and aqua trim. Even the “S” decal is reminiscent of Miami’s two-toned “U.” As the Cardinal players stretch, Coach Gomez walks though, shaking every player’s hand and giving final words of encouragement. The sun is setting as the two squads line up back to back right up to the 50-yard line, neither team willing to give up an inch of real estate.

Before heading out, Gomez addressed the team, reminding them of the intensity it will take to stop the Hawks.

 “Put that cage on their freakin’ ass over and over and over until you break their will to compete and we ain’t going to slow down. Live up to the hype of this football game.”

When the teams rush onto the new artificial turf after the National Anthem, they’re joined by middle school players wearing their football jerseys. It’s a Bird Bowl tradition for these future Hawks and Cardinals to take the field with the varsity kids, giving them an early taste of running into a packed Boggus Stadium for a big game. Tonight the excitement is electric. This isn’t only a standing room crowd, but an intense one. For the next three hours, the fans will be on their feet as much as in their seats. South fans are chanting “Red is dead.” Banners wave on both the red-clad home side and the aqua and orange visiting stands…

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Coaches Moving On

I’ve written several times that my biggest problem with the Texas Model of HS football is how it encourages successful coaches to change schools for better opportunities so often. In most of the country a successful high school coach will often spend his entire career at one school as there’s no real financial advantage to taking a similar job down the road.  The kids who play for quality programs can usually count on a consistency that’s rare in Texas.

The downside is that, without the financial incentive, non-Texas coaches turnover quickly as they find they’re working twice as hard as other teachers for basically nothing. This leads to an increasing reliance on off-campus volunteer coaches who have even less reason to stay in the profession than the teachers.  But… successful schools often have a staff of good coaches who stay together for a long time. I spent the best 12 years of my career in such a situation, working with the same five guys during that entire stretch. Something that’s somewhat rare in Texas.

That said, I can never fault anyone for doing what’s best for themselves and their families. Coaches have as much right as anyone to look for new opportunities. I know about this firsthand, I was the one who first broke from my group when I got a head job at another school. Although it didn’t work out, I never felt any guilt or regret for bailing on my friends…and they never held it against me.

I picked the eleven schools for Big and Bright partially because they were relatively stable, but with success comes new opportunities and in recent weeks several coaches I met during my journey have taken new positions. La Marque’s lost their third assistant to a head coaching position in the past two years with offensive coordinator, Pete Gareri, taking the job at Baytown’s Sterling High School. Stamford’s defensive coordinator Mitch Mclemore is also on the move, he’s been hired as the new head coach/AD at Junction High School.

Assistants moving to take head jobs is always expected, but the other two are somewhat surprising. Four time six-man state champion coach Mike Reed is making the move to 11-man, leaving Throckmorton for the head position with 3A Henderson. Finally, today it was announced that Stamford head coach Wayne Hutchinson is leaving for the 6A job at Monterrey High School in Lubbock.

I’m sad Stamford, Throckmorton and La Marque are losing such outstanding coaches, but wish these four great successes in their new jobs. With a lot of open positions out there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more movement during the weeks to come.

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Big and Bright Chapter Nine Excerpt: Stony Point Tigers

I’m not sure if it’s because the subject was unique, or because my writing had gotten better by the time I wrote it, but the Stony Point Tiger story was one of my favorites in the book. Unlike the other schools I covered, Stony Point has fallen on harder times these past three seasons. Winning is much more enjoyable than losing, so it’s easy to lose perspective when covering so many championship level programs and forget that losing is a big part, in fact an equal part, of the competitive equation.

Situations like Stony Point are rarely covered as much as programs on the top, but they are situations almost any coach can identify with.

 …On paper there’s no reason the Tigers can’t play with Westwood and come out on top. But Stony Point’s 3-4 record is deceiving. They’ve lost three games by less than a field goal. One more break in each of those contests and the Tigers would be sitting in the district driver’s seat with a record of 7-1.

What might have been doesn’t much matter, though, the reality is that something does keep going wrong. The weight of how this season’s played out makes it feel as though the Tigers not only will be battling Westwood, but their own recent history. Nothing is said, the coaches are loose and optimistic in their X’s and O’s and in the matchup with the Warriors, but they don’t seem confident.

            Over at the stadium, the Tigers warm up in their yellow practice jerseys, not wanting the Westwood staff to be able to figure out who is playing where. Tonight, Stony Point wears visiting jerseys, grayish-white with blue numbers, “STP”on the sleeves matching the logo on their helmets. The Palace is the home stadium for both schools and it’s Westwood’s home game this year. In the coaches’ locker room Chessher looks nervous as he sits on a stool before kickoff and says, as much to himself as to anyone else in the room, “This is my chosen profession; I need to keep reminding myself of that.”

As loose as everyone’s been all afternoon, there is a lot on the line. A win or two can stop the negative momentum building after each loss. Chessher knows his ability to continue ‘renting’ good assistants will be reduced if the Tigers keep losing. Continuing to find good coaches, more than anything, will be the main factor in bringing this program back and saving his job.

            The crowd is sparse in the big stadium. I’m sure the cold weather has kept many away. The support of most suburban schools is different than in the one-school towns. High school football is big in most parts of the state, but suburban fans are more fickle than those in smaller cities. Stony Point drew well when they were winning two years ago, but fans in Round Rock have little patience for a losing team and many have jumped on the bandwagons of other local programs.

            The game starts well for Stony Point. The defense plays lights out, hardly giving up a first down, and the Tigers grab an early lead with a 34-yard field goal with 4:13 to go in the first. Westwood’s quarterback is getting a lot of media attention as a great passer, but tonight, the Tiger front four are all over him. The run defense is outstanding as well, giving Westwood’s backs nothing to work with.

            The trouble is on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Joseph Marrero gets banged up early. He returns, but the Tigers play the rest of the game without any offensive speed. They gain three or four yards on most running plays behind good push from their offensive line, but don’t have an explosive athlete to turn those gains into something more.

 With their passing game ineffective, the running game needs to be perfect. Three or four yards is fine as long as the chains move every three plays, but Stony Point’s execution isn’t flawless. On each Tiger drive, eventually a penalty or a missed block put them in a third and long situation they can’t run out of. Turnovers are the other factor in the first half. The Tigers put the ball on the ground four times, losing two fumbles, and twice are intercepted.

            With 2:33 remaining in the half, the Stony Point offense makes its biggest mistake of the night. The Tigers attempt a bubble screen on their own 5-yard line, Westwood intercepts and the Warriors capitalize two plays later, scoring a touchdown and taking a 7-3 lead. On their ensuing possession the Tigers move the ball into field-goal range, but an interception in the end zone with just 27 seconds left in the half ends that threat.

            During halftime I overhear one defensive player say to another, “We’re doing hella good.” It’s true, the defense is playing outstandingly, but I’m struck by a realization that this is a very different game for the players and the coaches. The players will feel about the same in two hours whether the Tigers win or not. Little hangs in the balance for them. They are kids playing a game, as they should be.

But this is the coaches’ livelihood. Winning and losing may be the difference between staying in Round Rock, getting promoted to head jobs or having to move elsewhere after being fired. I remember what Stewart said about a coach’s professional success being decided by 18-year-old kids and realize what a crazy business this is…

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