While the success of a given sport at any school will certainly be cyclical in terms of its success, the declining fortunes of the Highland football program compare more favorably to a slide into the abyss rather than a simple down period.
Since the 2001 season, the class 4A Trojans have gone 22-42. And included in Highland’s defeats over that stretch are blowout losses to class 2A Wheeler and class 1A Whiting.
Last season, the Trojans were shut out six times and labored through a winless regular season and found themselves losers of ten straight at one point. Highland was only able to salvage a lone victory by virtue of the IHSAA blind draw, when the Trojans drew equally luckless Lew Wallace for their sectional opener.
Given the general mess that is Gary football these days, you would think that even these winless Trojans would cruise to victory over the hapless Hornets, especially since the game was played on Highland’s home turf.
But instead of cruising, Highland had to stage a comeback from an 18-0 first half deficit in order to pull out the victory, before being easily dispatched by Griffith 41-0 the following week.
The simple fact that suburban Highland, with all their inherent advantages, had to rally to defeat beaten down Wallace, a disadvantaged inner city school using worn out equipment, is sobering enough for any staunch Trojan backer. But even more alarming was the fact that Wallace had more players in uniform.
RSM Editor Chris Ramirez opined in an editorial last year that Highland football needed to take a trip to the Wizard (of Oz) in order to find a heart.
What Ramirez was referring to was Highland parents complaining in the “Backtalk” section of the Times about the team having to practice on Labor Day. And guess what? Practice was cancelled.
Do you think the Griffith Panthers were practicing that day? And do you think Griffith parents complained? (Author’s note: Rhetorical questions need not be answered.)
“Where’s the Delta I used to know? Where’s the spirit, the guts?” the late John Belushi asked in the classic 1978 movie Animal House. Anyone affiliated with the Highland football program should ask the same question today.
Highland has gained a reputation as a “soft” school; that the kids aren’t very tough. But can the kids really be held responsible when the people who are responsible for guiding the program and the parents and fans that support it don’t have any heart?
And it’s just too easy to point the finger at Head Coach Eric Miller and his coaching staff for the situation because in reality, there is plenty of blame to go around.
For openers, the over involvement of a previous school board can be held responsible for a healthy share of the blame. That board ran off, among others, former coach and athletic director Brad Smith, who posted a six year mark of 39-25. Smith’s .609 winning percentage at Highland is still the best in school history.
Also in line for a share of culpability is Smith’s “hand picked” successor, Steve Edwards. After just two seasons, Edwards bolted for Kokomo and the first available baseball job he could find. Nothing against Edwards becoming a baseball coach, it was and is his first love.
But Edwards quit just days before the opening of practice and left the program in the lurch at the eleventh hour. His abrupt departure had Highland scrambling for a coach, and Eric Miller was available and willing to take the job.
And as guilty as the former school board was of over involvement, the next school board was guilty of under involvement. After Edwards’ abrupt departure, Miller stood up for the program at its hour of need and took one for the team, whether he was prepared to be a head coach or not.
But this time the school board failed the program by not taking a proactive role after that season. Because rather than reassess the coaching situation to decide what was in the best, long-term interest of the football program, the board did nothing, and the Blue and Gold continued to founder.
And finally, a large share of the blame has to fall squarely on the shoulders of Highland parents, fans and boosters. To be successful, a program requires dedication and effort from parents and boosters.
Football is a tough game, and hard work and sacrifice are pre-requisites to success. Participation and support are required from everyone involved, and Highland has precious little of these resources.
It wasn’t always this way. A few years back, in response to a similar period of futility, former Trojan guard and current radio talk show host Dan McNeil founded the Highland Gridiron Club; a club dedicated to restoring the pride in wearing the Blue and Gold.
And the club was successful, for a time. Through annual banquets, golf outings and tailgate parties, the club helped raise funds for the program and even established an annual $1,000 scholarship for a deserving Highland senior, and not necessarily a football player.
More importantly, the club got parents and boosters involved and helped to rebuild the spirit and pride in Highland football. But McNeil and most of the founding fathers have moved on, and precious few have stepped up to take their place.
The annual banquet is no more, and if attendance at the recent golf outing is any indication, the golf outing and even the club itself may soon suffer the same fate.
Previously a well run and well attended event, the club was hoping for 100 golfers, but probably lost money with only 64 in attendance. Besides the fact that there were few, if any former Highland players on the course, it was particularly conspicuous that zero school board members and zero former winners of the scholarship or even their parents were present. Even twenty current members of the club opted not to attend.
Perhaps most notable by their absence was the old guard of the club itself. Surely, the parents of graduated athletes shouldn’t be expected to carry the load for the current generation of parents. But by the same token, can a round of golf be considered a chore?
And no knock on the few volunteers who put together and worked at the golf outing, but it just seemed like everybody couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Sources tell this reporter that there is dissension in the ranks; that personal agendas have taken precedence over the common good. Some have concerns over the future of Highland football at the feeder system level when Pop Warner loses its practice field with the planned expansion of the Lincoln Center; others in the old guard resent the new taking them for granted.
Whatever, Highland has always been a funny town politically. But no matter who is right or wrong, the bottom line is that in the long run the program and the kids will suffer.
“Nothing’s over till we say it is,” crowed John Belushi in Animal House. So will that be how Highland responds? Will Trojan faithful circle the wagons and persevere or will the fortunes of Highland football continue to resemble an airplane in a tailspin?
Why would a kid want to play football at Highland when those they should look up to act so petty, selfish and foolish? What kind of example does that set? Doesn’t football require the individual to put the team before self?
Chris Ramirez was right when he said Highland football needed a trip to the Wizard to find a heart. But he left out the part about needing a brain.
My advice is this: To the school board: It’s not about whether Eric Miller is a nice guy or a good teacher, he is. You need to decide whether he is capable of leading the program.
To the members of the Gridiron Club: Forget your egos and personal agendas and remember what it’s supposed to be all about.
To the parents, fans and anyone concerned: If you’re not already, get involved. The program needs you.
Chris Lannin can be E-Mailed at Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org