“Be humble, be gracious and make peace with inner fears before stepping out into the limelight and allowing yourself to be subjected to all humanity.” Maximillian Degenerez
In the football crazed state of Texas, it was the moment every small town boy dreams of. Aimed in the direction of over 3500 delirious and adoring home town fans, thirteen Canadian Wildcat seniors, in unison, hoisted the Texas High School Class 2 Football State Championship trophy. A journey that began for most eight years prior on a dusty Texas Panhandle practice field now concluded in the revered Taj Mahal of football, the Dallas Cowboys AT&T doomed 80,000 seat Stadium.
Most of the 13, if not all, will never again play football.
For 15 consecutive games these young Warriors had stretched tight into game jerseys that would never know defeat. As they peeled off their sweat and tear soaked black jerseys one last time, their legacy in local lore was now secure; state champions. Since 4th grade, learning the nuances of the game had dominated their lives, molded their self-identity, always a constant reminder of who they were: Canadian Wildcat football players.
Over the years the tide had risen and sometime rolled for the 13 (undefeated teams in Junior High) but always pointed inexorably in the direction of “senior year” and “making it happen.”
Now the journey was over. It had happened. No matter how great the future accomplishments of these 13, they will be permanently etched in the eye of the home town faithful as 18 year old football stars; an honored place of prominence in the town’s trophy case, revered in perpetuity as a band of brothers linked to a glorious state championship season. Forever young.
For a few weeks numerous parades and banquets in their honor will dominate the players' world, thus the finality not fully setting in. But, after the plaudits and celebrations fade, assuredly the bittersweet is on the horizon. Even the State’s Class 2 Defensive Player of the Year, four year starting linebacker Andrew Ezzell, is not immune to the cruel reality of physical limitations. No matter how successful under the Friday Night Lights of small town high school football, a 5’7” 200 pound linebacker with “decent speed,” no matter how tough, fearless and courageous; would not be high on the want list of college recruiters. Maybe a partial scholarship to a small college. Maybe.
Reality interrupts dreams. The warm glowing feel of the post championship game locker room at Cowboys Stadium was the zenith. It would never be this good again and all 13 knew it.
The night prior to the big game a large and enthusiastic Canadian contingent had rolled into Big D like a freight train. Canadian was deserted. A town with a population of 2100 had brought an estimated at least 3500 black and gold clad fans to Dallas. I commented to a Canadian reporter on the sidelines that it would be both an opportunistic and fortuitous time for thieves to rob clean the empty and unprotected town. No reason for such concern, he assured me, “all of our thieves are Wildcat fans and are all here at the game.”
The day’s opponent, the Mason High Punchers, with a record of 14-0, outweighed Canadian on both sides of the line of scrimmage by 30 pounds a man. Hailing from the Hill Country north of San Antonio - LBJ territory - their running backs complimented the line well; tall, raw boned and fast, highlighted by three 1000 yard rushers. “On the hoof,” as they say in the Lone Star State, they were an impressive team. Canadian on this December afternoon, all prognostics agreed, faced a tough row to hoe.
To the casual observer, the first 12 minutes of the game should have caused great concern for the Canadian faithful. Mason methodically used their size and strength to march down the field, grabbing an early 7-0 lead. The high octane Canadian offense fizzled in its initial drive, going three and out.
“Don’t worry,” Canadian Superintendent of Schools Kyle Lynch told me on the sideline between the first and second quarters, “we keep pounding em and watch their big old boys wear down.” Lynch’s prediction, from a man who won two state championships as head coach of the Wildcats himself, proved accurate. “Just watch them little fellows in black hit. We can really wallop,” boasted another sideline Canadian booster.
A glib college coach once told me that when scouting for recruits, he looked for defensive players who “get to the ball faster than Cinderella’s step sisters.” It is relentless pursuit, from snap to whistle, that defines on all playing levels successful defensive football. As the title game ground on Canadian’s all out speed in pursuit of the football and their resulting impacting tackling were both intensely astounding and viciously scary.
