The question posed to Jayson Poppinga is this, essentially: You’re taking over for the winningest high school football coach in South Dakota history. People are going to compare you to him, perhaps unfairly. Does this concern you? Are you nervous?
Poppinga laughs. He’s heard this before.
This fall, the O’Gorman football team will be led by someone other than Steve Kueter for the first time in 34 years. During that time, coach, program – and perhaps system – became synonymous and connected in a way rarely seen in any state, at any level.
Now the job falls to Poppinga, a Harrisburg native whose coaching career started in Fargo, went down south to Shawnee Mission, Kansas, doubled back towards Pierre and then took him east, closer than ever to where he started.
Let’s get the comparisons out of the way early: Poppinga – emphasis on the first syllable – and Kueter are quite different. Poppinga’s practices have been a bit faster and more physical. He gets involved with all the position groups, like Kueter did, but is more excitable and intense. Kueter was known for bunching players around his offensive line, and Poppinga will try to spread his offense out.
They’re also similar in that they’ve won, consistently. Kueter had one losing season during his time with O’Gorman and reached the state semifinals 24 times in a row. Poppinga won a state title in 2013, his first year with Pierre T.F. Riggs, and the Governors were runners-up in 2015. Kueter said that in state coaching circles, Poppinga and his brother, Shannon – whom he hired to serve as defensive coordinator with the Knights – were viewed as two of the top coaches in the state.
“His reputation preceded him,” Kueter said of Poppinga.
Some Knights players remembered him and Pierre from 2013, when the Governors came to O’Gorman and beat the Knights on homecoming, and 2014, when O’Gorman beat them in overtime. They got a more personal introduction over the summer, when Poppinga took advantage of the rule change allowing coaches contact with their players in the summer and did workouts with the team.
“In some cases, maybe the players know him a little bit better than some of the coaches do,” said Ed Whiting, the Knights’ linebackers and running backs coach and the lone holdover from last season’s varsity staff. “He’s a players’ guy, and he’s in there, and they’ve responded well.”
Poppinga is more familiar with the situation at O’Gorman than his three years of head coaching experience in the state might suggest. He’s from the area, for one, and his time coaching at Shanley High School in Fargo familiarized him with the environment of a Catholic school.
He still leans on Kueter for advice, though, about the O’Gorman community and how things have typically been done there.
One thing he doesn’t need tips on is football. Kueter gave Poppinga total freedom in choosing his coaching staff. Among the current coaches, he’s the only member without college football playing experience.
Bringing his people in meant Poppinga had tough decisions regarding members of Kueter’s staff, but some of those coaches have stayed involved with the program at the lower levels. Rick Lynch, the team’s former defensive coordinator, is now working on the freshman coaching staff, and Poppinga said the decision to give Shannon Poppinga the defensive coordinator job wasn’t a direct reflection of Lynch’s coaching ability.
“He’s definitely capable of doing it,” Jayson Poppinga said of Lynch. “But my comfort is obviously with my brother, and I trust him, coming from Pierre.”
An important part of Poppinga’s job is getting to know the community and the families around the program. Kueter was as deep as one can get in that area, sometimes spanning generations with the players he coached.
Now there’s a new name for everyone to know and inevitably compare to the guy before him, like this very article is doing.
“That’s life,” Whiting said. “He’s replacing a guy that’s all-time winningest coach in the state of South Dakota. He’s replacing a guy that ran the ball 90 percent of the time, so he’s going to be compared to him. That’s how it is. You’re going to be compared to the guy that was in there before you. Coach Poppinga’s up to the challenge. I know he is.”
So, how is it going with the parents? Do they like Jayson Poppinga so far?
“I don’t think that’s a fair question,” he said.
He laughs again.
Follow Ian Frazer on Twitter at @IanMcFrazer.