George Boardman: Win or lose, coaching high school football isn’t for the faint of heart
Observations from the center stripe: Prediction edition
HERE’S A prediction for the new year: The supervisors will consider an ordinance banning outdoor cultivation of marijuana. The sheriff has spoken … THE NEXT time you see a report about employment in Nevada County, keep in mind that includes a concierge at Northstar in Truckee to take care of skiers who sign up for the Primo Private Lesson … UC SAYS it will make an effort to find room for 10,000 more students from California. What a concept … THANKS TO the Internet, we can now have a pointless debate over whether Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups show enough real Christmas spirit … I’D BE tempted to vote for any male candidate who shows up at a debate dressed in something other than a blue suit, white shirt, and red tie … ATTENTION HOLIDAY shoppers: The Wall Street Journal reports major retailers have too much holiday inventory, which means a lot of sales and big markdowns in the coming weeks …
We were still living in the Bay Area when I read “Friday Night Lights,” the story of a Texas town’s obsession with its high school football team that later became a movie and television series.
The book about Odessa, Texas, reinforced the impression of the Lone Star state I developed during the 18 months I lived there, where it is said the two favorite sports are football and spring football. I spent most of my Army career in San Antonio, where I worked evenings at the morning newspaper, the Express. The paper boasted it covered every high school football game in south Texas, more than 200 schools, including obscure bus stops like new Dime Box.
That was a real change from my days at San Mateo High School, where few people beyond the boundaries of the campus cared much about the mighty Bearcats — and we were undefeated in my senior year. The team had just three coaches, and the head coach went to law school at night. I figured “Friday Night Lights” was a phenomenon unique to Texas, part of the weirdness that makes the state both attractive and repellent at the same time.
Then we moved to the foothills, where a life-long Californian learned something new about his state: People up here actually take high school sports seriously. The first tip-off came Labor Day weekend in 1999, when we came up for a couple of days of house hunting. I picked up The Union and found a picture of a running back plowing into the line. Do they really start this early? No, it was just a practice, but it was worth a picture. Then I noticed adults talking about the high school teams’ prospects. An alumnus of Placer High School actually took offense when I suggested “Hillmen” isn’t a very creative nickname. A Yuba City man was proud that his daughter was a Lady Honker. They even broadcast the games on radio!
Therefore I’m not surprised by the current angst in the community over the performance of the Nevada Union football team. (Too bad people don’t get this upset over test score results.)
You hear grumbling from a lot of old-timers, and criticism surfaced in the media again recently when Jim Black, a former Lake Wildwood resident who earlier described himself as a “superfan/assistant coach” since 1995, wrote The Union for the second time in three years to demand the firing of head coach Dennis Houlihan.
Certainly, it’s difficult to defend Houlihan’s record. The Miners have posted records of 1-9, 3-7, and 1-9 in the three seasons he has coached the team. The team’s statistics are as dismal as the record suggests; losing by just two touchdowns is currently considered a moral victory in Miner country.
A variety of reasons have been advanced for the school’s poor performance.
One reader of The Union questioned the toughness of our local youth and the courage of their parents: “Parents in this community coddle their kids and will not allow their kids to play ball anymore. There are athletes in other sports who refuse to play football because they are too soft.”
But losing is not a problem unique to the football team. Since joining the Sierra Foothill League in 2010, NU has won just three team championships. Last school year, the boys’ basketball and baseball teams won a total of three league games.
“Nevada Union athletics finds itself in the perfect storm of declining enrollment and the powerful Sierra Foothill League, both of which have contributed to our less-than-stellar winning records,” athletic director Jeff Dellis wrote recently in The Union.
Dellis pointed out that NU’s enrollment has declined from 2,750 in 1999 to 1,647 now, a 40 percent drop. The schools the Miners face in the SFL are large schools experiencing enrollment increases. Dellis said in a subsequent interview the school has been trying to transfer to a league where it can be more competitive, but two attempts have failed. The school is probably stuck in the SFL until the next realignment occurs in 2018.
While the Miners try to escape the clutches of the SFL, Dellis asks fans to focus on the intangibles Houlihan brings to the football program: “I can confidently say that our coach’s highest priorities are centered on the development of our players’ character, leadership qualities, team loyalty and the importance of service to the community.”
But Black reflects the attitude of many fans — yes, even parents — who aren’t happy even if you win. Take the Bear River football program, where a 6-4 record in 2013 wasn’t good enough for some fans, who asked the school board to make a coaching change.
“Something is majorly wrong with the Bear River varsity program and a change is needed,” Patrick Simpson, a coach with the Junior Bruins program, told the board in January 2014.
He wanted the board to replace co-coaches Terry Logue and Scott Savoie with Chris Bean, then the school’s JV coach who had applied for the head-coaching job at Lincoln High School. Simpson wasn’t alone.
“I am a businessman in the community, and if I had an employee like Chris Bean, I wouldn’t let him go,” Brian Hollister said at the meeting. “We hope Bear River can find a solution that works for everybody.”
Bean, who wasn’t interested in being anybody’s Trojan horse, disavowed the effort and eventually took the job at Lincoln. Logue and Savoie led the Bruins to the section title in 2014, but lost an opportunity to start this year’s playoffs at home by losing to (are you ready) Lincoln High School. And you say you want to be a coach?
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.
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