Five years ago, I sat across from Matt Lewis in his office just after he was named the new football coach at Tempe McClintock.
Lewis, formerly the offensive coordinator at Scottsdale Saguaro, talked about discipline and commitment and loving his kids.
“We’re trying to change the mind-set,” he said. “They really need a solid direction and philosophy here, and I think I’ve brought that.”
McClintock finished 3-7 that fall and never finished with a winning record in Lewis’ four years as coach.
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Eleven days ago, I talked to new McClintock coach Corbin Smith, most recently the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at Mesa Community College. He talked about discipline and commitment and loving his kids. It all sounded familiar. So I asked him:
Why do you think you can win at McClintock, which hasn’t been over .500 since 2006 when Steve Campbell was the coach and the Chargers went 6-5?
“I know there’s a lot of people out there that might look at it differently, but I’ve always kind of followed the beat of my own drum,” Smith said. “I get a feel for situations, people and things, and if I get a good gut feeling, I go with it.”
So here he is, trying to resurrect a football program that once was one of the state’s best: McClintock won state championships under legendary coach Karl Kiefer in 1977, 1980 and 1989 and produced players like Anthony Parker, Art Greathouse and Cleveland Colter. But the shifting population east and south took its toll. McClintock went from great to good to, sadly, irrelevant. It hasn’t had more than seven wins in a season since 2005.
Smith believes he can reverse that course. Not immediately. Not this fall. And probably, he admitted, “not even in two years.” But he’s certain that lessons he learned under his father, former University of Arizona coach Larry Smith, and longtime East Valley coach Jim Jones, will eventually pay off, both in terms of participation numbers, community buy-in and, most importantly, wins.
“I just see McClintock High School kind of going back to where it used to be,” Smith said. “I just think my personality and the vision I have and culture I want to create can happen at McClintock. Combine that with a new administration (McClintock has a new principal and athletic director) and for me it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Smith’s first meeting with his players was promising as about 70 kids showed up. The question, of course, is whether he can build on that enthusiasm, even as the losses pile up. He hopes his players will appreciate the fact he’s all-in; he took the job even though his 16-year-old son, Braxton, will be a junior linebacker at Gilbert Perry this fall and, “I’m going to miss the majority of his games.”
His plan is to re-invigorate the “McClintock brand.” He’ll invite former players to practices and games. To promote community and school involvement, he’ll appoint “faculty captains” for games, and they won’t be the head baseball or basketball coach. Instead, he’ll invite the orchestra teacher or math instructor to stand on the sideline. He’ll make home visits with players and their parents so “they understand what the expectations are for the kid.”
“A key component to being successful in the coaching profession is to have players trust you,” Smith said. “In order for them to trust you, they have to invest in you first to gain that trust. We’re going to set high expectations for the program academically and the way they work, but they’re always going to know where they stand. They’re always going to know the coaches care about them. We’re going to develop personal relationships with the kids. I think that’s kind of a lost art.”
It all sounds promising. But Lewis echoed those same words and they fell silent on Friday nights because McClintock just wasn’t good enough. Smith has to somehow keep in-boundary kids from playing at another school and hope that his plans for McClintock’s future aren’t suffocated by its current struggles.
“I think if you create the right culture, the wins are going to happen,” Smith said. “I know I can do some good things here.”