ARCADIA, Ind. – Storm clouds have been gathering in the distance, and for a moment before kickoff they dump rain onto the field at Hamilton Heights. But just for a moment. In that moment, in that rain, the two high school head coaches are standing on their respective sideline at the 45-yard line. They are separated by an open field, and connected by 31 years.
On the far side of the field is the coach at Mt. Vernon. New coach in town, his first game at Mt. Vernon after 11 years at Ben Davis where he won 94 games and state titles in 2014 and ‘17. He’s wearing gray shorts and a black windbreaker. Long sleeves. Black hat.
On the near side, the coach from Hamilton Heights is wearing khaki shorts and a gray windbreaker. Short sleeves. No hat. He too is a new head coach at his school, or any school. Unlike the two-time state champion standing across the way, this is the Hamilton Heights coach’s first game in charge.
For a moment before kickoff, but just for a moment, they are standing in the rain across from one another, mirror images at the 45-yard line. The coach from Mt. Vernon doesn’t look up, doesn’t see the coach from Hamilton Heights staring his way. This is a moment 31 years in the making, but Mt. Vernon’s Mike Kirschner isn’t looking.
He can’t. It’s too difficult. The coach across the field, that’s his son.
The little kid goes everywhere with his dad.
Dad’s working at Warren Central in 1994, an assistant coach on Dave Shelbourne’s football staff, and his son, little bitty Jon Kirschner, goes to work with him. Jon lives for Friday nights — he’s a Warriors ball boy — and Sunday afternoons. That’s when Mike Kirschner goes to the high school to prepare for another week in the classroom as a business teacher, and Jon tags along. He’s straightening desks, stapling papers, doing anything he can to stay busy. But he’s tiny, Jon Kirschner, maybe 7 or 8. Pretty soon he’s dribbling a basketball in the classroom or running sprints in the halls, footsteps echoing into the emptiness.
After football games, the staff goes to Shelbourne’s house to eat pizza and relive the previous three hours. Jon’s there too. In the summer, Mike Kirschner works the Bishop Dullaghan football camp for eventual Indiana Football Hall of Fame coach Dick Dullaghan.
Jon goes to football camp, too.
Campers report to Franklin College, where they sleep in Hoover Hall. No air-conditioning in that dorm.
“Hotter than Hades,” Mike Kirschner recalls. “But Jon loved it. He slept on the floor of my room in a sleeping bag.”
“And I thought it was the coolest thing,” Jon says. “Football was life.”
Mike Kirschner is at Ben Davis now, an assistant for Dick Dullaghan after four uneven seasons as head coach at Cascade. At Cascade, Jon might have been a BMOC: already approaching his eventual height of 6-0, weighing 165 pounds, running the 40 in about 4.9 seconds. At Cascade, as an eighth-grader, Jon was a tailback.
At Ben Davis, tailbacks ran the 40 in 4.6 seconds. At Ben Davis, Jon was a tight end, then a down-lineman. By 2002 he was a junior playing offensive tackle and defensive end. Guess who coached the defensive line at Ben Davis in 2002? Mike Kirschner.
“Believe me,” Dick Dullaghan says, “Mike’s hard — period. You have no idea. I mean, he is. And let me tell you this, and this is a lesson for anybody that has children: He’s tough on all his kids. He’s got three kids, and they love him to death. He’s consistently tough, but they know how soft he is inside. He’s a softy inside. But on the surface, man, he’s demanding.”
It burned hot in those days at Ben Davis, with the Giants winning a state championship in 2001 (Jon Kirschner caught a touchdown pass at tight end against Evansville Reitz at semistate), and again in 2002. By then Jon was a two-way player, an offensive tackle and defensive end, so undersized but so tough at 6-0 and 190 pounds, icing his swollen left elbow and right knee every night after practice. Dad was his position coach that junior season.
“He didn’t treat me any differently than anyone else,” Jon says. “If anything, he was probably a little tougher on me. That’s probably putting it nicely.”
Yeah, well. Wait a year, kid.
Jon’s senior season at Ben Davis. He’s not playing both ways anymore. By 2003 he’s exclusively an offensive lineman, a guard. Guess who’s coaching the Ben Davis offensive line now?
