METRO DETROIT — He’s been here before, but never like this.
He’s done this a million times over, but he’s a rookie now.
After more than a dozen years of service, Dave Sofran is no stranger to the sideline.
But when Birmingham Brother Rice opens the 2014 season Aug. 30 at Wayne State University, the long-time assistant will officially become just the second head coach Rice has known since 1969.
“Filling the shoes of a legend isn’t always the most glamorous thing to do,” Sofran said shortly after camp opened. “But it’s an honor to serve in this position. You have to be proud to be a part of this tradition.”
Like a handful of other local coaches, Sofran’s task is now to establish his own tradition as new tenures across the state kick off.
A whole new feel
For the past several years, Sofran was Al Fracassa’s right-hand man at Rice. He helped guide the program to state title in each of the past three seasons. But when the winningest coach in MHSAA history announced the 2013 season would be his final, many correctly assumed Sofran was the natural pick to succeed Fracassa.
“As a new coach, there is the balance of trying to be in control of everything, and at the same time, delegating things to the staff, the parents and others who have to do their job, too,” Sofran said. “Not all decisions will be easy or go right, and I know there will be mistakes made. You just hope the majority (of decisions) will be good.”
“It’s exciting, but it’s very busy,” first-year Ferndale High coach Eric Royal said. “When you are controlling everything, especially on the operational side of things and scheduling, that’s something that’s been different. A lot different.”
Royal spent the past seven years as a varsity assistant before taking over the Eagles’ program this year.
“You kind of expect all the new responsibilities,” Royal added. “But until you step into those shoes, you really don’t get it. You can’t predict what it really entails.”
For many who go from assistant to head coach, it’s the “other things” surrounding the game that require the most work.
“You don’t want to say ‘overwhelming,’ but you have to be very, very detailed,” first-year Royal Oak High coach Tim Chapman said. “You realize how much attention to detail and organization goes into this when you start. You see all the different angles of a football program. It’s more than just the Xs and Os.”
“Fundraising, busing, equipment — it’s a little bit of everything,” Royal added. “You have to find a way to fit football in somewhere.”
Make it their own
Sofran said one of the early tasks of the year is making the program his own without changing too much.
“You have to find a way to be yourself,” he added.
“I’m confident, but there’s always that unknown,” said Sterling Heights Stevenson coach Kevin Frederick. “This is all something new. You probably need a whole year to feel totally comfortable in this role.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s the butterflies,” Royal said of taking over a program. “I think it’s more so the worry that you’re covering everything and preparing the team the right way for every facet of the game.”
There can be a fine line, though, of making it your own and trying not to do too much.
Sofran inherited a squad that went 14-0 a year ago, and fairly or unfairly, the expectations at Rice will never change, no matter who the coach is.
It’s quite different for others, like Royal, where losing seasons have been the norm of late.
Changing just about everything is the expectation.
“You don’t get into coaching for the praise, but the backlash of losing is something you don’t want,” Royal said. The Eagles were 2-7 last year and have had just one winning record (5-4 in 2010) since making the playoffs in 2008. “We’re here to represent Ferndale, and you are going to feel that pressure to produce.”
Same spot, new stop
Coaching vacancies are created and filled every year, but if there is one advantage a rookie coach can have, it may just be experience.
“Being a first-year head coach, there are probably some things you just aren’t aware of, things you can’t prepare for until you are the guy. Me having done this before, you kind of know what to expect,” said Frederick, who held head coaching positions at two previous schools before Stevenson. “You kind of have that feel for what the responsibilities are. Coming into this, I knew what had to be done. I was ready for that part of it.”
Patrick Fox is in his first season at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep.
But with more than 30 years of coaching experience, including 24 combined as a head coach at Ortonville Brandon, Berkley High, Ann Arbor Pioneer and Milford High, Fox was able to hit the ground running when he excepted the position with Prep.
“Anytime you have that experience, it’s a huge help,” he said. “It helps you create your staff. You have a greater network of people to work with. There are always landmines along the way as a new coach, but having done it before, you can kind of avoid some of them.”
Experience, though it’s nice, doesn’t guarantee anything.
Each year, each school, each job is different.
“Every job has its own challenge,” he said. “I’m coming from a team last year (Milford) that had 55 kids. We have 36 on our roster now, so it’s going to be different.”
Whether it’s a coach on the job for the first year or someone like Fracassa, who concluded his legendary career at Rice after 45 seasons and nine state titles, there is a calling to the sideline most speak of.
“I wish I was younger and could coach some more,” Fracassa said after last year’s state final. “When you love something this much, it’s tough to leave it.”
“You’re just happy to have the chance to do this,” Fox said. “It’s a blessing to be part of this game and get to work with these kids every year.”