It’s an early Thursday evening in mid-August as Bernie Busken leads his Phoenix North High football team onto the field for a scrimmage against Phoenix Trevor Browne.
Busken looks older than I remember. His gait is slower. We shake hands, and he thanks me for coming out. He says he’s assured his principal that this will be a positive story.
I tell him the story intrigues me. I want to know why a coach who has been extraordinarily successful throughout his career would take over an inner-city program that has won a combined four games the past two seasons.
“I really didn’t have any plans to coach,” says Busken, who resigned as Chandler Basha’s coach last March, citing health and family reasons. “I talked to a couple of my buddies and asked if they needed any help and they didn’t, so I couldn’t find anything I particularly wanted to do. Then North called. There are some kids here that need some help. Just having somebody be there for them, that’s the biggest thing.”
There’s not a more fascinating story this high school football season than the arranged marriage between Busken and North. Between a coach who won three state championships at Mesa Mountain View and a football program that has had one winning season since 2005.
The relationship is a litmus test. Can the right coach turn an inner-city program around despite all the socioeconomic disadvantages that drag it down? Or will those difficulties swallow the coach whole?
“You’ve got to be very patient, and you’ve got to keep things in perspective,” Busken said.
Some would argue those traits haven’t been Busken’s strengths in the past. But at least he knows the road he’s about to travel. In 1981 Busken became the head coach at (Oklahoma City) John Marshall High School, where he had been a star wide receiver. Like North, John Marshall was an inner-city school; Busken had one assistant for the 104 players in the program.
John Marshall won two games in his one and only season as coach, but, Busken said, “by the end of the year we kept getting better and people said they didn’t want to play us anymore.”
Preseason Arizona high school football rankings: Divisions I-VI
azcentral sports’ Richard Obert ranks the Top 10 teams in each division before the start of the 2014 season. He begins with Division I and works his way through Division VI. Is defending champion Mountain Pointe the team to beat in Division I?
His goals at North are similarly modest. Previous school administrators refused to appeal down from Division I, leaving North with a schedule beyond its means, including games against Phoenix Mountain Pointe and Phoenix Desert Vista. On most Friday nights North will get its brains beat in. Just being competitive will be a victory.
“If we improve every day and teach our kids to do the best they can do we’ve been successful,” Busken said. “The biggest thing we’ve got to do is put a quality product out there and treat the kids right.”
Change won’t happen quickly. Busken said North didn’t have a booster club when he took over. Some of his players didn’t own cleats; others had never played football. North needs to move down to Division II in the next scheduling block to even fantasize about a playoff appearance.
But Busken’s hiring has kick-started the process. Participation numbers are up — approximately 140 kids are out for the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams — and there’s a renewed belief within the program.
“I almost had a party in my back yard,” said Chris Gabrielson, whose son, Chris, is a junior wide receiver/cornerback. “I can tell you what my son told me. He said after one week with coach Busken that he’s the kind of coach that can make an average player good and a good player great.”
The upperclassmen in North’s program, the players who suffered through those two straight 2-8 seasons, are all in. They rave about how much they’ve learned from Busken the past three weeks. They acknowledge he’s tough and a disciplinarian but, they said, toughness and discipline is exactly what North needs right now.
“He has a passion for football, and he cares for the kids,” senior outside linebacker Anthony Salmeron said. “He pushes us every day. The respect level we have toward him compared to the other coaches we had is unbelievable.”
There’s a widespread belief within the high school community that inner-city football programs are doomed, that they can’t compete with suburban schools in growing areas. Busken didn’t believe that when he took the John Marshall job, and he doesn’t believe it now.
“I’ve taken five programs that were down and out and made them real competitive,” he said.
If he can do that at North — and show other coaches the way — it will be the most significant success he’s achieved in Arizona.
Reach Bordow at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow
Preseason All-Arizona selections: