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FOOTBALL: Off-Season Anthology Part II – Can We Believe in Change?

The 2012 football season is a few months away, but story lines are already starting to spring up. As we get closer to summer workouts and off-season conditioning, Regionsports.com Staff Writers are going to look at some of those issues that might rise during the upcoming season. This is the second part of the series.

Four years ago, “change” was the word on everyone’s mind thanks to our president’s campaign to the White House. It’s ironic that in 2012, when voters will hit the polls with the results essentially being a referendum on that change, that Region football sees an off-season filled with change. The question is whether or not you can believe in it.

As of May 24, there have been six new head football coaches hired in Northwest Indiana and there may be a seventh depending on what Lake Station decides to do with Mike Hepp (there are reports that he may be reinstated into the position he was removed from just last week). While that may seem like a lot of new hires, it’s actually been par for the course. There were seven job openings after the 2010 season and no fewer than five coaches have been replaced in an off-season since after the 2007 campaign, when three jobs became available. There hasn’t been an off-season with less than three since 1996 and there’s only been one off-season (1983) with no new hires in the post World War II era.

So, while the number of coaching changes isn’t extraordinary for this era, it’s the names and legacies of the coaches being replaced that makes this off-season seem like there’s been a ton of upheaval.

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With Mark Hoffman retiring from Valparaiso, Chip Pettit stepping down from his football position to become the principal at Crown Point and Russ Radtke leaving Griffith for New Prairie, three coaches with decade plus tenures at their school are gone from the sidelines.

The Region hasn’t seen so many experienced coaches leave their positions in the same off-season since following 1975 when Ken Sypult (Highland), Maury Zlotnik (Morton) Ray Banary (Chesterton) Dick Demaree (Merrillville) and Stan Klimczak (LaPorte) all departed from their schools. Four out of five of those coaches have their school’s stadiums named after them, if that tells you anything about the status of those coaches.

Not only have Crown Point, Griffith and Valparaiso been faced with the task of replacing their long-term gridiron leaders, they’ve all decided to go with the same strategy in hiring first time coaches to take over. Crown Point brought back a former assistant in Kevin Enright to replace Pettit while Griffith and Valpo promoted from within – the Panthers named Jim Pickett their coach just last week and the Vikings went with Dave Coyle.

It’s been said about coaches that “you don’t want to be the guy who replaces the legend, you want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend.” Maybe that’s the mindset of some coaching candidates, or maybe it’s the way they console themselves after not getting a job they wanted, but there seems to be little truth to that philosophy.

Yes, there are some examples of guys who struggled in taking over for legendary coaches. Charlie Boston went 16-28 in his four seasons at Hobart. But in his defense, Hobart still hasn’t won a sectional title since 1997, so no coach after him has been able to even come close to replicating some of the Brickie success under Don Howell. Scott Freckelton struggled at LC, going 13-29 after replacing Elmer Britton and Lou Famiano went 1-19 in replacing Klimczak at LaPorte, so it’s not unheard of that the successors find a lack of success.

But, for every one of those results there are plenty of examples of coaches who have even surpassed the legends that they replaced – just look at two of the coaches who stepped down this season.

Mark Hoffman had to replace Tom Stokes who went 114-33-4 at Valparaiso. While Hoffman wasn’t able to replicate the winning percentage of state title under Stokes, he did win eight sectional titles, five regionals and made two trips to “The Dome”. Not too shabby.

Radtke took over for Les Thornton at Griffith and did something that none of Thornton’s teams were able to do – win a state championship. His winning percentage and number of victories also surpass Thornton.

Dave Shelbourne at Highland (replacing Sypult), Ken Haupt at Merrillville (replacing Demaree), Leroy Marsh at Munster (taking over for John Friend) and Chet Lukowski at EC Roosevelt (stepping in for Pete Rucinski) are other examples of coaches who made their own mark after replacing a legendary figure.

So while Coyle, Enright and Pickett have big shoes to fill, it’s definitely not a sure thing they won’t succeed, especially considering the talent they all have returning. Crown Point won Class 4A Sectional #2 last year, it could be argued that Valparaiso should have beaten the Bulldogs in the semi-finals, and Griffith has an explosive backfield coming back.

While those three coaches are going to be under the most scrutiny in 2012, the other new comers face plenty of challenges as well.

Wally McCormack returns from a one year coaching hiatus to takes over at his alma mater, Portage, and looks to lead a team, and fan base, that’s starving to replicate the success the program had under Craig Buzea. McCormack did take a team to the state championship (2002 Andrean), and seems rejuvenated by his year away, so the expectations will be high at Portage.

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At Highland, Trent Grider replaces Ken Bye and takes over a program that has fallen on hard times, to put it nicely. The Trojans have gone 5-46 over the past three seasons, so while the pressure to win now won’t be one that Grider faces, he has the unenviable task of turning around that program, while facing the stigma of his 6-72 career record as a head coach.

It may not be official until May 29, but veteran assistant Jay Novak will be the new head coach at Clark and one could argue that Novak has a pretty cushy gig in Robertsdale. Novak was hand picked for the job by former head coach Dave Verta, who’s now the athletic director, so you could assume he has a pretty long leash. But, he does take over a team that went 3-7 last year and he faces some decent competition in conference with powerhouse Morton, rising Hammond High and a Gavit team that has some playmaking talent returning.

Whoever is the head coach at Lake Station already faces an uphill battle with the program suffering from a lack of numbers on the roster as well as a lack of wins. Combine that with the “can he stay or must he go” situation with Mike Hepp, who was told he could still coach after retiring as a teacher, then was told he couldn’t, now might be able to again because of community reaction to that announcement (with the issue not being decided until June 20th), whoever gets this job, even if it’s Hepp returning, will be behind the eight ball because of the lack of prep time in the summer.

There have been off-seasons with more coaching changes, but not many with more big names departing from the sidelines. Will the six (maybe seven) new hires find the same success as their predecessors? That’s a tall order, but we do know that Region football in 2012 is going to look different. Will this change win us over and make us believers? Just like at the polls, we’ll find out in November.

Nathan Laird can be reached at nathan.laird@regionsports.com. You can discuss this or any Region sports topic at the RSN’s Facebook page by clicking HERE 

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