No one will deny that the football season on the north end of town has been a funk. For Muskogee High, it was a struggle in every fall sport.
But where football is king….
What if Division I candidate linebacker Caleb Webb played a whole game against Bishop McGuinness instead of a series — and not tore up a knee in the 20-13 decision against a 5A team that turned it on as the season went on?
What if Ty Williams, in for the first time all season at quarterback against Coweta, doesn’t feel that decisive hamstring twinge on a scramble late in the first half?
What if COVID-19 had not been around and linebacker Darian Davis was actually able to have an early winter surgery on his shoulder?
What if we’d seen then what we did now, that while navigating through a football season and in-class, out-of-class instruction, that at least an attempt at spring football and a more normal summer off-season could have occurred?
What if they’d just been able to play Putnam City West?
My guess, at least a 5-5 year with wins over McGuinness, Coweta and Putnam City West for sure, then perhaps the deep part of the funk in games at Sand Springs then home against Bartlesville would have been reversed by momentum alone. And then the Choctaw game — overall the best performance by a young team made younger through all the suffering — might have been different too.
Then, maybe, a toss-up against Tulsa Washington, and a win to end the year against Ponca City, maybe more than five.
If any or all of that occurred would this “mutual decision” been necessary that puts us now in a post-Rafe Watkins era and on to whoever’s next?
I doubt it.
But, and I’ll borrow from Webb’s dad and Facebook friend Terrell Webb’s post signatures, “it is what it is.”
Armed with the promise of a coming state-of -the-art facility, the administration’s search for the next hire is on. One of the goals is to get more kids out for the program.
But there’s some complexities to that.
What kind of kids? It’s easy to take a slightly above average sized kid, put him in a weight room, and come out with at least what coaches like to refer to as “program kids.” It’s harder to turn an average Joe into a brilliant skill player. You can tweak speed, but some of us were never genetically intended to be 4.5 sprinters. You’ve got to bring some God-given gifts to the table as well.
It’s also not automatic to get a kid out, keep him eligible grade-wise, keep his attitude in check — no, not in these new school days of sometimes tip-toe values as opposed to boot camp expectations.
To do all that takes a culture of commitment, nurturing, and patience.
Now a coach’s enthusiasm, salesmanship and relationship skills are all desirable and obtainable, depending on who you hire. And that indeed can have some impact.
Based on what I’ve seen as a trend over the last few years, I can’t say this is unique to Muskogee anymore, but a focus on the overall well-being of a student from mental, physical, emotional and spiritual perspectives is becoming challenging wherever your kid or grandkid takes the bus to in the morning.
The key there, again, is a culture of commitment, and that goes beyond the coach and the classroom. And that’s tough, sometimes, in an era of excuses and wanting someone else to change, or even living, deceptively, as if we were still living in 1986 still. (For those who don’t get the significance of that year, it’s the only state championship in football Muskogee has won since the 50s, and there weren’t powerhouses at Jenks, Broken Arrow, Owasso and Bixby then).
I went back and counted, based on yearbook photos, the rosters of the 1986, 1996 and 2006 teams. The first two were in the Ron Freeman era, the third was from the reign of Matt Hennesy, who had just taken the handoff from Ron Lancaster and now coaches at Pawhuska. That’s two legendary Rons and a guy who is currently chopping up the opposition pretty good in the land of the Mercantile.
Those teams had, by my count, 54 in 1986, 56 in 1996 and 67 in 2006, although when I shared the photo with Hennesy, he told me that included a few sophomores who were essentially JV guys.
The 2016 semifinal team’s numbers? 55.
This year’s roster in October? 58. It didn’t end that way, with some departures as well as injuries. But the count really hasn’t changed much.
There’s 1,400 kids at Muskogee, roughly 700 of them of the typical football playing gender, so there’s probably some fish out there that can be caught.
There’s also some excitement brewing about the eighth- and ninth-grade teams. Both were undefeated. But both went against some schools that have multiple teams, and not the combination of what they’ll see once they are on the varsity stage. But, they were unbeaten with just 20 eighth-graders and 24 ninth-graders.
It’s made sense to me that adding underclass numbers and staff is a must. A school will always have activity attrition from seventh grade forward, as kids experiment to find their niche or niches.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, today’s pee-wee football dynasty does not automatically lead to a state champion years later. But push for the increase of numbers, along with a weight program and those on-field and in-class expectations, and you’ve got a chance at something pretty cool as it grows.
Give Watkins due credit for this as he and his wife Karen — who made her impact here as a principal at Pershing and then Grant Foreman sixth grade center — get ready for the next phase of their journey: His push in the area of the off-season weight program, an absolute essential, made some strides with the implementation of a powerlifting team, which even had a football player win a state title. Without a weight program, even a junior high numbers boost won’t benefit.
In his first seven years at Guthrie, Watkins already had two state titles. Guthrie is a lot like Muskogee. Except they’re 5A.
There’s meaning to that, for Guthrie, but also Muskogee.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing here, to be 5A. Muskogee’s current ADM is six schools on the list and a little under 200 kids from being 5A.
I would especially go as far as saying there’s nothing wrong with being a 5A school with a premier facility. And what if Muskogee had been 5A in 2016?
But that’s not really desirable descending from the top, and perhaps understandably so. Growth is healthy. But growth also requires the right economics. That, and good schools, combine to make a really good magnet.
In the end, the next coach might make a dent, might get to that occasional semifinal with the occasional burst of can’t-miss talent, but he can’t be a world changer unless the culture, the whole culture, goes hand in hand with him, 6A or 5A.
That's key to greatness.
I hope he’s an good salesman in that regard.
Make that an epic salesman.