The off-season is a time for high school football coaches to branch out, travel a little bit, connect with college coaches, learn their schemes.
“A lot of it has to do with what you’re going to do that year, or the connections that you have,” said Gilbert Higley coach Eddy Zubey, who went with Chandler Hamilton’s Steve Belles after last season to check out what’s going on at Texas and Texas A&M. “When I was a graduate assistant at ASU, Mark Helfrich was the quarterbacks coach. I have an in up there.”
Helfrich, now the head coach at Oregon, is one connection Arizona high school coaches have, from whom they will try to incorporate concepts and schemes.
There are countless others.
New Vail Cienega coach Pat Nugent, returning to high school coaching after leading Pima Community College’s football program, said he used to take from college coaches all the time during his younger head-coaching days.
“My offense now all comes from spending time at Utah with Urban Meyer,” said Nugent, dating it back to 2004. “Right now, I have been spending a lot of time with UA guys. We are running the same offense and defense.”
The high school game mimics the college game in spread, no-huddle offenses. But Mesa Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock believes what is going on in high school sometimes transcends to colleges. Some very successful college coaches, such as Arizona State’s Todd Graham, got their starts in high school coaching.
Hathcock said he took his staff to the University of Texas to see what they were doing.
“We took our guys there to see what the next wave is,” Hathcock said. “The reality is there is a next wave. The run-pass option is happening like you’ve never seen before. But you’re also going back to foundation football, smash-mouth football, which is good.”
Larry Fetkenhier has led Glendale Cactus’ program since the mid-1980s, but he never stops learning. When college coaches come through in the spring, he doesn’t hesitate to pick up on what they’re doing.
Over the course of time, he has visited ASU, Alabama, Auburn, along with community colleges and Arizona Christian University, which is only in its second year as a four-year NAIA program in Phoenix.
“I try to get my hands on films of a variety of schools, talk to other high school coaches and attend a variety of clinics,” said Fetkenhier, who won his 300th career game last season.
Anthem Boulder Creek coach Brandon Willard spent time after last season at California, learning how Sonny Dykes runs his spread offense.
“The whole staff took time to answer every question we had and allowed us to sit in on their position meetings,” Willard said. “We feel that we picked up some things that are trending in college that have not yet filtered down to high school, so hopefully we will be ahead of the curve.
“They are very simple concepts, which relate will to our kids and the philosophy we have in playing an u-tempo type of game.”
Mesa Red Mountain coach Ron Wisniewski, a former college coach, said he likes to visit with college coaches. But he also will spend time with retired NFL coaches just to soak up as much knowledge as possible.
Arizona high school football coaches chasing 300 wins:
One of those is Howard Mudd, who was the Indianapolis Colts offensive line coach from 1998-2009, and was part of a Super Bowl win. Mudd has retired to the Valley.
“We rented a small conference room at a golf resort, catered in food and beer and our staff talked O-line play with him for hours,” Wisniewski said. “It was really cool and educational. We’re always trying to learn more and improve.”
Todd Graham and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell always keep their doors open for high school coaches.
“It’s always beneficial to get a few things from guys at the next level,” Phoenix Pinnacle coach Dana Zupke said. “It also helps build relationships on both sides for recruiting.”