Most people believe bigger isn’t always better: Cars, cameras, music players, computers, phones, even clothes.
Sometimes being president of a conglomerate isn’t worth the trouble. Sometimes being the CEO of a Division I high school football team isn’t worth not being a coach in Division III or IV.
Different strokes for different folks, and a few of them in the East Valley have found success and re-discovered roots off in the distance, away from spotlights, headlines and 3,000-enrollment schools.
The media attention isn’t the same, neither are the resources or pools of kids with which to find players. But it’s more “coach” and less “CEO” and given what coaching stipends yield these days (not much given the hours involved) some have decided the least they could do was do what they got into coaching and teaching: coach and teach.
“The great thing here is as coaches and teachers we can affect change on the campus, not just within one program – good or bad – but throughout the school,” Williams Field coach Steve Campbell said. “There’s an ability to have an effect. That’s what I like.”
For reasons beyond school size, Campbell left McClintock when Williams Field opened in 2007, and, similarly, Preston Jones left Highland to open Perry at the same time. Higley coach Eddy Zubey had brief success at Westwood and struggled at times after going to St. Mary’s before taking over the Knights. San Tan Foothills coach Rodger Schenks played at Mountain View, won a state title at Globe, coached at Seton Catholic and was an assistant at Red Mountain before helping start the Div. V Sabercats.
Most of those schools have grown rapidly in size (Perry went from nearly 800 kids when it opened to now being at the bottom of Division I enrollment figures, while Williams Field is Div. III but nearing Div. II status).
Zubey, for one, never had a big coaching staff at Westwood. He did at St. Mary’s (about a dozen by the end of his tenure), but at Higley he has his hands in offense, defense and special teams.
Jones has much the same, and sees his Perry freshman and sophomore classes every day in class.
“It’s fun to come to work,” he said. “It was really hard starting the program from scratch and having all freshman, but it’s rewarding now to look back and say I don’t have to do that again. Now we can do more football stuff. You recognize and get to know all those kids, which in my opinion is crucial.”
The smaller size means a lack of depth often makes life more stressful when injuries, academics and other extraneous matters surface than it would at a Division I school where many rosters have 50-60-70 kids, but that’s also part of the fun.
“We lose one kid, that’s like losing four positions,” Schenks said, and others noted that kind of razor-thin margin for error only emphasizes the need to coach up every kid on the roster, because the backup at one, two or even three positions could be a freshman or sophomore who’s never taken a varsity snap.
Creativity is often paramount at the lower-sized schools, an appeal to many coaches, as offensive styles and philosophies can sometimes completely change from one year to another depending upon the kids and their abilities.
Apache Junction, for example, went from an exclusively power running team a few years ago to a spread-out passing team last year, then back to a running team this season. Higley has re-shaped their offense twice in Zubey’s first two years at the school, as has Valley Christian.
But it’s off the field that often requires the most attention and demands of coaches. To that end, smaller roster sizes sometimes mean a favorable numbers game, meaning fewer chances for troubles and headaches and more opportunity to have a hands-on role.
Campbell noted one of his bigger rewards within the program is taking pictures of all incoming freshman and recording their height, weight and other stats, then doing it again as seniors and showing those clips at each year’s senior banquet.
“I know all our kids,” said Schenks whose varsity roster is 35 kids this season. “At bigger schools we’d have 18 wide receivers and one might not show up (to practice) and you didn’t know he’s gone. Here, you get involved more with kids and community stuff, adapted programs and special needs and have lunch with them. At the bigger schools you don’t have the same kind of interaction and get to know the student population. Bigger schools’ kids wouldn’t come in often and seek that kind of help and guidance. We need all these kids and want them to be a part of it.
“You’re kind of doing what you got into the profession to do, to be a leader and role model for kids who might not have that at home.”
Invariably, ego plays a role. It could be the “authority” or “power” of successfully running a Division I-sized program. Maybe it’s the extra media attention and extraneous responsibilities that follow suit, the idea of being a kind of CEO. It could be the belief that professional validation comes from being one of the biggest and beating others’ biggest and best.
Others don’t care: a state title is a state title is a state title.
“It’s freaking hard,” Zubey said. “I’d rather build a dynasty at Div. III and win state titles like (Lakeside) Blue Ridge has over the years than be at a Division I school and play in a state title game or semifinals once every seven or eight years.”
Campbell noted that “Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side of the fence because you’re not taking care of your lawn,” but that’s not to suggest all bigger-school coaches are in it for themselves, aren’t in it for the kids or care any less about their jobs or how they have an effect on youth.
All four coaches individually noted the differences include less numbers and paperwork to manage, less money required in fundraising, fewer college coaches visiting or seeking highlight reels, and more individual interaction on both the practice and Friday night fields.
They say, “Has anyone ever said bigger is better when it comes to headaches?”
“I’m a better coach than I was at McClintock but still the same coach,” Campbell said. “The level of outcome was different but the judge was whether we won games as we should have, were the kids disciplined, not who we’re playing. Are you making it as good as you can with what you have? What the heck’s the difference?”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.