It is impossible to squeeze McCook, Nebraska into the confines of the modern social media. A tweet does it no justice. A Facebook post is woefully inadequate. The Rockwellian feel of this town of 8,000, nestled in the High Plains of Southwest Nebraska, has to be experienced.
Driving north through Scott City, KS, the midway point of a south to north traverse of Highway 83 - from the Mexican border to the Canadian border - one will notice a constant uphill pull, the altitude rising over 600 feet. This section of the route I labeled as “America’s 50 yard line,” is the only topographical area of the 1800 mile trip that has a noticeable change in altitude.
Passing into Nebraska, about 150 miles north of Scott City, the road curves sharply to the right between two towering red rock buttes when suddenly, five miles away in the valley below, appears the town of McCook. On this ribbon of concrete that I have come to know well, this spot has become for me the most treasured and anticipated of land marks.
I love McCook, NE. In particular I am enamored with the pride of the community, the hometown high school football team, the McCook Bison. I have developed an almost missionary type of zeal to spread the word; to educate the masses and make the Bison “America’s team.” But it is a task I leave incomplete. I cannot recreate in words the magical “feel good” karma of a day spent in this small town.
When the Friday Night Lights go on over at Wieland Field - home for over seven decades of the McCook Bison - the magic in the crisp fall air night is intoxicating. If Ray Kinsella and his father had bonded through football instead of baseball, the setting for “Field of Dreams” would not have been in some mythical corn field in Iowa, but in the real world of McCook, NE.
Is McCook the perfect town with no problems? Of course, it is not. Is it sometimes problematic to be a high school student in McCook? It is tough to be a high school student anywhere - it is, for most, an awkward time. But, as McCook's County Attorney Paul Wood once told me, “Up here, we (the good guys) still got them out-numbered.”
For the last 15 years, the conductor for the McCook grid iron symphony is a Kansas native named Jeff Gross. If ever a man has been in the right place, at the right time for the right job, it is Gross. The gods of football fate were in a good mood on that day late in the last millennium when they steered the Hays, KS High School assistant coach to a job that had already been turned down by two more experienced coaches.
Gross has known nothing but football success in McCook, almost from the beginning of his tenure; and all from a coach who himself questioned his readiness when the McCook Public School Board of Education in the Spring of 1998, tabbed Gross as the man to lead their beloved red jersey clad Bison.
As an untried rookie head coach, Gross’ first two teams in a town known for winning football, were at best mediocre, finishing 4-6 and 4-5, respectfully. Over the next 10 years, his Bison compiled a gaudy record of 119 wins and 13 losses. Along the way they have won two state titles (2002 and 2003), just missing a third consecutive title in 2004, when they, in heartbreaking fashion lost the title game on a last second play. A third straight state championship would have been a Nebraska state record, a huge accomplishment in a state that ranks success on the football field right behind God and family.
The Bison also claimed, over the same decade, two state second place finishes and an incredible 72 game regular season winning streak.
Every young coach needs someone to give them a break, a friendly nod from the god’s of fate. “Everyone wants experience (when hiring a new coach). But how do you get experience if no one will give you that first job,” Gross asked rhetorically?
Small towns on the High Plains, Gross knew, developed and measured their self-esteem based on the success of the local football team. The late 20th century farm economy in southwest Nebraska was, to say the least, grim. Yes, the economy has gone bad; farmers were being foreclosed on in record pace, multi-generational farm families found themselves homeless, banished from not only their property, but their heritage. But come Friday night in the fall, all that becomes null and void. Our best is going to strap it on against the best the rival town has to offer, and for an all too short interlude, the real world will take a back seat to high school football. “This town needs football,” Gross succinctly summed up the community pressure put upon him, an outsider, to give the town hope at a time when hope was all many had.
Current McCook High School Principal Jerry Smith came into the district that same summer that Gross began his tour of duty. “We got ripped by many in the public,” recalls Smith. “People said ‘the guy has no experience.’ Jeff had a lot of doubters to overcome.”
But the McCook populace turned into a fair one, willing to give the new coach time. It didn’t take long for McCook to become enamored with and charmed by the outgoing new head coach. “Jeff cares, and that comes across immediately and sincerely,” said Principal Smith. “It is just not in football, but overall. He takes a sincere interest in the kids and he has been like that since he arrived here. He attends games he doesn’t have to: girls’ basketball for example; he goes to school plays, music concerts; he wants to show his support. He doesn’t do it in a ‘showy way,’ but the community knows he cares about the kids in this town, not just the star football players.”
