By BRAD KEITH
I called Greg Winder this morning to discuss Stephenville’s Region I-4A Division I bi-district playoff matchup with Sanger. But Winder barely had time to tell me he was exiting the interstate in Eastland on his way home from the district meeting, then his phone cut out as something donned on me…
Greg Winder, whose Stehepnville club dominated much of its 33-20 district championship victory over Abilene Wylie last Friday, is driving home from being named district coach of the year in 3-4A Division I. And so very deservingly so.
I can’t tell you what tough professional decisions any other head coach in this district has faced over the last year. But I can tell you this – None of them made three decisions better than Winder. And they weren’t the type of decisions that require the football brains of Jon Gruden or Nick Saban to make correctly.
These weren’t X and O decisions. These weren’t answers Winder learned at a coaching clinic. Come on, after hanging 70 in a state championship game, he’s the one teaching at those clinics.
These are decisions that are made correctly only through the art of coaching, not the science of it.
For a throwback feature once about a decade ago, I asked Mike Copeland, Joseph Gillespie and some others, what was the true ‘ART’ of Briles that made him so successful at Stephenville in the 1990s and ever since coaching college teams.
They all said the same thing – he had something deep within the fabric of his character that won over young men in such a fashion that they would do, figuratively speaking, anything he asked of them as hard and fast as their bodies could possibly get it done.
Other coaches were saying, “Our kids gave it all they had,” after being crushed by those mighty Yellow Jacket teams.
That’s like saying you drove somewhere as fast as you could because you went 80 to 85 miles per hour the entire way.
But you didn’t have the pedal all the way down. You probably don’t even know how fast your car will go. There is probably a governor and most of you have probably never hit it!
Coach Briles’ teams had mechanics waiting in the garage figuring out how to get the governor out of the dang way. And that’s why they were great.
So what were Winder’s three big decisions and how did they fix Yellow Jacket football without having anything to do with football?
1. He promoted Cody Moore – Tough decision here. I don’t know who all was interested in the defensive coordinator’s job and I’m not going to begin to try and list all the names different people thought would be a good fit. But I know Kreg Kimple has been defensive line coach at Stephenville I believe 15 years now and has tutored a handful of all-state players on very good defenses. A head coach could do a lot worse than to have Kimple as his DC.
Then there’s Nolan Vosberg, who has experience as a defensive coordinator. In fact, he was in that position in Hico when the Tigers reached the 2A Division I semifinals, where he managed to limit the damage done by current Oklahoma State superstar receiver James Washington long enough to give the Tigers a possession late in the fourth quarter, down by eight, against mighty Stamford. They were that close. And Vosberg is that good.
But Moore was the right choice for the Yellow Jackets.
Has the 4-2-5 helped? sure. Sound defense. Balanced, Effective. But who cares what he runs? If he was in a 1-2-8 none of you would mind as long as it still cut out three touchdowns per game.
The defense turned around because Cody Moore reinvigorated them, he reminded them hey could tackle in the open field, reminded them they could get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and most important he reminded them how fun defense can be when played with attitude, energy and discipline.
I look out there and watch guys like Blu Caylor, Pacen Parker, Zane Walker and others on a blitz, dropping in coverage, or chasing down a player near the sideline and I can’t help but think – they believe every call their defensive coordinator makes is the greatest call in the history of coordinating defenses. They believe in him. Because he believes in them.
You don’t improve that much by changing defensive alignments. You improve that much by changing your defensive culture.
The second big decision Winder made was to bid farewell to Performance Course. A good team of people. Sound science and logic backing up their work. But Winder wanted his staff with his kids every day possible this past summer. And the bond that has helped to strengthen is one of the biggest strengths of this Yellow Jacket football team.
So he promoted a guy base on energy, charisma and attitude, then he got rid of the professionals when it comes to the off-season training of athletes. Genius!
So what’s great big No. 3? What else does this great genius of a coach have up his sleeve?
He didn’t throw the ball.
I’m sorry, were you expecting something deep, profound or super psychological?
He didn’t throw the ball.
And it was the best on-field call I’ve ever seen him make.
Your starting quarterback, recovers from a torn ligament in his throwing elbow, receiving full medical clearance to play after it was once believed he may never play the position again. It’s the third week of the season, and the town is brimming with confidence and ready to see their hero ride out on his white horse and simply point in the direction of his great warrior receivers, making lightning bolts shoot from the sky and rain touchdowns into their awaiting hands.
Okay, too far. But when Easton Jones ran out onto the Memorial Stadium turf and stood in the shotgun, behind center Jacob Poston and alongside running back Krece Nowak, everyone knew what was coming – first play, deep pass, touchdown Jackets, Jones is back!
If I close my eyes and listen real close I can almost hear how excited Boots Elliott would be on the radio in that hypothetical moment. No doubt it would be recorded and replayed forever as one of the great moments in Yellow Jacket football audio history.
But Winder knew better. He saw an opportunity to harness the moment and make it about the art of coaching, not the strategy behind it.
He didn’t throw the ball.
Winder told Jones to hand it to Krece Nowak. Jones did, then stood there with two hands straight in the air as Nowak raced away from Everman defenders. Touchdown Stephenville. The same way the Yellow Jackets had scored so many other touchdowns early in the season.
They stuck with their identity. They stayed true to the type of team they had become. Physical. Nasty, Mean. Fast.
We all know Jones can pass the ball, and he’s doing it now better than any other time in his career. But Winder could have changed the entire trajectory of this team if he had called a pass there.
What if Jones makes a simple misjudgment and underthrows the ball just enough for an Everman defensive back to go the other way with a pick six? Just pause for a second and imagine what would have been going through your head as a fan, through the heads of players and coaches?
Thankfully, no one had to hear Boots explain that dramatic scene.
Because Winder didn’t throw the ball.
And that was his greatest call.
Greg Winder didn’t master the Xs and Os of head coaching between last November and this August and suddenly go from 7-15 over two seasons to 8-2 with an outright district title. Winder started building this team with all those sophomores last year who are juniors now, and he set out identifying the best ways to motivate them, the best roles for the men tasked with helping lead them and the best way to establish the identity he wanted them to have as a football team.
I’m only assuming Greg Winder has been named the district’s coach of the year. He can’t confirm it for me until the district no longer has a team alive in the playoffs (that’s a dumb tradition by the way, but that’s another subject entirely).
But I’ll confirm this for you. Winder isn’t coach of the year because his football strategy is better than that of Hugh Sandifer at Abilene Wylie or even that of coaches at Big Spring, Snyder or that place with the wood that got burned.
He’s coach of the year because his football team will tackle or block a school bus if that’s the play he or Moore signal from the sideline. He’s coach of the year because he believes in his players and they believe in him.
Winder is Coach of the Year because he stepped back and realized the fastest way to change the trajectory of his football program had nothing in the world to do with football.
Phone’s ringing. Winder’s calling me back. I guess his cell phone survived the rural stretch from here to Eastland and has signal again.
Kind of the same way his football program just survived a tough stretch and has a good vibe again.
Sorry Sanger, this just isn’t your week. And there isn’t a single football thing that can be done to change it.