And he’s brutal, Mike Kirschner, brutal in that way of great coaches, bringing out his players’ best and making them love him — even as it’s making his son furious.
“I do remember one instance,” Jon is telling me a few days ago, in the build-up to Friday’s game.
The instance he’s remembering, Ben Davis had a staff meeting and Mike Kirschner wasn’t going to be there when practice started at 3:20. The previous day he’d told his offensive line, and his son, to stretch before practice without him. Start at 3:20.
“One hundred percent, I know I started stretching us on time,” Jon says. “He came out and lit a fire under us anyway. Just reamed us up and own. And I took the brunt of it, I don’t care what he says. He blamed me. All I know is, he was fuming mad. Fuming mad!”
Mike remembers it differently. Well, no, matter of fact, Mike remembers it the same way.
“That was maybe the hardest practice I’ve made a bunch of kids do,” Mike Kirschner is telling me, and keep in mind: He’s been coaching more than 35 years.
At one point the Ben Davis head coach — Dullaghan — walked over to his offensive line coach and said: Don’t you think you ought to back off?
“I just looked at him,” Mike Kirschner says, “and Dick goes: ‘Enough said, I’m done.’ He knew me well enough. I’m not backing off. We’d just won back-to-back state titles in 2001 and 2002. We weren’t quite as good in 2003, but we had five seniors (on the offensive line), all grown up together. They weren’t necessarily that talented, but they were the hardest-working bunch of kids. When I got on them that day, even though I knew they’d get mad, I also knew how they’d respond.”
They responded like this:
By midseason, Ben Davis was starting each game with a quarterback sneak. That’s how tough Mike Kirschner’s offensive line had become. Pretty soon opponents knew it was coming, but couldn’t stop it. Late in the season against Carmel, Ben Davis quarterback Corey Nardi busted a sneak on the first play for 12 yards. Next play, another quarterback sneak. This one for 47 yards.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Jon says of his dad’s coaching in 2003. “Our O-line didn’t have (Division I college) linemen, but he built us up and sent us on a level we hadn’t seen before.”
Final seconds at Penn, both teams ranked in the top five. Penn leads 24-21. Ben Davis has the ball inside the 1, maybe 6 inches from the end zone. Dullaghan calls timeout, walks into the huddle and calls “16 power” — a handoff to the running back.
This is what Dullaghan told IndyStar that night in 2003, after the game:
“(Jon) Kirschner and (center Zack) Billington are standing next to me in the huddle saying, ‘Sneak it, sneak it,’” Dullaghan was saying in 2003. “I called another play and they’re saying, ‘No, no, no — sneak it.’”
Dullaghan defers, calls a sneak. Nardi disappears into the line of scrimmage. Gun goes off. Officials pull players off the pile.
Touchdown. Game over. Ben Davis 27, Penn 24.
“That’s the mentality my dad instilled in us,” Jon Kirschner says today. “I’m telling you, we were nasty. We were tough. We didn’t win it all, but we were sure as heck going to hit you as hard as we could.”
Jon Kirschner’s phone rings. He’s on the other line, talking to a reporter — OK, so he’s talking to me — about the oddity of preparing for his first game as a head coach … and it’s against his father!
Jon, 31, had been telling me about going to play in college at Olivet Nazarene, then coming back to central Indiana and working as a high school teacher — economics, just like his dad — and a coach. Football, just like his dad. But now we’re talking about this first game, and about having to face his old man on the other sideline, and his phone beeps.
“Speak of the devil,” Jon says. “It’s my dad.”
You need to answer?
“Nah, he’s fine,” Jon says. “He just wants to know how practice went. And I had a question for him earlier.”
So even with the game coming, you guys are still …
“Oh yeah, we talk all the time,” Jon says. “It’s pretty simple, really. We don’t talk a lot of X’s and O’s. It might change after we play, but right now we don’t talk about schemes. I don’t mind telling him: ‘Yeah, today we did this well or we need to work on that.’ I ask him for advice.”
After Jon and I finish talking, I call his dad. I call Mike Kirschner and say: I heard you called your son …
“I’m not helping him with the game,” Mike says, and he’s laughing, though it sounds forced. “But I’m helping him. Not a day goes by here of late he hasn’t called me: ‘How did you do this after practice? Did you make kids lift weights when they’re not in school?’ All the management questions, nothing specifically about football. Not this week.”