Athletic Director Darin Nichols admits that football is a major player on the athletic landscape at MHS, a sort of “flagship” status in comparison to the other program’s offerings. “No doubt, football is going to generate most of the attention in McCook,” Nichols admitted. “But we do have balance. Look at our numbers in other sports. (55% of McCook High School’s student body was listed on a fall sports roster in 2011, a very high percentage.) “Our other sports might not get the notoriety that football does, but we support them just the same. Sure, we get the complaints from some members of the community that football gets too much, but also, don’t forget that football gets the scrutiny that others don’t. Coach (Gross) and his players are under the microscope 24/7. Other coaches and athletes don’t have to deal with that. And Jeff addresses it (responsibility) constantly with his team.”
Carrying the pride and hopes of the community into battle each Friday night in the fall is a responsibility that Gross takes serious and his administrative bosses’ appreciate it. “Our kids represent us well,” says Principal Smith. “It is something Jeff stresses. It is a great ‘life lesson’ for our kids. Very seldom does one of our athletes screw up to the point that we have to step in.”
Gross was thankful that community expectations were not real high the first couple of seasons. The administration allowed him to grow into the job, but a defining moment came during his first season. “Lexington was our big rival at the time. We had not beaten them in several years. They killed us during the regular season, but we sneaked into the playoffs as the number 16 (and last) seed with a 4-5 record. We drew the #1 seed, Lexington, in the first round at their place and somehow we upset them in overtime. That really solidified what we were doing, and gave me confidence as a young head coach that I could succeed. Looking back now, I don’t know if we would have ever reached the heights we have for this long of a run without that win. It gave me standing in the community and we had a great group of 8th graders when I got here and we knew they were going to be good. They were the core of our first state championship team in 2002.”
Success breeds success, and the first sweet taste of a state title propelled the Bison into what would become a state dynasty in the first decade of the new millennium. “The next few classes didn’t have the talent that the 2002 group did,” recalls Gross. “And were not as successful on the Junior High level as the 02 group, but we had a move in at QB from Pratt, KS that really helped in 2003 and 2004 and the winning just dominoes. It became a case of attitude. Each senior class would say ‘we will not be the group that doesn’t win.’”
The Bison dominated Western Nebraska as they won a second state Class B title in 2003 and finished runner-up in 2004, 2005 and 2007.
If someone in Hollywood would ever decide to make a movie about the life of former New England Patriot and Notre Dame Football, and current University of Kansas Head Coach Charlie Weis, Jeff Gross would make a perfect double for the role of Weis. Gross, despite the high expectations and scrutiny the community places upon his work, is adamant about making the sport fun for his players, his coaching staff, and himself. For example, the ritual of the spy plane. It is tradition that when the team is on the practice field, if a low flying dust cropper comes overhead, as they often do in the summer in western Nebraska, regardless of the importance of what is transpiring at that moment in practice, Gross will yell, “hit it,” and the whole team, along with coaches, drop to the ground and cover their heads. Gross will then shake an angry fist towards the heavens and the trespassing pilot shouting, as he did the week of the Aurora game; “It’s those damn Aurora spies again!”
Gross is in many ways a recreation of everyone’s favorite uncle- a huggable personality that makes the day better and lightens the mood for all around.
Gross’ mood swings are legendary amongst the McCook assistant coaches. Like the flip of a switch, the jovial easy going coach can morph into the serious task master. It is a Jeff Gross with his game face on who now stands at the portable blackboard in his team’s makeshift locker room under the north bleachers at Bison Stadium as he meets with his team for the last time before the home opening contest of the 2011 season. In town are the personal nemieses and tormentors of Gross, the Aurora Huskies. Five of the eleven losses suffered by the Bison in the last decade have come at the hands of tonight’s visitors. It is twenty minutes to kickoff and the upcoming contest is handicapped by the experts as a tossup. Gross is clearly on edge. He will not admit to anyone but close associates, but the dominance of his team by Aurora over the last three season's is eating at the pride of the highly successful coach. This one has become personal.
Although not near worthy of a Bobby Knight blast, Gross for the first time I have witnessed, peppers his talk with a few profanities; referring several times to “kicking ass.” On three separate occasions during the five minute pep talk, the coach will challenge his troops to “do your job.” He mentions trust and team work and the ability to rise to a challenge. He in particular points to the David vs. Goliath battle looming in the trenches. Aurora’s inside three players, on offense and defense, weigh between 260 and 280 pounds, at least a 25 pound per man advantage when compared to their Bison counterparts across the line of scrimmage. “Technique, sure, but give me guts and heart even more than technique, and you can handle them. Hit them every play. Keep wearing on them. Who they have out there are very good. But they have no depth at those positions. Trust me on this one. We keep pounding on them, every play, never take one off; and by the 4th quarter they are worn out,” Gross pauses for effect.
In a game that would prove to be a precursor of the 2011 season, the Bison would knock off the Huskies of Aurora in dramatic overtime fashion, 17-14.