The constant punishment took an obvious toll on the larger Punchers. Like 11 heat seeking missiles adorn in black helmets, the Wildcat defense swarmed to the ball carrier on every Mason snap, the repeated pounding dramatically turning a 7-0 Wildcat first quarter deficit into a dominating 34-7 state championship triumph. The pre-game insight I was given on the smaller Canadian players, “we can really wallop,” proved dead on accurate.
An hour pervious to the game’s 2 pm start time, I had located 47 year old Canadian Head Coach Chris Koetting seated at the side of the tunnel that led from his team’s locker room onto the playing field. Koetting was peering intensely over his offensive play chart, rapidly scribbling notes, one last mental review of a game plan he had obsessively complied non-stop for the past week. It was an authentic and private moment of inward concentration of focus I was about to interrupt. The coach looked tired.
As Koetting reviewed his game plan, his Canadian players milled around in the tunnel anxiously awaiting the conclusion of the Class 1 state championship game now taking place on the artificial turf of Cowboy stadium. I was struck by how “boyish” the Canadian players, dressed in only game pants and tee shirts, looked. Several baby faced Wildcats burned nervous energy with “grab ass” silliness and adolescent non-sense chatter. In an hour all would change. They would take the playing field for the challenge they had all dreamed of throughout their years of football, bursting onto the brightly lit green grid iron after strutting through a receiving line of Wildcat cheerleaders. The boyish non-sense of an hour prior would be nowhere to be found. Adorn in their stylish and well fitted black and gold battle gear, the players had morphed from silly boys into men of purpose.
I approached a pensive Coach Koetting. When he looked up and recognized me, the Wildcat mentor immediately stopped his last second pre game cram session, stood and greeted me with a quick hug, acknowledging me by name. I had not seen the coach since the previous season, yet with the most important game of his coaching career looming, he took the time to make me feel like the most important person in Cowboy Stadium. I have witnessed over the years many varied and effective forms of leadership style, but the one common thread to all those who are successful leaders, I have found, is empathy with a sincere personal touch. Chris Koetting is one of the nicest people I have ever met. I cannot imagine anyone who even slightly knows him to not consider him a friend.
I first crossed paths with Coach Koetting three football season’s prior to his team’s magical run of 2014. I was struck on first impression then with how he did not fit the central casting stereotype image of a Texas high school football coach. Koetting is not a big man, nor is any demeanor of his personality intimidating or threatening. He speaks softly, often in a slow mono tone that is more soothing than commanding. Dressed that blistering August, 2011 day in blue jeans and a polo shirt with the Canadian Wildcat emblem embroidered on to his left pocket, as we drove to his favorite local eating establishment, the pickup driving Koetting could have easily been mistaken for just another sun drenched rancher in town for lunch. Instead, as the head “ball” coach in Canadian, TX, Koetting shoulders an enormous burden; he is the man responsible for the collective dreams of a small town.
Koetting’s coaching prowess was lauded repeatedly, Texas state wide, in the days immediately following the Wildcats’ state championship win over Mason. His Canadian team’s 2014 body of work, a 15-0 season, was for certain worthy of the praise heaped upon the unassuming Koetting. With the help of internet streaming over radio station FM 93.7, I listened each Friday night as Russell Gadbois and Steve Forrest described the feats of Koetting’s rampaging Wildcats as they tore through one Friday night over matched opponent after another.
However, I have serious doubts this 2014 state championship season was Coach Chris Koetting’s finest coaching job. I would bet, it is not even close.
In 2011, Koetting allowed me, an outsider, to embed myself with his Wildcats for the entire season. He graciously and trustfully gave me full access to the entire program. My observations were in the end result the book Prairie Blitz: High School Football on America’s 50 Yard Line.
2011 was Koetting’s second season as head coach of the Wildcats. He had the year before lead Canadian to a 13-1 mark, climaxing in a heartbreaking defeat in the state semifinals. For the rookie head coach, 2010 was a good start against anyone’s measuring stick. However, Koetting held a job that I at once sensed was filled with potential pitfalls. He was replacing the most successful and liked coach in the school’s history, Kyle Lynch, who in his last three years as head coach had won two state championships and finished second. Lynch, now Canadian Superintendent of Schools, would be Koetting’s immediate boss.
