Frank Sinatra crooned a thing or two about happiness coming “The Second Time Around,” and though The Chairman of the Board never met East Valley high school football coaches, they share his sentiment.
Amidst the hullabaloo of all the spring sports state tournaments taking place during the next two weeks, so, too, begins spring football.
It makes for difficulties, unfamiliarity and, often, a Grand Canyon-esque learning curve for programs that underwent a change of leadership at the top (Chaparral, Combs, Dobson, Gilbert, Saguaro, Skyline and Westwood), but a handful of second-year coaches can offer words to the wise: It can get easier.
Those transitional struggles experienced last year with new coaches at schools such as Apache Junction (Justin MacDonald), Chandler (Shaun Aguano), Corona del Sol (Tom Joseph), McClintock (Matt Lewis), Mesquite (Matt Gracey) and Mountain View (Chad DeGrenier) now find themselves a little better prepared and a bit more confident.
How any of that translates to on-the-field success this fall is a far different matter, but that part starts somewhere. And if the so-called “little” things add up, this second-year crew believes everyone and everything within its respective programs is wiser for the (2011) wear.
“We’re trying to change the atmosphere,” Joseph said. “I don’t think you can overhaul anything in one year. It takes awhile.”
Mesquite might have been the most extreme case because Gracey was hired in early spring but lived and coached in California when he was hired. His California teaching contract ran through June, so teaching, trying to find a place to live in Arizona for his family, cobbling together a football staff, meet kids, start a weight room program and occasionally commute back and forth between Southern California and Gilbert.
“So many things are so different than last year,” he said. “For starters I don’t have a 16-hour commute.
“We’re coming in with a plan set up and come every day instead of scatter-brained schedules. Now there’s a set schedule for the kids, a full staff instead of trying to hire-on-the-fly.”
He also noted the “your group” mentality exists. Gracey replaced the retired Mike Reardon, but now in his second season, he believes they’re “my kids” which he believes offers him a better perspective of the kids’ talents and understanding of the program’s expectations.
Gracey lost a few assistants, namely Leland Rodgers who is Gilbert’s new coach. But his new staff has been in place for a couple months. He also believes this season’s roster is better suited and prepared to run a more “spread” style offense, and he traveled to the University of Notre Dame during the Fighting Irish’s spring game to pick some college coaches’ brains.
Last spring? Not a chance.
“It cost us because I didn’t get to know them until we were almost into the season,” he said. “The changes we made might have happened earlier. Knowing your kids is a huge thing.”
The biggest microscope — at least from the outside — was at Mountain View, where Chad DeGrenier was a late hire (mid-March) in replacing Joseph.
Coming from a completely different background and philosophy than what Toro Nation was accustomed to having, a 4-6 season didn’t sit well with kids, parents or fans.
But, like all programs, boundaries and philosophies were established in 2011. The kids know what their coaches want, and vice versa. Some transferred to other schools, but a long and trying year of learning in 2011 has the Toros hopeful that changes and mistakes in 2011 will be used for the wiser in 2012.
DeGrenier already sees changes in the weight room, understanding terminology and the “why” behind his offense and defense. That’s important at a school whose offensive and defensive styles are currently viewed as the antithesis of Mountain View’s tradition for the better part of 35 years.
“They were trying to feel me out and I’m trying to feel them out,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to figure everything out. New systems, new verbiage. We had a good year last year but we could have done things a lot better. I’ve made some changes. This year we will be better.”
For all these programs, there are still struggles, whether due to resources, wholesale changes from previous regimes, keeping kids, administration support, and, the obvious factor that it’s only been one year at a given school.
A more demanding, disciplined style under Joseph at Corona del Sol continues to be a work in progress. He, too, is now on campus rather than commuting after school from Mountain View as he did last summer.
Some warm-up drills took two hours instead of 20 minutes last year.
It may not be fun, but it won’t come as a surprise to kids.
“We’re still working on work ethic and commitment around here,” he said. “We’re a far cry from where we need to be. The kids know what we’re going to do and how it’s going to be. Now that we’ve been through it we know what to expect.”
The same goes for Lewis at McClintock. His first head coaching foray is with a recently-downtrodden program, and comes with many more adjustments unrelated to play-calling or X’s-and-O’s.
Most of those problems aren’t going away for anyone any time soon, but at least there’s a feeling of progress ahead in Year 2.
“Being here gets you more settled. You understand the landscape and the climate of the school,” DeGrenier said. “...Now we’re at that point where we can take it and run with it.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.