Football, as much as any sport, is a “program” sport and Gross is a program coach. He always had a plan B. Bad bounces did not seem to disrupt his focus and his plan. His players feed off of his confidence and his impeccable planning. In either good or bad times, I never once felt a sense of panic on the Bison sideline. Everyone, from the top down, knew what needed to be done and what their role was in securing another Bison win. The question being: will we do it? That is a result of good planning by a good coach.
Gross has mastered the balance between a control freak and a warm and caring people person, and make no mistake, he is both. When around his staff and his players, be it either on the practice field or in the middle of a game, I never saw Gross pull rank to establish his authority as head coach, but there was also never a doubt of who had the steering wheel on this bus firmly in his grip. Gross is an excellent manager of his assistant coaching talent, never micro managing, but always in a position of assertive over sight. As a former administrator, with much training in the application of human resources, I always walked away from a Bison practice impressed at the organization of personnel and the efficiency of task completion.
Gross’ long term success at McCook is built upon preparation. The formula for another Friday night win begins each proceeding 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-executed game field performance on Friday night.
Many coaches can create 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 halftime 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 containment 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 concluded, 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.
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 not 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 proven to be just the right assignment for both the player and the team. When junior Jake Schlager, arguably the Bison’s most irreplaceable player, broke his leg in week 9 of 2011, Gross adjusted his playbook to accommodate Schlager’s replacement at tailback, Kyle Stewart. A talented hard runner, Stewart did not have Schlager’s speed. “We are not going to ask him to be Jake,” said Gross, the week before a first round playoff match with Alliance, the first game plan that would not include Schlager. “You don’t replace that speed. We can adjust.” to be continued
Coach Jeff Gross and the McCook Bison in 2011 lived through a dream season for ten weeks. Game after game, one shining Friday night after another, the Bison confidently rolled through each and every opponent. Most impressively, they did it the ‘McCook Way”: impeccable preparation with a focus on the most minute of details, highlighted by a hardnosed brand of old fashion football that placed a premium on winning the war at the line of scrimmage.
When the football gods finally changed allegiance, the downfall for the Bison was cruelly swift. In a matter of minutes – the last five of a state quarterfinal loss to Adams Central – the McCook dream season fell apart. What made the disappointment almost unbearable to the Bison was that their demise unfolded on their own field. One disastrous turnover and a couple of missed tackles doomed a team that, all year long, had managed to dodge potential disaster, logging four wins with 4th quarter rallies in their first ten games. But the eleventh was not to be. For the twelve seniors to end their careers in this unexpected and atypical Bison fashion was heartbreaking. In the quarterfinal game against Adams Central, when they needed to zig, they instead zagged, landing them square in the cross hairs of the football gods of fate. The result was a very un-McCook like loss.
McCook seemed in control late in the game, when they completed a masterful 15 play drive that covered 68 yards, putting them ahead by 11 points, 24-13. The drive ate up over seven minutes of the fourth quarter clock, and was just the kind of clutch, mistake free football that had secured so many Bison wins during the Gross years. “We executed on offense tonight about as well, at times, as we have ever done. That is what is so frustrating about losing this game. In hindsight, we played well enough to win. Several times this year we have escaped with wins when maybe we had been outplayed, but capitalized when the other team made a big mistake. Tonight, we got some of our own medicine.”
With an 11 point lead and only 5:53 left in the game, all the Bison needed to advance to the semifinal round was one stop on defense and a couple of first downs. They got the stop, but not the couple of first downs.
The Patriots used a 50 yard quarterback run to take the ball deep into McCook territory, but two plays later, Bison DB Zayne Gillen picked off his second interception of the night, and most of the standing room only crowd at Weyland Field felt the McCook ticket to the next week’s state semifinal game had been punched.
In a play that will long be remembered with groans in McCook, the Bison did what they hardly ever do, fumbled the ball. “The only way we lose this game is to give them one score and let them earn the other,” said assistant coach Russ Schlager after the game. “They didn’t have time to earn a score twice, we had to give them one, and we did.”
On the first down play, to start the drive that was supposed to eat up the clock and move the Bison on to the semifinals, quarterback Matt Chitwood and fullback Justin Terry, on a maneuver the two seniors had successfully executed thousands of times since junior high, mishandled the ball on the veer hand off. AC fell on the fumble at the three yard line. The Patriots needed only one play and a two point conversation to pull within three points of the Bison.
The McCook offense had rolled all night, primarily running the football. A couple of first downs now, despite the costly turnover, and the Bison would again have escaped with a close win. Instead, the Bison offense went three and out. With four minutes to play, after a clutch 55 yard Bison punt by Tyson Karr, the Patriots took control of the football on their own thirty yard line. It took the visitors only two minutes and three plays to march down the field and take their first lead of the night, 28-24.