No, the timing isn’t ideal. Jon’s first game as a head coach, and it’s against a legend, a state-championship winning coach from Ben Davis? A man whose reputation and enthusiasm have surged adrenaline into the Mt. Vernon football program? His father?
No, not ideal. And not planned by father or son. This is the fourth game of a four-year contract between Mt. Vernon and Hamilton Heights.
“It’s a tough situation,” Jon says, and his dad agrees.
“If I win, I feel bad for him,” Mike Kirschner, 57, is telling me a week before kickoff. “And if he wins, I’m not happy ‘cause I don’t like losing. I’m losing both ways.”
The game is coming. It’s six days away, now five. Four. Three days out, Hamilton Heights produces its game notes for the 2018 opener. The front page is a picture of father and son from the 2017 IHSAA state title game in November. On this night, in this picture, Jon is an assistant at Hamilton Heights, where he’s been a teacher and assistant coach for four years. Mike is still the coach at Ben Davis. They are smiling, because they can. Because they don’t know what will happen in nine months. Under the picture of Mike and Jon Kirschner is a single phrase: #KirschnerBowl2018.
The game is two days away, one day, here. Friday dawns cloudy, and stays that way. At kickoff, it is raining.
The game starts, and Mike Kirschner is about to lose. He’s about to lose big.
Mt. Vernon scores on its first possession. And its next. And its next. It’s early in the second quarter and the Marauders lead 22-0 — update: 29-0 — and on the Mt. Vernon sideline, Mike Kirschner is miserable. He’s winning, but he can feel the tears gathering, like storm clouds in the distance, about to dump …
No. Mike Kirschner gets himself under control.
“But I was struggling,” he’s saying after the game, after this 43-14 Mt. Vernon victory against Hamilton Heights. Against his son.
“I’m struggling right now,” he says. “I caught myself several times just looking across the field, wondering how he’s handling it. I love him, and …”
Mike Kirschner turns away.
This game has been brutal in every way, brutal for Jon’s aunts and uncles who flew in from three different states, brutal for Mike’s parents — Jon’s grandparents — brutal for Mike’s sister, who delayed a family vacation to Arizona so she could be here. It has been especially brutal for Mike’s wife, Jon’s mom, who will turn 58 in a few hours. The family will get together Saturday, the day after 43-14, to celebrate her birthday.
The game has been brutal in every way, emotionally and physically. In his first game as a head coach, Jon Kirschner has lost four players to injury, some serious, none worse than the suspected torn ACL sustained by Hamilton Heights’ leading returning rusher, junior Blake Webel. After the game, Mike Kirschner finds Webel on crutches, talks to him for a good minute, claps him on his shoulder, sends him on his way with a smack on the back.
Mike Kirschner is that way, affectionate in the mold of coaches and athletes, and when the game ends he heads with pursed lips to midfield to meet his son, who is barely concealing a scowl. Mike tells his son “good job” and pulls him close for a hug and some soft words. They are talking and shaking hands now, and it lasts 30 seconds, a minute. Mike has his left hand on his son’s shoulder, and when they release their handshake, he puts his right hand on Jon’s chest, above his heart.
Mike is almost in tears, but he has that luxury, if you can call it that: His team won. Jon is feeling something different, something more visceral. He’s seething.
“I wanted to beat him,” Jon says. “That’s what I was thinking when I looked at him before the game: I want to beat him.”
Not on this night. Mike Kirschner has too many years, too many players, too many tricks. Mt. Vernon is leading 43-7 with almost 9 minutes left in the third quarter when the Marauders call it off. They empty their bench, run basic plays into the teeth of the Hamilton Heights defense, work the clock, try to end the game. In the final seconds Mt. Vernon is taking a knee a few yards from the end zone.
The game ends, and Mike Kirschner is walking to midfield. He’s not looking at his son, not at first. The storm clouds, remember? They’re gathering.
“I’m happy for my kids, but as happy as I am for my team, I’m hurting for them, and I’m hurting for him,” Mike says, gesturing at Hamilton Heights, and at his son. “He’s such a great …”
Mike Kirschner stops and turns away. One game into the 2018 season, his record stands at 1-0. Whether it feels that way or not.