VYPE Oklahoma Regions
How the West Can Be Won in 6A's Football Stranglehold
April 11, 2013By VYPE Oklahoma of VYPE MAGAZINE - Oklahoma
By Austin Chadwick
There is no better explanation in defining the secret of success in Oklahoma’s 6A.
Let me start by saying that this is a very sensitive subject for some. Before laying out a comprehensive piece to help inform readers with the detailed analysis of the differences between the top tier 6A football programs and those programs who are working hard to compete, allow us to reveal a bit of our credibility. It is very common that many people give opinions on this combustible topic without the proper experience in actually living through the processes.
Please let me preface with a few things. First off, the goal of this article is to give insight on the ever-growing debate of the perceived monopoly on the largest football class in the OSSAA. I have been covering high school sports in Oklahoma with our brand for a long time and understand that there would be nothing more pleasant than for VYPE to see some parity in 6A. Personally, I have seen the initial sacrifice and hardwork that has been present in the great schools who are outside looking in and I commend those who continue to strive. So the bias is completely absent.
I had the opportunity of growing up in the Union school district and was part of a generation of Union football players who did not see the pinnacle of success, but helped develop a foundation that propelled the Union program to win seven of the last 10 Class 6A state titles. I grew up in the current Union program that was essentially started in 1992 with the arrival of Bill Blankenship as head coach (Bill moved from Edmond to take over Union). This is very important as I have the experience of being a part of a program that started from the ground up, went through many growing pains, and has now reached a massive level of success. After high school I got a chance to play at the highest level in D-1 football and played alongside and against the best football players Oklahoma had to offer.
With the experience of playing football at Tulsa University, I played with, lived with, and became very close with players who were part of high school programs from all over the state. I was fortunate enough to learn immensely. Since, I have had the opportunity to cover high school and college sports for TV, radio, and our publication. This naturally allows me to be close with high school coaches, especially on the level of conversing with them as a player (Many times as one of their own former players). I’ve talked to more coaches about this topic than I can count. I’ve talked with them privately, publicly, on the record, and off the record. Listen, this isn’t a “look at me” list of credentials, but rather a list of credible reasons to perhaps take what I write with a bit of credibility.
What is the Difference?
Throughout this article you will see topics that will help enlighten the circumstances in the differences between football programs. Topics include:
A couple of things need to be laid out before we start. First, there is a massive difference between a great program and a great team. Great programs can have great teams (and often do), but too many times we mistake a great team for the level of sustainable success of the school’s program.
Teams come and go and a handful of great players can help turn a team into a great one, but the long-lasting efforts of developing a great program have little to do with the acute circumstance of a high school having a great team for a year or two. There is ultimately no sustainable substance in having a great team without a great program. Sure a great team might compete for a state title in a particular year, but if the program is not at the level of the elite in 6A, then it is short-lived (i.e. Edmond Santa Fe 2003-04, Enid 2006, Southmoore 2009). To make abundantly clear, I am not saying Edmond Santa Fe, Enid or Southmoore have mediocre programs by any means, but if you take the fact that the sample of the sustainability of those programs over the course of the last 10 years, it is not comparable to the likes of Union and Jenks (and even recently, Owasso and Broken Arrow).
A Football Program’s Mindset: No Excuses
This is first and foremost the most important aspect of a football program. The overall “resilient mindset." It starts with a school’s administration, filters to the athletic department, then down to the football coaches, then to the players, then to the parents, and finally to the youth of the program. It is imperative that everyone is on the same page and pulling the same rope. Now this takes a serious amount of detail, knowledge, resources, and shear will.
It is very simple, if one of the levels of this chain of command (administration, athletic department, coaches, players, parents, youth) is not fully vested and willing to do what it takes, there is little chance to compete in developing a great program. A school can decide if it is going to allow its football program to compete by fully investing and immersing themselves.
Listen, I know it isn’t just that easy. There are budgets to be made, and there are things that make it nearly impossible for some schools. There are a handful of football programs in Class 6A who find competing in the largest class just simply impossible, but I will re-emphasize that the majority of Class 6A schools have the opportunity.
The resilient mindset of the program is not just “what you do” as an administrator, athletic director, coach, player or parent, it is “how you live.” To make it simple, those who make up a football program have to look at it as not something that they do, but something they live. This can be a bit of a slippery slope as there are many other focuses in the lives of those in a football program, but the mindset of success and the mindset of everyday dedication has to be close to an obsession. Those in the top tier programs live with the resilient mindset of success and dedication every day. It is almost an obsession to them, so if any school is going to compete, you have to match that level of resilient mindset. This level of success is not just something programs “want really bad," but a mindset that is so far ingrained that there is nothing that anyone can say or do that will keep a school from attaining the goal of developing a great program.
This “resilient mindset” also translates into hurdles and obstacles on the field. I was a part of a Union program that literally took 10 years to develop into a champion and the 2002 title came three years after I graduated. So I never got an opportunity to win a state championship, but I take a lot of pride in helping develop a program from the ground up with massive amounts of work, heartache and resiliency.