Koetting had no head coaching experience and was taking on a job that for him to win over the locals would require the defiance of the laws of Sir Isaac Newton, in other words, Koetting had nowhere to go but down. I wrote at the time that Koetting was taking on as tough a high school head coaching challenge as I could imagine.
Canadian entered the 2011 season with a pre-season first place ranking in the Class 1 state wide polls. With a lot of offensive fire power back - a record setting quarterback and receiver – from a 13-1 team, on the surface, it may have been a justified ranking. What the pre-season pollsters did not take into account was the loss of two Division 1 lineman from the 2010 team. Division 1 players are a rare find in Class 1 ranks. To lose two in one season was a huge hole for Koetting to try and fill.
And then bad luck rained down on Canadian in buckets.
In the fall of 2011, Koetting had dropped in his coaching lap one crisis after another. Starting in the torrid hot pre-season days of August, forced to operate under the burden of unrealistic expectations created by a state wide #1 ranking, many of the challenges his Wildcats faced were neither of their making, nor within their control. The sudden and unexpected mid-season death of the popular father of a star Wildcat player, a huge team booster and a father figure for many of the senior class, ripped the heart out of an already staggering team. Injuries to key players, inopportune bad breaks, two last second losses, several critical officials calls that went against Canadian; if it could go bad in 2011, it did. Poor luck haunted the team to the point that the players joked to me of the need for a mid-season locker room exorcism to eradicate and drive away the demons.
The Canadian Wildcats 2011 season ended on a cold windy November night in Lubbock, TX with a lopsided second round playoff loss to an obviously superior Albany team. The final mark they carved into the record books was a pedestrian and very un-Canadian like 8 wins and 4 losses.
The early playoff loss was disappointing to me as I am sure it was to the loyal Canadian faithful. Kyle Lynch had built a program that had played deep into December so consistently over the last decade that a slot in the state championship game the weekend before Christmas had become almost expected by the locals. To the outsiders, not having had the access to the behind the scene dynamics of the 2011 season I had, I am sure this unceremonious premature thud of an ending defined the Wildcat’s year as one of disappointment and unfilled expectations. I disagreed.
I walked away from the 2011 season with head shaking admiration for Coach Koetting’s performance. I look for coaches who stand tallest when their teams on the field come up short, and Chris Koetting in 2011 fit that bill masterfully. I had a front row seat to witness one of the best coaching jobs I have ever seen.
Through all the drama Koetting never allowed his team to wallow in self-pity. His steady hand and cool and nurturing demeanor was for me inspiring to watch - teaching and leadership at its finest. Until the final whistle of the second round playoff loss that ended their season, the 2011 Canadian Wildcats never lost hope, believing to a man to the end that they, together, could battle and overcome any on field opponent. I felt this aura of self-empowerment every time I attended a Canadian practice, reenergized by the optimism of a group of young men who never lost faith; in themselves, their teammates or their goals. In the 2011 Wildcat locker room, I found it was practical to hope.
No matter how severe the on and off field disappointments thrown in their path, the players remained always a group that never splintered into finger pointing cliques. To the contrary, the 2011 Wildcats were one of the more close knit teams I have ever seen. They were foxhole buddies to the bitter end, as was so very emotionally apparent in the team’s postgame gathering after the second round playoff loss. I fully credit this spirit of teamwork and comradery to the leadership Koetting provided.
Teams will take on the personalities of their coaches. If the head coach of a losing team throws a pity party, his or her players will gladly take a seat at the table. If, conversely, the head coach has the fortitude and the vision procured by the mature poise needed to seize a time of disappointment to hammer home a life’s lesson to his or her disappointed students, then the coach has succeeded in his or hers’ most important assignment; transcending from the role of coach to that of teacher. If high school athletics are truly an educational stage upon which to showcase the best of what our public schools produce, as we proponents claim, then we should demand that our coaches and athletic leaders keep this task – always a teacher first - as their primary focus.
I give Chris Koetting an A+ for holding together his 2011 team and in doing so building the foundation for future Canadian football successes. The 2014 season may well have been the icing on top, but in 2011 I watched Koetting bake the cake.
