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September 18, 2013

New year, new coaching yielding new product with Cranbrook football

By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer

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Joe D’Angelo talks things over with his players during a practice last week. Former head coach Stephen Graf walks in the background.

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Football is supposed to be an afterthought at Cranbrook, a fall activity to help athletes stay in shape, stay sharp or just stay involved with something before their winter or spring seasons begin.

The team itself — it’s supposed to be, well, bad. And for years, it’s battled, unsuccessfully, to change that. 

Athletics is a staple of this institution, but Cranbrook is by no means a football school.

“But, you know what, I saw the potential here,” said Joe D’Angelo.

D’Angelo stands on the practice field, just a few feet from a shaded hill on a day so hot that no pads, only helmets, were being worn and breaks for water were a scheduled necessity.

D’Angelo is in his first year as head coach at Cranbrook.

He’s seen winners in his time, claimed two state titles (1986 and 1995) while leading Beverly Hills Detroit Country Day, and at one point, stepped away from coaching for good.

Or so he thought.

“I just saw the potential in this program,” he repeated. “When you come to Cranbrook, you’re working with scholar-athletes — intelligent kids. If I was going to get back into coaching, I told myself it had to be a school like this.”

So, prior to the 2012 season, then-head coach Stephen Graf brought D’Angelo on board as an offensive coordinator with the agreement he would assume head coaching duties this fall.

The transition was flawless, and the early returns have been nothing short of spectacular.

A 2-7 team last year, Cranbrook was 2-1 after three weeks this year, opening the season with a 33-0 victory against Westland Lutheran, followed by a 42-0 shutout of Detroit Edison Academy and a 31-6 loss to Clarkston Everest Collegiate.

It’s not an overpowering schedule, by any means, but it has served as a step in the right direction for a program that had just seven wins since 2010.

“People actually want to talk about the football team in school,” senior receiver Brad Fraser said. “That’s so different to all of us.”

“Kids have said to me, ‘Wait, you’re not bad anymore,’” senior running back Joseph Myrick said. “It’s pretty cool.”

D’Angelo laughed when asked if he was the main reason for the turnaround, likely because so many of his players said so when asked.

Instead, the 70-year-old credits the process, itself.

“With the support of the school and the support of the administration, I was able to put together a coaching staff that would enable these kids to learn right away,” D’Angelo explained. “So we all went out for coffee one day to talk about it, and we all saw the potential in the guys and felt like this was something we could do.”

Terry Copacia, the former offensive coordinator at Utica Eisenhower for 28 years and head coach at Utica High for three, joined D’Angelo’s staff.

Brandon Oliver, a former head coach at Allen Park Cabrini, was also on board.

Graf, who said hiring D’Angelo “brings immediate credibility to the program,” even returned to the team to serve as an assistant, giving Cranbrook “four guys with head-coaching experience,” as D’Angelo boasted.

Even Cranbrook head baseball coach Andy Fairman joined.

“It’s a whole different environment,” senior tight end Belvin Liles said. “Practice is up-tempo. The whole culture is different.”

And by design.

D’Angelo’s main objective when the season began was to change the culture associated with the program. For too long, he said, losing had been the norm.

“And in order to do that, you have to establish trust and belief in each other,” he explained. “That’s been our aim so far. We want these kids to trust and believe in one another, and the coaches. We want to make football fun again.”

Word has certainly spread.

“Kids are excited about football,” Liles said. “We’ve even had some guys come out this week to play and to be part of this.”

From 1977 to 1997, D’Angelo was the main man at Country Day, slowly but surely building that program into a consistent winner.

The 1990 Michigan High School Football Hall of Fame inductee understands Cranbrook is miles from something like that, but remains steadfast in his journey to eventually get there, or close to it.

“I promised the people in charge I would stay here until this program is turned around and I can hand it off to someone else who is ready,” D’Angelo said. “I can’t do this forever. I mean, one of these days I have to walk away.”

He paused and smiled as if he might want to take those words back.

“You know, though, we’re just all enjoying it so much right now.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mike Moore at mmoore@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1038. Twitter Follow Mike on Twitter.