By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Shane Marshall & Kurt Johnson
Tony McGeary was invested as the football coach at Lone Peak High School. He had taken a two-win team in the year before he took the controls and turned it into a state champion in 2011.
After the 2012 season, the school elected to move in another direction and left its coach to do the same. After sitting out one year, McGeary landed at Provo High. He left a program that was among the best in the state and landed at a school that had one win combined over the 2012 and 2013 campaigns, and had not won a region contest since its 3-7 season in 2011.
For McGeary, it was starting over and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He isn’t the only coach who has taken on the challenge of re-climbing the same mountain with another team. Building strong football programs isn’t easy, but some coaches seem to have a knack.
The Bulldogs won their first three games in 2014, but injuries and region play stepped up, as the reality set in that rebuilding is a process. They finished McGeary’s first season on campus at 3-7.
Elsewhere, former Timpview coach Louis Wong, whose teams won four consecutive state titles between 2006 and 2009, resurfaced this season to rebuild the program at Mountain View, where his initial season ended with just one win on the field (the Bruins were awarded a second victory by forfeit due to a player eligibility issue). Like McGeary, Wong is facing a new reality.
From coaches like Bingham’s Dave Peck, who has delivered staying power at the top of the state’s current power program, to Desert Hills’ Carl Franke and Donald Eck of Corner Canyon, who have seen immediate success with relatively new programs, the road to success comes in different ways.
“I think building a level of trust and a relationship with the kids (comes first),” McGeary said. “They need to know when I come in here that first of all they trust what I say. They need to know that what I’m doing has been successful. Then just building a relationship with the kids and getting them to trust you.
“They’re always gonna deviate to what they want to do at times, and then you’ve got to be able to reel them back in and show them the way to do it to be successful, and when they do, they experience that success. That really takes your trust and ownership to a whole new level when they’ve been able to experience a little bit of success. The kids say in their mind that the coach knows what he’s talking about.”
Leaders of Men
Coach McGeary knows a lot about the game of football, but he also realizes that his job as a coach is to be a leader of men, and he feels that filling that role impacts the team, the players and the program in all the best ways. That is also the key to making Year 1 a good experience for seniors who know they are simply building the foundation for someone else’s future successes.
“The experience they’ve (Provo seniors) had this year has been a great one,” McGeary said. “My personal relationship with them will continue on after this year. Focusing on and being interested in what they’re doing in their lives is a big part of their success, and it all started in their senior year when they met Coach McGeary. Football is such a great game, the older and longer you get away from it, the wins and losses become less important and the experiences and relationship with their coach becomes more important. That is really the key for me.
“Wins are great, and believe me, I came out of a high school where we won state championships my junior and senior year. When we go back to my high school reunions, we love to talk about those days because we can hang our hat on those state championships. I’ve also learned that we would be just as close and be telling the same stories had we not won the state championship. That state championship just makes it a little bit more special. These kids go off, and I know in my own life when I look at all the experiences I had playing football, it’s why I’m in the business now – my relationship with my coaches and my teammates from all those years.”
Now that Year 1 is in the books, McGeary is seeing good signs of progress from the young men in his new program.
“I’ve just fallen in love with these kids,” McGeary said. “They are just great, down to earth kids. They’ve been wallowing in mediocrity and losing seasons year after year after year, but we were 3-0 at the beginning of the season, and we were plagued this year with injuries and some suspensions, and depth is always an issue here. We battled through adversity, and I look at the end of the year and people are excited about next year. They’re excited about the offseason, they’re excited to get better, and those are all good, positive signs where you’re developing a program.”
When Donald Eck took the head coaching job at brand-new Corner Canyon in 2013, he knew he was inheriting a good situation. It started with something McGeary also has at Provo, great facilities, but it also included a large group of young athletes who knew about winning from their days at Alta.
“We wanted to establish first the work ethic, the kids getting it done in the weight room and the offseason workouts and running,” Eck said. “We did that, and the kids knew how to work, so it wasn’t too hard. Secondly, just getting to know each other as a team and a new coaching staff. Most of the players knew each other. We had some from different schools, and with those kids, coming together as a team. That part was pretty easy also.”
The hardest part that first year may have come from the lack of access to their new school, which was still under construction, but the former United Football League head coach and University of Utah assistant, found a way to make things work by using facilities at Jordan and Hillcrest High Schools and even at the local Gold’s Gym.
While Eck did not have to help his team through the pains of learning how to win, he did have to work on the things that only come with playing together. Some of those lessons were driven home after Corner Canyon’s final contest of that inaugural season, a second-round postseason loss to East.
“We learned we had to get bigger, stronger and more physical to play against East,” Eck said. “Eighty percent of our team has gotten bigger and stronger. We are bigger, stronger, faster and more physical. We had nine seniors last year and this year we have 41. Most of these kids were juniors last year and we struggled to win the close games. This year, we’ve found a way to win the close games and have had some comfortable wins also. It’s those one or two mistakes that can turn a game, we haven’t had this year. A lot of that is maturity.”
These coaches are all trying to build something like what Peck has crafted over the past 15 years at Bingham, a program that thrives year in and year out.
We’ve built a foundation here that our kids know it, their older brothers were part of it,” Peck said. “When these guys play, it’s all about the team. All of these guys care way more about the team than how they do individually. Our team is good because of the players and what’s been created. These guys are just running with it.”
Roy head coach Fred Fernandes is in version 3.0 of this process, having taken over struggling programs at Northridge and Woods Cross before beginning his current reclamation project with the Royals, who won the Region 5 title this year with an undefeated regular season in his fourth year on the job.
“I kind of just followed the blueprint that I’ve followed forever, really, a lot of those things that I learned in college,” Fernandes said. “My first head coaching job was at Northridge and they had just come off of a one-win season. My second head job was at Woods Cross and they had just come off of a one-win season. So all three of my head coaching jobs were pretty similar. The basic blueprint is you’ve got to get your guys working in the weight room and get them ready to compete at the varsity level.
“You’ve got to coach just like you would if you had a championship team, even if you don’t. Once the kids are in your program for a while, it all starts to make sense to them and pretty soon, when they’re physically ready to play varsity football, you’ve got a shot to be successful.”
A coach really knows how he is doing once he sees how the players react after that first season. McGeary is pleased with what he sees from the young men at Provo.
“They’re not ready to turn in their pads,” he said. “They’re not ready to quit, and to me that’s a positive thing when they’re getting excited for next year. We had a tremendous bunch of seniors this year who’ve really laid the groundwork for what’s to come here at Provo.”
The future lies in creating success and then developing young players who will come in to keep that success going, and that starts in the youth programs.
“At Lone Peak, we would have 100 little league coaches at our clinic to in-service them and help them with our offense and defense and things like that,” McGeary said. “We’ve started that here, but it’s going to take some time. We’ve got some great kids in our little league program that are coming up through the ranks.”
Now, he just needs to keep things on track and take advantage of every chance to make Provo football a positive experience.
“If you’re not winning, you have to focus on the things that are more important,” McGeary said. “If you are winning, you still have to focus on the things that are more important, like those relationships, but the winning does make it a little sweeter.”