Defensive Coordinator Russ Schlager in foreground, Defensive Backfield Coach John Gumb and Head Coach Jeff Gross, in the background; direct the Bison in their first round Playoff game with Alliance
As I departed the Bison Stadium after McCook’s first round district game with Alliance, I was stopped by a blue windbreaker wearing gentleman I assumed to be an Alliance supporter, perhaps a parent. Our conversation went as such: Him: Aren’t you that writer guy I read about in the paper? Me: Yes. Him: Then you must be pretty smart. Me: Depends on who you ask. Him: Then I have a question. Me: Ok. Him: Why does McCook always win? Me: I don’t know. Maybe it was just their night. Him: It is always their night. We have just as good of players as them and we are just as big. I don‘t get it. Me: I don’t know what else to tell you. Him: I think they are just darn lucky.
He spun on his heels and left, obviously dissatisfied with the non-answer he got from the smart writer.
I was due in Linton, ND the next afternoon for a Class A state playoff game and was faced with an all-night eight hour drive to get there. I was not looking forward to the lonely passage through the Sand Hills on a dark, moon less and cold night.
North of North Platte, NE and south of Pierre, SD, Highway 83 hits a stretch where no over the air radio stations are available to the bored traveler, with the exception of National Public Radio. As a card carrying Democrat, I whole heartily endorse NPR and hope that their funding, which has become an election year political football exploited by those dastardly Republicans, stays intact. However, there is only so much Hungarian Peasant Folk Dance music a body needs in one day. So imagine my delighted surprise when I discovered that due to the evening air ways carrying a stronger signal, that I could pick up one commercial AM station, the 50,000 watt giant KMOX, directly from my hometown of St. Louis, MO. Due to this stroke of good luck, I was able to listen to Mike Shannon butcher the English language as only the lovable “Moon Man” can, as he described the last three innings of the Cardinals 7th game historic World Series win over the Texas Rangers.
In between Shannon’s malaprops, as he told an elated home town audience of the Redbirds unlikely march to their 11th world title, I contemplated the gentleman in blue’s question: “Why does McCook always win?”
By the time I crossed the border from Nebraska into South Dakota, with the Sioux Nation’s Rosebud Casino on my left, the question had gnawed at me enough that I spent the next 3 1/2 hours of driving through South Dakota formulating in my mind an answer.
By the time I reached the North Dakota boarder, having cheated a 45 mile detour of Highway 83 by taking a gravel road route that a weather-worn farmer had shown me back in August, usurping those cursed “government” barriers that if obeyed, would have added close to an hour to my already long enough trip, I had the answer: The Bison do not beat themselves. It is that simple to label, but much more complex to understand. I next needed to break down and examine each detailed plank Coach Gross has laid in building his powerhouse program.
Gross’ long term success is built upon preparation. The formula for another Friday night win begins each preceding Sunday evening in the Gross Family/Rec Room as the Bison coaching staff gathers to formulate the upcoming week’s practice schedule that will, they hope, come to fruition with a well execute game field performance on Friday night.
Many coaches can formulate a great game plan on the chalk board during a Sunday night meeting, but are unable to transfer the plan to the playing field on Friday night because they either do not understand, or will not accept, the number one rule of good teaching: accountability. If the student fails to master the task, then the teacher has failed, not the student. McCook players master their football tasks so well that many times they collaborate with the coaches to make game field adjustments.
During half time of one game, Gross was not happy with defensive end Matt Collicott for allowing the opposing quarterback to get to the sideline for a long gain. “You got to have contain on the naked boot, what happened,” Gross barked. “Their end scraped and I went with him,” the lineman answered. “Why can’t you do that?” an animated Gross demanded. “Cause Javier has the receiver on the drag pattern and nobody else is back there,” correctly answered the player. “So what do you do this half,” Gross quizzed. “Stay home and contain,” the player said. “Then do it, dammit,” Gross conclude, the correction of the mistake completed.
On the first possession of the second half, the same misdirection roll out by the quarterback was again attempted. This time though, the opposing signal caller was met head on by a “stay at home” Collicott and dropped, dammit, for a five yard loss.
The Bison gather for their pregame and halftime instruction on home game nights in the area below the north grandstands of their stadium. For 5 to 7 Friday nights a year, the location serves as a makeshift command center for the battle planning of the town’s teenage heroes. The other 360 or so days of the year it is a storage area for the grounds crew who takes care of the stadium. Amidst tractors, lawn mowers, hoses, crescent wrenches and other assorted tools; the team will assemble. Before each home game, as I stepped in to hear the coaches’ instructions, I always had a mind flash to the classic comedy movie Caddy Shack
The second plank of the formula for Bison success, which builds on the back of plank 1, is the organization of the large staff Gross oversees and how they contribute to both preparation and the game night execution of the team. For any given game, 6 to 8 assistant coaches will join Gross on the sideline, another three to four in the Press Box, communicating to the coaches on the sideline through radio headsets. The efficiency and the success of the instruction given to the Bison players is because the McCook coaches, when it comes to teaching football skills, are all on the same page. With many teams, when a player, either in practice or a game, receives instruction from more than one coach, the frustration of the athlete becomes apparent due to contradicting instruction given my multiple coaches. I have never once, either in practice or a game, seen that happen at McCook. The instruction is rapid fire in its delivery and to the point. It is most importantly consistent from one coach to the next. The correction is made, the grasp of the athlete’s understanding validated and the practice or game continues without interruption or delay.
