The sweeping change in Colorado Springs football won’t necessarily be evident this weekend when stadium lights once again illuminate the base of Pikes Peak.
New coaches will patrol the sidelines of nearly half of the town’s bigger schools, but decades of habits don’t change overnight and none of the new hires profess plans to reinvent the game.
“If there were one best offense, we’d all run it; if there was one best defense, we’d all run it,” new Rampart coach J.J. Owens said. “But it’s not about that. It’s about the intangibles.”
To change those little things, the wave of new coaches — nine hires for the 24 schools that compete in 5A, 4A and 3A alone; five others are in their second year — has brought an undercurrent of new ideas.
In Falcon, middle school players are assigned varsity mentors who will introduce them to the program and keep tabs throughout the year.
At Rampart, more than 100 players in practice jerseys picked up trash in an effort to build camaraderie and earn a few points in a slightly tidier community.
At Palmer, a two-week summer camp of eight-hour days hit as a slap in the face to unsuspecting players.
No, what will be on display this weekend when the season opens will not be fully reflective of the gridiron overhaul the region is about to see. That’s not to say there won’t be immediate changes.
“I think it makes football in Colorado Springs more interesting,” new Falcon coach Trevor Hudson said. “You definitely won’t be seeing more of the same.”
If football in this region were captured in a snapshot five years ago, it would already be terribly dated.
In that span Districts 20, 38 and 49 have added high schools, all but eight of the 28 schools larger than 2A have hired new coaches and, of course, all of the players have long since moved on.
But the results have largely been the same; and largely mediocre when judged on a state level.
In the past five years, like the five years before that, Florence has been the region’s only program to make a dent on the state scene. The Huskies won 3A titles in 2005 and 2002. Other than that, Pine Creek’s pair of 4A semifinal appearances and Falcon trip to 2007 3A title are the lone highlights.
A slate-cleaning was unavoidable, but no one could have foreseen the number of changes that would come all at once.
“I’m in my fourth year, I’m 32 years old and it feels like I’m the old guy,” Liberty’s Jaron Cohen said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Not every new hire is a fresh face. Longtime Sierra coach Joe Roskam slashed his commute by taking the job at Woodland Park and Palmer fixture Rod Baker opted for a change of pace at Sand Creek.
Some assistants were promoted, like Cheyenne Mountain’s Brian Sherman and, hours before the start of practice, Les Johnson at Vista Ridge. Owens came to Rampart after serving as an assistant at Sierra and Sierra hired Harrison assistant Mark Sampson.
In just two cases, with Jeff Palmer at Wasson and Doug Miolen at Palmer, did a school look outside the area to find its guy.
No matter the path, there are different coaches atop different programs and no one seems content with the status quo.
Falcon was hit hard by graduation, losing 24 players and a number of standouts. But Hudson doesn’t want to talk about that. He’s far more interested in what’s found than what’s lost.
The key to Hudson’s long-term plan at Falcon is to keep finding new players, and to do so by planting an interest in the program to youngsters all over town.
His Football Buddies program assigns two eighth-grade players to a junior on the varsity. The player calls once a week to check in and keep tabs on his middle-school counterpart. The thinking is that when the eighth-grader enters high school the next year he’ll already be well-acquainted with a senior and be familiar with the program.
“It also gives our players a chance to mentor and be a leader, because we’re trying to develop not just football players but leaders in our community,” Hudson said.
But that’s not where Hudson’s vision ends. He wants to go even younger. Where he grew up in Florida, kids didn’t grow up idolizing college and NFL stars. Instead, the heroes were local high school players.
“I want to see little 7- or 8-year-olds around town throwing a football and saying, ‘When I become a Falcon Falcon …’” Hudson said. “That’s what you see in places like Florida and Georgia and Texas. Get them starting at a young age dreaming about becoming a Falcon. When you do that you can start changing things around.”
As an assistant, Owens filled notebooks with observations. He saw what worked, what didn’t and what he might try.
