By Mike Cane Herald Writer
John Gradwohl is having as much fun as ever.
Starting his 15th year as Edmonds-Woodway High School’s head football coach, Gradwohl energized everyone with his jovial personality a few weeks ago at the Warriors’ season-opening practice.
As players completed strength and conditioning tests, Gradwohl — clutching a stopwatch and clipboard — shouted to a hefty lineman: “Caleb, you’ve got to smile when you run the mile!”
The youngster had been struggling through a timed 1-mile run on the track at Edmonds Stadium but grinned when he heard Gradwohl’s encouragement. Slowly but surely, the kid completed the final two laps, sprinting hard over the final 40 meters; his teammates and Gradwohl roared with enthusiasm.
These days, high school head football coaches are generally hired younger and last fewer years at one school. Consider this: eight local gridiron teams have new head coaches this season.
At the other end of the spectrum are Edmonds-Woodway’s Gradwohl, Mariner’s John Ondriezek (beginning his 18th season guiding Mariner), Snohomish’s Mark Perry (16th season), King’s Jim Shapiro (14th season), Kamiak’s Dan Mack (13th season), Jackson’s Joel Vincent (13th season) and Meadowdale’s Mark Stewart (11th season). All of them have had prolonged success with one program and are still going strong.
How do they do it? Why do they do it?
Ondriezek, Gradwohl, Mack and Vincent all coach teams that play in the Class 4A Western Conference South Division. They spoke to The Herald about what it takes to build and maintain a successful high school football program, and what keeps them coming back year after year.
Keys to success
The four coaches, who also teach at their respective schools, cited crucial elements that helped them develop strong programs: a reliable, knowledgeable group of assistant coaches, dedicated student-athletes, a supportive family and school community, and helpful, enthusiastic administrators. Success, the coaches agreed, is impossible if any aspect is lacking.
Mariner’s Ondriezek especially values his assistants.
“The key,” he said, “is having a loyal, cooperative, hard-working coaching staff. I’ve been fortunate at Mariner to have great guys working with me.”
Three current Mariner assistants — Jim Campbell, Don Harney and Rudy Grandbois — are former head coaches, and another Marauders assistant, Tom Myhre, has been with Ondriezek since 1993.
“They make my job a lot easier,” Ondriezek said, “because there’s certain assignments that I give them and I know it’s going to get done. We’re all on the same page.”
The coaches also emphasized the importance of a seemingly endless list of other key supporters (athletic directors, athletic department secretaries, trainers, equipment managers, etc.). Of course, there are also players’ parents, who often contribute by volunteering and organizing fundraisers, not just cheering in the stands.
And every head coach, the four South coaches said, needs an understanding family — hopefully one that loves football.
“There’s no way I could do this without the support of my family,” E-W’s Gradwohl said. “I don’t think my daughter has missed a game her whole life. Her and my wife, they’re kind of road warriors.”
Obviously, coaches also need talented, devoted athletes to consistently field a competitive team.
“It’s so cyclical when it comes to high school football. It comes down to who you have in your school,” said Mack, Kamiak’s coach.
Regardless of who plays, it helps if a team has developed an expectation of high standards that creates continuity.
“As one senior class leaves, they can pass on the traditions from class to class,” Mack said. “It’s a pride thing. Programs that are successful might have a down year here or there, but (every season) kids take a tremendous amount of pride.”
Giving up your summer
Before he became Jackson’s head coach, Vincent was a Timberwolves assistant. Back then players’ summer football activities were fairly minimal. Beyond strength and conditioning workouts, the team went to a one-week camp.
“That was pretty much it,” said Vincent. “But now we go all the way to July 31.”
Following the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s decision in the mid 1990s to ease restrictions on sport-specific summer training, offseason football activity exploded. In addition to spring activities, teams are constantly busy in June and July, attending camps, and playing in numerous scrimmages and 7-on-7 passing tournaments. Under WIAA rules, the only so-called “dead period” for football teams this summer was Aug. 1 to Aug. 17, the day before fall practice started.
More and more, being a head football coach is a year-round job.
“Giving up your summers is hard,” Mariner’s Ondriezek said.
“It’s turned into a bigger job,” said Kamiak’s Mack, “with many more time commitments attached to it. There’s been a great difference. Personally, I’d like to go back to the old days and give the kids their summer when they can go fish and have family time.”
But unless the WIAA changes the rules, coaches must maximize all the time they are allowed to work with players. It’s the reality of staying competitive.
Rivals and friends
After coaching against each other so many years, Ondriezek, Mack, Gradwohl and Vincent know each other’s tendencies. Their Wesco South battles are like chess matches. They constantly add new wrinkles to their game plans in an attempt to outwit one another.
With so much history together, the coaches developed a powerful mutual respect and friendships. Often, the coaches’ pre-game chats at midfield are about family, not football, said Jackson’s Vincent.
“I really enjoy working with all the coaches in Wesco,” Ondriezek said, speaking not only of his South counterparts but also Meadowdale’s Stewart (3A Wesco) and Snohomish’s Perry (4A North). “We’ve got some quality football coaches and quality people. You would want your own son to be coached by those guys.”
One thing that helps strengthen the South coaches’ connection is parity. Over the years, each man’s team has enjoyed a stretch of division superiority.
“The good thing about it,” E-W’s Gradwohl said, “is I’ve beaten all of them and they’ve beaten me too. There’s no dominance. It’s a friendly rivalry.”
Going for its third consecutive South Division title and third straight state playoff appearance, Vincent’s Jackson team is currently top dog. Before that, E-W was in control and went to state four years in a row, reaching the semifinals in 2006 and 2007.
Kamiak and Mariner have had plenty of success too. Guided by Mack, Kamiak made the playoffs seven times from 1999-2007, including four state trips and a march to the 2000 semifinals. Meanwhile, Ondriezek’s Mariner squads made three straight playoff trips from 1996 to 1998 (losing by two points in the ‘98 3A championship game) and back-to-back state appearances in 2006 and 2007. Mariner’s promising ‘06 season ended with a 43-42 double-overtime loss in the first round against eventual state champ Oak Harbor.
It’s about the kids
An intense competitive fire — a perpetual desire to win — motivates the South’s four veteran head coaches. But that’s not the main reason they continue.
Despite the ever-increasing time commitment, the coaches keep at it because they enjoy mentoring young men and teaching life lessons. In the end, they said, it’s about the kids.
“Over the years at Mariner we’ve just had great kids to work with. I never get discouraged in the type of kids that I work with. I have fun,” Ondriezek said. “As long as you’re having fun with the kids, than the rest of it is easy.”
After every season, people ask E-W’s Gradwohl how long he will keep coaching.
“Really it just comes down to me, if I’ve got the passion any more,” he said. “It’s year to year. If I don’t have the passion, I’m going to step down. It’s not fair to the kids.”
For now, the passion hasn’t faded a bit.
Mike Cane: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.