The third plank is that Gross has an uncanny ability to place his players in positions where their skills will allow them to be successful. Gross does not ask his players to do things they can’t do. Bob Elder, a longtime local booster of the team, told me on my first trip to McCook, that over the years, he has seen Gross time and time again make personnel moves that have proved to be just the right assignment for both the player and the team. When Jake Schlager, arguably the Bison’s most irreplaceable player, broke his leg in week 9, Gross adjusted his playbook to accommodate Shlager’s replacement at tailback, Kyle Stewart. The junior is a talented hard runner, but he does not have Schlager’s speed. “We are not going to ask him to be Jake,” said Gross, the week before the Alliance playoff game, the first game plan that would not include Schlager. “You don’t replace that speed. We can adjust.”
The next plank is Gross’ loyalty to his upperclassman. Players growing up in McCook know that if they stick with the sport, training on the sub varsity levels as they are required too, that when they are juniors and seniors, there will be a spot for them on the varsity stage. They will have the chance to run through the Bison Helmet onto the green game field under the bright Friday night lights; before a packed and cheering stadium. It is the main reason that McCook will dress on game night 50 to 60 varsity players.
Next, Gross will listen to his trusted and able assistants. He loves to tell the self-deprecating story of his first year in McCook and his attempt to instill a Mouse Davis style wide open offensive passing game. It didn’t fit. “Wouldn’t have blame them if they would have fired right then for that stunt,” he says now, 14 years later. That off season, Gross sat down with his assistants and created the more vanilla veer style option offense that has become the trade mark of the McCook dynasty.
Finally, the consistency of Gross’ conservative approach to the game plan does not vary. McCook will run the football. If the Bison cannot control both lines of scrimmage, then Gross feels they cannot win. His defense philosophy mirrors that of the offense, also conservative in nature. Gross says that his defense will bend but not break. “We dink you to death,” is how he once described it to me.
For the McCook conservative approach to be successful, field position is an absolute for the Bison. They must be able to impose their conservative will on the flow of the game. Paramount to their ability to dictating game pace, year in and year out, lies with McCook having the best special team's play in the area. That is not just a happenstance of luck, but a cause and effect result of long term planning.
McCook begins training punters and kickers in Junior High. From a list of 15 or so kicking hopeful candidates in 7th grade, the group will be pared to 2 or 3 survivors by the time a class reaches the varsity level.
Voluntary summer training sessions with professional kicking instructors develop the skills of the McCook specialists, not only kickers, but also long snappers and holders. The depth of the kicking ranks in this small high school speaks of the emphasis the coaching staff places on the importance of dominating the kicking game. In pregame warm up, the Bison will have three place kickers blasting 40 yard plus field goals, while on the other sideline will be a couple of punters launching 50 yard spirals. Twice this season, Matt Chitwood, whom Gross calls the best placekicker in the state, has won double overtime games for the Bison with walk off field goals. Gross, in August, also labeled his punter, junior Matt Collicott, as the best punter in the state. When Collicott was injured against Lexington, his back up, senior Tyson Carr, stepped in and for his first varsity game as the #1 punter, hit three critical 4th quarter punts, ranging from 43 to 47 yards with 0 return yards, to keep Adams Central mostly pinned in their own end of the field for the decisive late minutes of a three point win. If Collicott is the best punter in the state, then his back up Karr is number 1A.
The importance of field position for a defense built on the principle of bending but not breaking was on display in the first round playoff game with Alliance. Twice in the first half, the visitors from the Panhandle broke 50 yard plays. However, both efforts began with the ball deep in Alliance territory, 80 to 85 yards from the McCook end zone. Eventually, neither long gain led to any points for Alliance, despite twice covering over half the field on one snap of the ball. The first ending with an Austin Cherry interception, the second on a missed field goal attempt. Due in large to winningthe field position battle, McCook raced from the gate to a dominating 21-0 first quarter lead.
As the Sun rose over a breaking perfect weather day for high school playoff football in Linton, ND, I felt satisfaction in that I had unlocked the secret of the long term success on the grid iron of the McCook Bison: they don’t beat themselves and, with all due respect to the man from Alliance whose inquiry stimulated me to make constructive use of my time on an all-night drive through the Sand Hills; Gross is riding a 14 year lucky streak.