After his team’s ouster from the postseason following a winless regular season Friday night, Roughers head coach Rafe Watkins postgame comments to the media were already on 2021 and the potential for a full off-season that due to the cloud of the current pandemic or even future pandemics, one can no longer can take for granted.
But after what he said was an earlier-than-anticipated exit interview on Monday, a day that’s usually reserved for checking in equipment and such, he said he went home and thought about it.
On Tuesday, by mutual agreement, says all parties — he, athletic director Jason Parker and superintendent Jarod Mendenhall — Watkins’s seven-year tenure at the helm was over.
“It just came down to talking to Dr. Mendenhall on Monday and the exit interview, and what it was going to take to get things going in a upward direction, and it was good dialogue, no hostility either way,” said Watkins. “He said ‘come back and see me tomorrow.”
Watkins said he went home and talked with his wife Karen, currently the principal at the Grant Foreman sixth grade campus, adding it’s not the first time they’ve talked about such a decision here.
He’s fiddled with the idea of going back west and possibly returning home to the area around Prague, an area both of them are from, especially after his father died a few years ago. Last year’s playoff run and the 6-0 start came as voters approved a bond issue that includes a new football stadium, and the energy from that had him choosing to stay put then.
He spent the weekend “decompressing” in Prague after Friday’s loss.
“It’s a good time for me, it’s a good time for the schools. I know people think there’s no mutual deals in these situations but there really is at times,” Watkins said. “It’s something I need and to be quite honest, Muskogee schools needs.”
Watkins, who came to Muskogee from a highly successful tenure at Guthrie winning four state titles in Class 5A, in 2016 reached the 6AII semifinals and was named Coach of the Year on the All-Phoenix team that year.
He coached his fifth consecutive playoff team this year, an odd accomplishment made possible by the pandemic that had the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association open the playoffs to all teams based on the number of canceled games throughout the state. Muskogee had four games canceled due to COVID-19 and was 0-6 before losing 39-0 to Midwest City in the added playoff round last week.
The 0-7 campaign scarred what became a 34-36 record here. It was a season that started with three key injuries, including two players with Division I commitments or offers. Beyond those were a horde of young and inexperienced players who didn’t get the advantage of spring football due to the shutdown of all spring sports and limitations on summer off-season activities.
There was also the obstacles of distance learning during the fall semester which had kids away from school and perhaps out of pocket for practices due, Watkins said, to such things as a “player having to take care of a little brother or sister” who may or may not have been also on distance learning themselves.
Athletic director Jason Parker said the feeling the program needed a new direction was mutual.
“We wanted to see where his mind was. It wasn’t something we were sure about and it wasn’t something I think Rafe was sure about, but after talking together I think it became clear this was the best way for all of us to proceed,” Parker said.
“I’ve said it a million times, I think Rafe is one of the best coaches I’ve worked with. … I’d put him as a paradigm of what our program needs to be as far as executing our core principles and mentality. But having said that, everyone comes to a point of, I don’t know … a funk. We had a sense of urgency that if he felt like it was time to move on, it would allow us to move more quickly than not.”
That process begins immediately.
Travis Hill, the current assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, will be interim head coach while a search commences. He has been a candidate here in previous searches.
Mendenhall could not be reached for additional comment. He issued this statement with the announcement of the decision: “Muskogee Public Schools is thankful to Rafe for his hard work and dedication to Rougher Football. After meeting following the conclusion of the season, we mutually agreed that a fresh start for our football program would be best. I wish Rafe the best of luck in the next season of life for him and his wife Karen. They are terrific people and I truly do appreciate the work that they have done in our community and our school system in the last seven years.”