When Tony Surace started coaching the Millville High School football team in the 1970s, he’d begin each week analyzing game film for his upcoming opponent.
After picking up the footage from the opposing coach at a neutral location, he’d load a 16-millimeter projector and chart each play by hand. That is until the film jammed, forcing him to reload.
“That’s so archaic today,” Surace joked. “You talk today about 16-millimeter films and (people) have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The Thunderbolts’ current coach, Jason Durham, has it a lot easier. Game film is computerized and sent to Durham, and plays can be charted digitally.
However, that doesn’t mean today’s coaches have it easier than their predecessors. In fact, when taking into account managing players, advanced playbooks and administrative duties, the new coaching generation is put to the test.
“It’s definitely harder to be a head coach now then when I was a head coach, even in 2005,” said Dave Heck, Millville’s leader from 1997-2005 and a current offensive assistant with the Bolts.
Managing the team
Durham and his contemporaries’ first challenge is connecting with kids and establishing boundaries.
Back when Surace started, the lines were clearly drawn.
“The coach came in and established what would be done and the kids were told at home, he’s the coach, (he’s the boss),” Surace recalled.
In those days, coaches could chew their kids out in front of the team, and no complaints were heard.
“I think there was a different mentality among the majority of parents,” Surace said.
Opinions began to change as the years went on, but even Heck, who started coaching in 1986, had leeway to lay into kids.
“When I first started, head coaches were more of a dictator, ‘It’s my way or the highway,'” he said, adding later, “back then you just screamed at ’em.”
Durham’s never seen himself in that light.
“I approach it as trying to be honest with players,” he said. “Try and treat players with respect, and try and teach them how to be good young men.”
Durham doesn’t have the urge to shout, but he understands it would be a no-no if he did.
“Coaches had all the power in the world (back then),” Millville athletic director Dave LaGamba said. “There wouldn’t be a second thought to (yelling at a player). That was basically how it went, and nowadays that’s not the case. That’s not acceptable. … It’s not just that simple to say, ‘I’m the head coach, this is what I say and this is how it goes.'”
“When you compare it to the 1980s, it’s like being coached by Santa Claus (today) to being coached by Vince Lombardi (then),” Heck said.
However, Lombardi never had the playbooks coaches have today.
While the basics of the game — blocking, tackling and running the football — have all remained the same, the amount of plays to choose from has grown drastically.
“When you grew up playing in the 50s and 60s, there was a numbering system (for plays),” Surace said. “The quarterback’s 1, fullback 2, tailback 3, and then even numbers to the right and odds to the left; 34 was tailback right tackle.”
When Surace began coaching, the Thunderbolts used the option attack. Teams also ran the wishbone, Wing -T and I-formations, but there wasn’t much variety beyond that.
During Heck’s days, it was a lot of the same. Teams had their formations, and there wasn’t much deviation.
“You were very vanilla,” Heck said. “Every team probably ran maybe 10 plays.”
However, in the early 1990s, Heck helped Millville make a drastic shift. During the 1991 season, the Thunderbolts were slated to take on Atlantic City — one of the top teams in South Jersey that year.
Heck believed Millville couldn’t run its normal sets and come out on top. So he took concepts from the Washington Redskins single-back formations, and sprung the new attack on the Vikings.
“You would’ve thought it was football from Europe,” Heck said.
The Thunderbolts ran trips to one side of the offense with just a single back in the backfield, and Atlantic City had no defense as Millville emerged with a 10-0 triumph.
Even though Millville’s offense was progressive for the high school ranks at the time, it’s nothing like today.
“Now you’ll see four wide receivers on one side of the ball,” he said, adding later the amount of formations and packages today has “probably close to doubled to tripled.”
Playbooks are growing by volumes as more and more teams game plan for each particular opponent.
Millville will spend the first part of each week inserting new plays designed specifically for their upcoming game.
“Monday and Tuesday are quite a bit of learning for (the kids),” Durham said. “As far as the coaching staff goes, our coaching meetings are anywhere from 5-8 hours Sunday nights … and the majority of that is game-planning time.”
Once used, game plans don’t get scrapped.
“We do try and game plan each week, but we try to carry over more from previous weeks and add on,” Durham said. “When Dave was head coach, it was almost just week by week, now we are doing week by week, but we are trying to carry over from the previous week and it builds into a big pile at the end of the year.”
Durham’s thankful administrative work doesn’t pile up like that, or he’d never see the field. While Surace maybe had a couple hours of work to do per week, Durham’s load is more than double that.
“I probably (spend) 5-6 hours (per week) dealing with different administrative things, putting together what kids are on the bus, dealing with things with players … there’s just a lot of things that happen during the course of the week,” Durham said.
He also has to deal with technologies and social media like Facebook and Twitter that Surace or Durham could never dream of.
“We talk to our players about making good choices, and not putting things on there they wouldn’t want on the front page of the paper or television,” Durham said.
But it’s still another issue Durham has had to manage, and another reason Heck views today’s job as a lot more difficult.
“My days of being a head coach are over,” Heck said. “I don’t have the patience for it. It’s a tremendous time commitment.”