All-everything Adams Central running back Josh Fowler caught a short pass over the middle and raced untouched for 40 yards to the McCook 34 yard line. On the next play, fullback Kyle Cuddeford caught a swing pass and sprinted around the right end for a 15 yard gain. Quarterback Blake Overmiller then finished off the three play drive by outrunning a Bison defense that was uncharacteristically on its heels for the decisive drive of the game. Overmiller’s effort covered the final 23 yards needed to reach the Bison end zone on a way too easy, three play 66 yard drive. “We were much too soft on that last drive,” said Gross. “We let the momentum slip away with the three and out on offense and then they just ran through us for that last score.”
McCook still had one last gasp of breath left. They came close. With the help of a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on AC, Chitwood led his team to the Patriot’s 23 yard line. But there would be no magic tonight. A third down Chitwood pass to the left sideline was intercepted by Adams Central at the 6 yard line.
That quickly, the Bison dream season was over, laid to waste on the hallowed ground of the Bison home turf, a stage that had seen this senior class perform so well all year long. The twelve senior players, who only minutes before had been at the apex of their careers, cashing in on all the years of hard work in perfecting their skills, cheered on by another packed stadium of home town fans, now had suddenly joined the ranks of former Bison players. In less time that it would take to go to the concession stand for a bag of popcorn, they found their careers over. Most, if not all, will never play football again.
The stunned large Bison crowd sat in stone silence, as if not believing what they had just seen, waiting for a reprieve from the football gods. None would be forthcoming. Many McCook players lay on the field in disbelief as the Adams Central players danced and hugged in celebration.
Later that evening, Gross would pay the senior class their dues. Sitting in his office, exhausted and still visibly disappointed to have a perfect season come crashing down so suddenly, he called the class of 2011 one of his fondest. “They laid it on the line all year. It was a small class and they weren’t one of our more successful groups on the lower levels, but they kept working, kept getting better and willed themselves into a very solid unit. They will be missed.”
On the only night of the 2011 season that saw his team on the field pull up short, Gross stood his tallest. His heartfelt, and emotional, post-game address to his devastated team was the perfect blend of the adult educator who keeps the priorities of his young players in perspective- “you might not think so now, but the sun will come up in the morning” – to the heartbroken coach who knows his team should have won the game –“you seniors will always be special to me. But they made plays tonight and we didn’t. Give them credit, shake their hand and hold your head high. Tonight, they were the better team. But never forget what a great senior season you had. Don't let one game dictate the whole year or your whole career. The record book will forever say 10-1, and that is pretty darn good."
Spend much time with Jeff Gross and it becomes obvious that he is both comfortable and excited about his job as head mentor of the McCook Bison. He is also supremely confident in his own ability to build and maintain a championship level high school football program. He clearly wears his belief in himself in a very transparent way. Setbacks, he once told me, he has learned over the years, are not an occurrence necessitating self-doubt, but an opportunity for self-improvement.
Fueled with the contagious optimism of a young Lou Holtz, Gross is simply a master teacher of the game of football. As well as any coach I have ever been around, Gross has a philosophy of what it takes to win football games that he clearly understands and believes in, thus he does not, and will not, vary the prescribed course.
When things did not go right for his Bison, Gross had the uncanny knack of being able to quickly identify the problem, those responsible for it and the corrective adjustments needed to right the fault. Adams Central cut through his defense like a sharp knife through warm butter; driving over 70 yards in three plays to knock his undefeated Bison from the state playoffs and end their season. Within an hour of the game’s disappointing completion, Gross had viewed the film and could detail the total breakdown to the extent that he could identify those who did not execute their duties. It was not the system that broke down, it was the players, and that could be fixed. The program, in Gross’ eyes, remained as always, unscathed.
His personality would make Gross an instant success as a college recruiter. However, I would question if Gross would be willing to become an assistant coach again, a role he would, for most certain, have to endure as a beginner on the collegiate level.
I could see Gross someday moving on to another high school coaching job, intiating the rebuilding process all over again. He has at times spoken of becoming a full time school administrator. With his organizational skills, he would be a very good one. But I don’t see that happening. Jeff Gross, as I see it, is a coaching “lifer.” He identifies his self-image with his coaching. He is also too good at the craft, and enjoys it too much to ever walk away by his own free choice.
I predict that when the 44 year old Gross does hang up his whistle, decades from now, his retirement gig will be as a color commentary on some high school football game radio broadcast.
I don’t see the family farm back in Hays, KS in Jeff Gross’ future. I do however, when looking into the crystal ball of the future, see a Nebraska bushel basket full of wins and a Hall of Fame plaque with his name inscribed. Where to build the monument, remains to be determined.