In his first months on the job, Owens has unleashed those ideas in rapid-fire succession.
He took his players to a leadership conference in Nevada, he tightened everything about the practice schedule, he targeted kids at school who might help his program and, most of all, he focused on community service projects that could show his team will be one worth supporting.
He organized clean-up projects, will open the season with a Military Appreciation night that gives free admission to members of the military and their families and a cancer benefit is on the horizon.
Owens also implemented Tough Guy Days, where players are pushed to their physical limits.
Yes, not much was left in the notebook.
“It’s just about getting the kids to focus on doing things right and being excited about it and having fun with football,” Owens said.
The fun caught on. State high jump champion Ryan Cook decided to go out for the team, giving Rampart a 6-foot-4 target at receiver who will be a matchup nightmare with his ability to clear 6-10.
“I like the coach, I liked the players on the team,” Cook said. “And I just didn’t want to regret it.”
Ask Owens what he brings and he’ll tell you leadership and organization.
It shows in the way he conducts practice. Everything is timed and everybody seems engaged and, frankly, happy to be there.
“Practice is a lot smoother,” senior lineman Justin Call said. “We get a lot more done in practice.”
If Hudson’s plan is to grow a program through community enthusiasm and Owens’ is to grease the wheels of progress with precision and efficiency, Doug Miolen’s approach at Palmer is to straighten up the program like it was a rug needing one big ol’ Southern shaking.
The imposing Georgian doesn’t have time for those who don’t agree with his plan of morphing the Terrors through hard work. And he’s leading by example, his green pickup parked outside the school well past 10 most nights.
Not everyone can keep pace — in just 2½ months he’s already lost 10 assistants.
He’d like to be an optimist, but that’s just not him. It’s not that he doesn’t see talent on the squad, he’s just not sure the players fully grasp what he’s asking of them.
“I am the way I am and I’m not going to change,” Miolen said. “There’s some things I’ll compromise on, but hard work and effort I’ll never compromise on. That’s the only way you can get better and the only way you can be a champion is to work like a champion.”
The players knew things had changed when their summer camp absorbed entire days. Run all morning and learn and drill all afternoon. It wasn’t quite sun-up to sundown, but it was long enough that many players had to quit their summer jobs and learn a dedication to football that they’d never imagined.
“If you want to compare it, last year’s camp was two hours a day,” running back Reiko Moss said.
“We’ve never played that much football, ever,” quarterback Eddie Bacalane said. “That was the beginning of everything pretty much.”
“It’s nice now because three-hour practices seem like nothing,” receiver Shayne Justice said.
Woe to the Palmer player who loses his mouthpiece or loafs between stations at practice.
ut that’s the type of team Miolen wants; one that wastes no time with excuses that take away from the single-minded goal.
“I’ve got a lot of good kids, and it’s not their fault, they just don’t know yet what it takes to take the next step to be successful,” Miolen said. “But they’re getting there. They’re buying in and slowly but surely it’s coming around.”
Owens is exited. He can’t wait. For … Week 2.
That’s not to say he’s looking past Gateway or sees Pine Creek as prime for the taking in that second game. He’s just anxious to get this first weekend in the books.
The work is endless. Programs and rosters must be sent to the printer. Socks must be ordered. There are issues with decals, discipline and always another practice to plan.
All of this orchestrated under the shadow a very public deadline.
“There’s so much administrative stuff that’s just killing me,” Owens said.
It’s a feeling shared throughout town, as the end of preseason arrives too quickly for all coaches; particularly those running the show for the first time.
So don’t expect to see finished products on display this weekend. Do expect to see change. Do expect to see effort. And if you look hard enough, down there on those chaotic sidelines where the future of football in this town is being hatched, you might even see a little fun.
“I know how I can make things sound, but I’m having a blast,” Miolen said. “You know what, I’ve been an assistant for 22 years and now I’m able to do things the way I think they ought to be done.
“I just hope we’re going to get enough done before it’s too late.”