Local veteran football coaches compare past and present
Published August 10, 2012
They are living legends of high school football, men who’ve patrolled the sidelines of their respective programs for decades and forgotten more about the game than most will ever know.
Some of their careers started when Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House, when a gallon of gas required just a few coins.
Yet these men remain, and their names alone represent a program as much as the program represents the school itself.
They are some of the most veteran coaches the state has to offer, and if there’s one thing their careers have been defined by, aside from wins, it’s constant change.
Come and get them
In speaking of Birmingham Brother Rice’s first state title in 1977, Al Fracassa, the winningest coach in MHSAA history who is now in his 53rd year as a headman, called it his “termite team,” adding, “we didn’t have one scholarship kid on that whole roster.”
And if there’s one thing that most coaches agree that has changed the most over the years, it’s been the recruiting process.
“I remember when (college) coaches would call us to ask an opinion about a player,” Royal Oak Shrine’s John Goddard said. This fall is his 20th year as head coach of the Knights and 45th year overall on the sidelines. “You’ll still have some come to the building, but now you have so many camps and highlight tapes, and so on. I mean, you can tell a lot about a kid by his film, but when you recruit character instead of characters, I think a lot of the problems in college athletics would be gone.”
Recruiting websites, YouTube pages dedicated to highlight films and other avenues of player rankings have exploded over the past decade or so, and National Signing Day has taken on holiday status.
Players who would usually wait until their senior year to commit to a college are now making that decision as early as their sophomore season.
“(Recruiting’s) evolved so much,” said Farmington Hills Harrington’s John Herrington, now in his 42nd season. “(Colleges) never used to contact a kid until he finished his senior year.”
Herrington added that he first noticed the intensity and change in recruiting really began in the mid-90s and has “exploded” over the past five years or so.
“With camps and combines and everything, so much of recruiting is done behind the scenes now,” said Orchard Lake St. Mary’s coach George Porritt, now in his 23rd year at the Eaglets’ helm. “It’s hard sometimes for us coaches to keep up with our own kids. Sometimes I feel like I’m the last to know.”
When asked about the depth of his knowledge in the world of social media, Goddard laughed, saying, “I’ve never even sent a text.”
But if there’s one thing that’s become more prevalent among teenagers in the last handful of years, it’s social networking.
Facebook and Twitter, and others like them, offer countless opportunities, but they can also teeter on a fine line of what’s acceptable.
“We have to talk about it,” Porritt said. “I mean, it’s way too easy for a kid to tweet or post something that can really hurt the image of a team.”
“I just talk to them about (Facebook and Twitter), and hopefully, they understand that they have to be honest in what they do,” said Grosse Pointe North’s Frank Sumbera, who’s coached at North since 1969 and been head coach since 1980. He add that he’ll never be found on any of the social sites, nor does he see any reason to check up on his guys.
Herrington said he was made aware of an opponent’s change at quarterback last year when one of his players read the news on a Facebook post.
“I know I’d be pretty mad if I was the other coach,” Herrington added.
He, though, like most coaches, hasn’t banned any social networks from his players.
“The team can police itself,” Porritt said.
Yet, Madison Heights Madison High coach Drake Wilkins, now in his fifth year with the school and 25th overall as a coach, said he “worries a lot” about the social aspect.
“It’s probably the one area I am so incompetent in, it’s not even funny. I’m in the ice age, still,” he added. “Everything kids do now has to be posted somewhere instantly, and you never want something said or posted that makes your football program and the kid himself look bad. … The best thing I can do is advise them on common sense.”
“I’m not on Twitter or anything, yet,” Fracassa said laughing. “I guess I don’t really plan on it, either. Our younger coaches know all about that, and our guys, hopefully, have the common sense to be smart with it.”
Not all bad
Still, advancements that may cause a headache or two with veteran coaches have also made their jobs somewhat easier.
Goddard recalled the days of old film, saying how it would take up to 24 hours to watch a game played the day before.
“Now, 20 minutes after the game we’ve got six different films with three different angles,” he explained.
And in a sport like football, where each game brings about the most intense preparation, having access to media sites or instant downloads of opposing teams has cut out a ton of prep work.
“I remember the days where you had to take such good care of your film,” Sumbera said. “If it ripped or something, you wouldn’t have it for the next year.”
Most, if not all, teams spend time each week with film sessions, both on themselves and on that week’s opponent. But with games and replays on local television, highlights on YouTube and other sharing sites, Porritt says there’s a new dimension to preparation he never had in his early days.
“Kids can go home and do film work on their own,” he explained. “We still do the team stuff, but we have kids that will take time at home to do that little extra.”
Wilkins said he is equally oblivious to some of the newer technology of film breakdown and weekly prep.
“Again, that’s where the younger guys on my staff really come in,” he added. “They can do all that stuff in about half the time I can, and a lot of it makes things much easier.”
Still, even as the calendar turns on another school year for all these masters of their craft, recalling the old days is never a bad idea.
“Sometimes, the best thing I can do is grab just a pencil and a pad of paper,” Wilkins said laughing. “It’s good once in awhile to chart some things out on paper and spend a long night at my desk kicking them around.”