MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Prep Sports

December 2, 2012

COLUMN: Change at Muskogee won’t happen and shouldn’t

— Well, I’m stunned, and probably some of you are as well.

There’s still just one area team in 26 years that has won a state football title. Vian’s 22-0 loss to Davis on Friday was a case of everything that had gone right over 13 weeks suddenly going really bad.  

Thus, the Wolverines won’t go to Stillwater seeking to make it back-to-back gold for the area. The last team to win before Wagoner last season? Muskogee in 1986.

Speaking of the Roughers, let’s speak of the Roughers.

Their year was on the other end of the pole from where Vian’s ended up. The Wolverines lost one game. Muskogee put together its first one-win season since 1965.

Meanwhile, there was plenty of parties surrounding them – Wagoner to the north (semifinals in 4A), Fort Gibson to the east (quarterfinals in 4A),  Hilldale to the south (quarterfinals in 3A) and Haskell to the west (first playoff appearance since 2004). All but Wagoner had unprecedented success.

Exit doors in Muskogee are quite attractive for kids drawn to winning programs.

So change is needed. Right?

Fire the coach.

That’s the opinion of one reader last week and depending on where you sat at Indian Bowl this past season, the mindset of a few more grumblers. But the board that hired him doesn’t agree, so all this has amounted to is a editorial page civil war between readers.

Frankly, it would be ill-advised to dump anyone after two years unless he’s abusing his authority and in no way has Josh Blankenship done anything remotely of that sort.

Yes, Blankenship has one of the highest-paid coaching jobs in the state. It would be anyway, being a 6A program. And it’s fair to say people deserve a bang for that buck, and he first and foremost understands that.

Going into week 10, I asked him if he felt the heat of the grumblers’ breath on his neck. His response had more to do with being more concerned had he not felt it. “I wouldn’t want to be here if there wasn’t that passion,” were his exact words.

But let’s put passion in its place.

This program isn’t in 1986 form. It’s not even close, and it’s not really near the program Ron Lancaster took over and built a foundation for three consecutive semifinal trips.

But definitely not 1986.

Back then, all 6A enrollments were close to the same. Today, the rich are rich and well, there’s the rest, as Norman North found out Friday, just like every other team since 1995. The 6A penthouse has two rooms – one for Jenks, the other for Union.

Getting within sight of the front door isn’t out of the realm of possibility though, and the playoffs should be a reasonable expectation.

But there’s been slippage. This point is debatable, but I felt Josh’s best shot at jump-starting a program reeling from a 5-6 season that included 70-3 and 70-13 losses was to make the playoffs last year. It didn’t, and some key personnel losses were experienced – including eight defensive starters.

This year’s group had a small senior class  and an even smaller junior class, both short on talent – a comment I heard echoed by one of the players himself at one of our letter writers who said the program was adrift in a sea of talent.

Four-and-6 was realistic for this team in August, but injuries took out the team’s best running back for more than half a season, a quarterback for two games, a defensive back for the season and an unfair number of freshmen and sophomores were thrust into full-time duty. They should have been playing JV games.

Making coaching changes at the high school level is somewhat overrated and seldom a magic potion. Unlike a college or professional coach, a new head coach usually must integrate into an existing staff with few if any new hires. Blankenship hired two coordinators his first season, a laycoach and Bobby Klinck, who was offered the Tulsa East Central job after Ben Bowling’s sudden dismissal. That was Klinck coaching in a state championship last night.

Certainly, the program needs victories. It also needs a person with character to lead a campus of young men who need that. Blankenship brings that. He has a winning pedigree as the son of Tulsa head coach Bill Blankenship, who won at Union.

What Josh inherited is a program that is slipping in more than just wins. MHS severely lacks in facilities such as training facilities in comparison with its 6A brethren, and the gap is growing by the day. Fort Gibson’s weight facility, built last year, is better. Hilldale’s is arguably better. Wagoner has made recent upgrades as well.

And with on-field successes there, a “move” to a cousin’s in south Tulsa is no longer the most practical option for a sixth or seventh grade athlete, or for that matter, even a high school kid willing to risk a year’s eligibility if he doesn’t get a hardship waiver. That pattern has already established itself in baseball, where nearby success and facilities have made first-year coach Jeremy Griffin’s task of 6A relevancy a long-term project.

Some of that “community pride” we see in letters might do well to step up to the plate with some financial resources like it has, though not in tax revenue, but with community partnerships such as the agreement with Bacone that helped get the funds to re-turf the field (recall that both the field and weight room improvements failed in a recent bond election).

It’s baby steps, but steps.

And those steps are being taken within the program itself. Numbers at the sophomore level and below are up.  There is some talent in that group that might remind people of the Lancaster/Matt Hennesy group. Still, it’s a year, maybe two years from peaking. Part of that stems from the lack of linemen beginning with next year’s group.

And that is something that the staff can do something about, starting with Summer Pride. It needs to be reworked.  

There’s plenty of evidence over the past couple years that the morning-long plan that benefits kids district-wide doesn’t serve football purposes. Attendance is not what it should be and while the reasons vary, there are a number of kids with summer jobs supporting their families, and others with other commitments that get in the way.

It’s my hunch that having a daily plan for each player to follow and supervising the facility morning and evening would give the kids the necessary flexibility to make that commitment and be accountable. If you’re going to have to play sophomores, then the sophomores need to commit 100 percent to developing a senior body. Developing speed is a little less flexible than the capacity for change in size and strength.

One other thing that would help – getting everyone involved in leadership on the same page.  Before he came here, Lancaster said that you hire quality people, commit the resources, and hold them accountable on stated objectives, but avoid running interference or micromanaging them along the way.

A culture of success is imperative, maybe even urgent.

Muskogee is in “interesting times” in terms of the status of its athletic programs. Changing coaches at this point merely would make 1986 seem more distant, like 1936.

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