Muskogee Public Schools superintendent Jarod Mendenhall talked about one of his biggest tasks over the next three months — the hiring of a new head football coach.
That job came down Tuesday when a “mutual decision” ended Rafe Watkins’ seven-year tenure at MHS.
Now, Mendenhall, who couldn’t be reached following the decision Tuesday, finds himself at the helm of another search. Ironically, the last one he was involved with occurred at Broken Arrow when David Alexander was the pick, and Watkins was one of the finalists.
Watkins had the hardware — four state titles at Guthrie, Alexander, as Mendenhall pointed out, had deep Broken Arrow roots as a grad who went on to an NFL playing career. The “Broken Arrow guy” more than the playing career became the catalyst for a decision, Mendenhall said.
A short time later that year, Watkins was hired at MHS.
“Rafe has a great reputation and I can’t say enough good things from where he’s taken the program from the place that he found it,” Mendenhall said.
But injuries, a pandemic, hurdles on practice time in the off-season and with distance learning and then schedule breakdowns led to an abbreviated 0-7 season.
“I know everyone else had the same variables, but it just didn’t seem like we were hitting on all cylinders from the beginning,” he said. “I guess for me the entire year there was a lot of things that were difficult and I’m not really blaming anyone, it’s just how it played out.
“I would never want someone to think that just because a team is 0-7 that we moved in this direction. It really had to do with all the pieces and when you put it all together and talked about it, we felt like it was time for a transition to occur.”
With his handprint on the next hire, there’s points of focus Mendenhall is taking aim at.
“One of the things I’m going to press a little with the next coach is I think there has to be more participation with kids,” he said. “I don’t think we can have 35-40 kids out in 6AII, I’m not saying we don’t have to have expectations of kids, they’re going to have to do what they’re supposed to, but I think we need 60-70 players on the sideline. Maybe that’s a high expectation from me, but I think that’s what can be done.”
Another thing is someone sharing his approach to sharpening the brand. When Mendenhall got here, it was about refreshing that brand. It then shifted to a bond issue and a new football and basketball facility.
That should translate to the next hire in a couple more ways, he said.
“We have to create excitement within the community," he said. "I’m not only about trying to change image but also what we look like and feel like to the entire community. You can’t just do that passing a bond issue, you have to do that with culture. I’ve got to have a culture builder — someone who can come build that in the school and community.”
“Anyone who has spent a lot of time with me knows I’m about what I call being a kid magnet, someone who loves and invests in kids. Kids have to be attracted to what you do, and in football they got to want to get kids to come play football and play hard. I think on a daily basis you have to coach and teach every day and that’s as basic as making sure kids are getting to class, doing the right thing in practice, doing the right thing at home.
"It’s asking a lot of a head coach but I think what we get is high reward. I think we’ll compete for another state championship within a few years.”
There is a strong eighth and ninth grade group on the way.
“I think Rafe did a great job and I think it took us to a point where we can bring the next person in and really have success,” Mendenhall said.
The job will be posted by week’s end, Mendenhall said, and will leave it there until filled. He said reviewing of applicants will start after Thanksgiving and that “about seven or eight” would be interviewed in early January, with a recommended hire presented at the February board meeting.
He said he had no short list, and that he would welcome assistant head coach Travis Hill as an internal candidate.
Hill previously was a head coach at East Central and was on Alexander’s staff until being hired back at Muskogee this past spring. He was on Watkins’ staff when the Roughers reached the 6AII semifinals in 2016.
Watkins said Tuesday he had an immediate inquiry from a Missouri school, but wants to get back near the Prague area where he and wife Karen are originally from. It’s where his mom still lives after his dad died about three years ago.