This resilient mindset has to be instilled, has to persevere, and has to maintain for a very long time to give a football program a chance to grow. The simple fact is that the likes of Union and Jenks went through all of this for many years, so why should it be different for anyone else? Those programs paid their dues, endured massive heartache, persevered through challenges, and because of the mindset that was ingrained, they overcame and continue to be successful because that mindset has never waivered.
Administrative, Community and Parental Support
This aspect of a football program is pretty broad. I will try to keep as detailed as possible. It is imperative that a football program has an abundance of support from the school’s administration, the community and the parents of players. This is extremely difficult as many schools find themselves in very tough situations in helping their football programs exclusively. With this, what schools have to do is find ways to not only enhance the football program, but the entire athletic department. This allows for a bit of parity with the other sports in the athletic department, which also allows for more opportunity to be successful in other sports. The challenges are great, but administrations can effectively find ways to give abundant support, especially if they have the mindset needed.
The community is also a great asset to a successful football program. Everyone in the program has to be involved in getting the community on board. Administrators, coaches, parents and even the athletes have to be willing to put in the time and effort to raise funds through the community. This can be done in ways of fundraisers, sponsorships and the ever-important bond issues. When the resilient mindset is instilled in the program, then it starts to trickle through the community. This is ideal as a school district will not only have the benefit of the football program with the correct mindset, but when the community starts to adopt the mindset, then it becomes a massive force of support.
Parents are probably the most important in immediate support. Obviously the dedicated mothers and fathers of the program’s athletes have always gone above and beyond, but it doesn’t stop there. Here is a bit of priceless knowledge for parents who have current players and parents who have players developing in the youth of the program. If you are serious about giving everything you have to support a program, then it starts when your athlete is developing in the youth system of the program. It goes much further than having the thought of “I’ll wait to support the high school program when my kids reach high school.” Something very common with schools like Jenks and Union is that parents of young kids who are years from high school, support the high school program immensely (this is done through giving up their time, making donations, etc.). The youth parents in the football program start to develop the “resilient mindset” necessary at a very early stage.
Youth Feeder Systems
For anyone who lives in the Tulsa area, one aspect of youth is the INFC football league. This is a massive comprehension of youth organizations dedicated to each and every high school. I had the opportunity to play in the INFC and can speak on it, but I will defer the next portion to our editor, Brad Heath. There is no one more qualified to speak on the importance of youth programs than Brad. He has coached four generations of football teams in the Jenks JTA Youth Football system. Brad is the ideal parent who supports a program because Brad’s kids do not even play football at the high school level. However, Brad is dedicated to helping the Jenks football program with his service in the youth ranks.
Youth Football and Why It Matters
By Brad Heath
Youth football in America has gone through some changes over the years. At least since I played, rules are created to make the game safer for kids, to equal the playing field for teams and to educate youth coaches to hopefully create an atmosphere that allows the kids to play and develop a love for the game of football.
Lets take a look at the leagues all over the state and what they mean to the programs they feed.
Now you’re asking yourself, “Why is he qualified to have this conversation?” I’ve been involved in youth football for 13 years, most as a head coach and a board member of the Jenks JTA Youth Football Club. I’ve coached four generations of players and for three of those I did not have a kid on the team. I say that because I believe it’s important to understand the motivation of a person who gets into coaching. It has to be for the right reasons.
Back to the question of youth football programs in Oklahoma. The Indian Nations Football Conference includes teams from Tulsa, Stillwater, Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union, Owasso, Muskogee, Fort Gibson, Grove, Bixby, Collinsville, Sand Springs, Haskell, Claremore, Coweta, Berryhill and many others. By my count there are 34 clubs in the conference. Each club could have multiple teams in a grade. For example the Union 5th grade may have four teams consisting of 20-25 players per team. Each team is identified by color, not a fabricated mascot. Union Red and Jenks Maroon play the Backyard Bowl at every grade level. Travel can be something of a concern, but games are played on Saturday making travel issues easier.
Make no mistake about it, the east side youth football clubs take football very serious. One of the biggest falsehoods circulated about youth football in eastern Oklahoma is that the high schools require the youth teams to use their plays and run their schemes. This is simply not true. Do high school coaches give tips and instruction? Absolutely, when asked. Nearly all of the high schools in eastern Oklahoma are involved with their youth programs through camps they host before the season starts. It just makes sense. Why not develop some pride in your youth players before they get to middle school or junior high? Why not let that fifth grader shake hands with the head coach or get a little instruction from one of the starting offensive lineman? All while wearing the same colors.
Oklahoma City and the surrounding area take a little different approach to their youth football. The Greater Oklahoma City Youth Football Championships consists of board members from the Oklahoma Elite, Moore Youth Football and the Central Oklahoma Football League. The GOYFA was created to develop and govern a citywide playoff system. Each league plays their own games (usually during the week).
With several different governing bodies involved I can see how difficult it would be to get each club on the same page. Scheduling, fields, which teams a player would play for, etc…would be a nightmare. The GOYFA is attempting to alleviate some of that confusion.