Koetting, in his own way, in a post season talk we had, apologized for his 2011 team’s performance. “I feel like we ruined your book,” he told me. Nothing could be farther from the truth, I responded. “But this was not one of our best seasons,” the coach commented about a four loss year that is almost unheard of for a program that had become the measuring stick for consistent winning high school football in the Texas Panhandle.
“Not in the book I am writing,” I assured Koetting.
They say you can judge character by observing a person under stress. If that is the case, then Koetting proved, during the 2011 season, that he has a wheel barrow full of character. It seemed that weekly, all season long, his coaching mettle was tested. Koetting never flinched. When his team was moored in the dire straits of Texas high school football, Koetting’s steady hand was paramount in righting the Canadian ship and steering it back into the path of the trade winds of gridiron success. Seeing him labor under those conditions was – because of my personal like and professional respect for the man – for me, difficult. But I always found his calm approach inspiring.
To his credit, Koetting never took out his frustration on his players, but when the line in the sand needed to be drawn, he drew it in an unquestioning assertive manner, challenging his dispirited team to grow up. After a deflating 2011 district loss to Sunray, the Wildcats, a team projected to win a state title, were facing disaster. With only a 4-3 season record, a loss the following Friday to a very good West Texas High team would have all but eliminated the Cats from a spot on the post season playoff bracket; a totally unacceptable proposition for the proud Canadian program.
The pressure Koetting was now under, entering a must win week 8 of the season, must have been suffocating. However, if he felt such intense pressure, he never showed it. Instead, Koetting responded with a marvelous piece of coaching.
Coach Koetting is not a great orator. His talks to his team throughout the year were heartfelt, but not passionate. Emotional pleading is just not his way – Koetting will never challenge Knute Rockne on the stump of public speaking – but on the Saturday morning following the Sunray loss, he delivered his own version of “win one for The Gipper,” and it was masterful. Koetting hit on just the right blend of sympathy and a good swift kick in the hind end. At the time, as he astutely measured, his team needed both. He challenged his room full of boys to grow up and be men. It was time to man up. Football players in Canadian are treated like gods, the praise unending, he reminded his team. Along with that glory, the coach explained, comes responsibility. “We knew what we were getting into when we signed up for this,” he told them.
“Football in Canadian is very important to the community,” Koetting continued in his lecture to his team, “and it is time that we stand up and be counted.”
Giving the option to cut and run or stand and fight, his team responded with a dominating win over West Texas, saving their 2011 season and catapulting the Wildcats to four solid wins as they qualified for the playoffs.
After the season, senior captain Ty Morrow told me that the locker room lesson Coach Koetting taught that Saturday morning was the definitive moment of his personal education. “Coach has no idea how much I grew up that day,” Morrow said. To clarify what I had heard, I repeated to Morrow, “he taught you more that morning than any other coach has?” No, Morrow responded, “he taught me more that morning than anyone; teacher, coach, minister; ever has.” I can think of no higher compliment for an educator.
Chris Koetting is successful because he understands people and knows how to motivate young adults. He has a sincere desire to see his players grow as people, with the ultimate goal of depositing, within the ranks of society, fully functioning and contributing adults. His success record with molding young men’s lives eclipses even his coaching Hall of Fame caliper almost 90% on field winning percentage.
Over the past five seasons Koetting has proved that the trust Kyle Lynch showed in him when turning over the keys to the Wildcat program to a rookie head coach was well placed. Over time, the mercenary tag of an outsider has been removed, with Koetting settling into an accepting Canadian community while raising his own family of five as "one of us."
Koetting entered as an outsider the fish bowl that is coaching high school football in a small town. He came to this Panhandle oasis as a hired gun entrusted by a small prairie town with the best of its sons, given the knee shaking responsibility of leading them to gridiron glory. Koetting, by his performance, has earned a level of acceptance few coaches in small towns ever do. It is a feel good story. He is today the unquestioned master of Canadian Wildcat football fortunes, valued by an appreciative adopted home town and a total refutation of the age old premise that nice guys must finish last.