I’m sure the coaches, parents and clubs are after the same result for their youth players in Oklahoma City as they are in Tulsa, which is developing a love for the game and giving the kids a great experience. But is it helping the schools they feed? Or is that simply not something parents are interested in who have kids in these programs? Are the coaches at the high schools interested in helping these youth programs develop and teach kids what it takes to be a Lion, a Bronco or a Tiger from Norman? I can’t answer for the high school coaches from Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, but I can tell you the eastern Oklahoma coaches are…very interested.
Jenks kids wear their Jenks Trojan jersey to school every Friday during football season. Their jersey looks like the high school jerseys. From the 1st grade to the 7th grade, these kids grow up wanting to be a part of that program and it’s the same way at Union, Owasso, Broken Arrow and even smaller schools like Metro Christian and Haskell. They climb the fence behind the home bench during the games waiting for high-fives from the players. It’s a completely different environment for these kids.
Are the leagues in OKC growing? Are they competing at a high level? We’re okay with youth baseball, basketball and softball players participating in competitive sports leagues, why not football? The INFC is as competitive as it gets. They are nationally recognized as one of the best youth league organizations, if not the best, in the country. Why wouldn’t you want your kids competing in that league? Just ask teams and clubs that do. Better yet, ask the coaches of the high schools and junior highs if they think the INFC does a good job of preparing youth players for school ball.
So who’s better? Who feeds the high schools with players who have grown up waiting for their chance to play under the lights on the high school field? The answer is easy…but is it something everyone wants to admit? No it’s not. The INFC is continuing to try and develop their concept to the OKC area and one of the biggest roadblocks is the INFC’s philosophy of playing on Saturdays. Really? I thought youth football in OKC was only 10 years behind, now I think it may be 20.
To sum up Brad’s thoughts, I had to re-iterate his final sentences. I have been told numerous times by OKC area youth parents that “Saturdays are for college football.” Everything the INFC does in Tulsa is based on Saturdays. And parents who are OU, OSU or TU alum, make the sacrifice to miss home games for their kids at times. That’s how it has worked for twenty years. Even former All-American players at OU and OSU who are expected at every home game will absolutely miss it if their kid's INFC game falls at the same time. That is a massive difference.
This is an aspect of a football program that absolutely has to be addressed. I am not naïve and understand completely that enrollment plays a big factor in the talent pool of athletes. But if enrollment is the only factor (or even looked as the main factor), then a school like Broken Arrow should have been winning the state championship in Oklahoma’s largest class over the past twenty years. Before 1988, Moore had the highest enrollment for a handful of years before splitting to Westmoore. Moore did not win a state championship during those years.
Jenks went on a run from 1996 to 2001 where it won six straight state titles, and this was done with the Jenks enrollment consistently ranked outside the top 5. The key to Jenks was that because of their program and everything that went into it, they developed what is commonly referred to as “program players.” This is a very important facet as the program kids of any great football program are the real reasons why a program can sustain an elite level year-in and year-out. Program kids are developed over time. These are kids who are more than likely not going to play beyond high school, but are more effective as a unit within the team (and program) than kids with the same talent level at other programs. They live with the “resilient mindset” ever since they are very young. During the years when a great football program has a few great athletes (D-1 caliber) coupled with their program kids, then you go from a great team to a historically great team.
Once again, enrollment plays a factor, but what is produced out of the talent pool is far more important than the size of the talent pool.
Before I explain some of this, let me pose a question to any school who desires to achieve prominence in Class 6A. This would come with a guarantee that in the span of eight years, your school would be competing regularly for a state title, and within 10 years, it will achieve the goal of winning the championship. Would programs be willing to go through eight years of growing pains, heartaches, time, resources and investment to achieve this goal? This also comes with the unprecedented level of hardwork, mindset and sacrifice year-in and year-out with nothing but complete immersion in staying the course, developing the program and building it from the ground up. If the answer is yes, then I believe we are on the right track in identifying what it will take.
Now that we are in agreement that the sacrifice will be made, one of the first things we need to do is identify the prominent personnel within a program who would be willing to lead for at least eight years. This is very important as the longest tenured coach in 6A outside of Alan Trimble and Bob Wilson is Ty Prestidge from Mustang (8 years) and Todd Wilson from Yukon (8 years). It takes sustainability and it takes coaching that is dedicated to building for years to come. Even in Union's case, Kirk Fridrich took over a program that he was a part of building with Bill Blankenship as an assistant in the 90's. Fridrich is in his 6th year at Union, but was a part of Blankenship's staff for 10 years (93'-02').
Sometimes the words “hard work” seem to be thrown around very casually. But the type of work that goes into building a program can only be maximized with the utter and total "resilient mindset." This mindset allows those to work harder, strive for more, and never give up. Again, it starts from the ground up. Youth, youth parents, high school parents, players, coaches, and administration.
In conclusion, please understand that informative pieces like this do not come around very often. I do not expect everyone to agree or disagree (which is why it makes for great debate), but hopefully it has been a little enlightening in what it takes to be part of the best Oklahoma has to offer. The bar has been raised over the last 15 years, and that bar is achievable if the “resilient mindset” is adopted and instilled.