Coach’s keys are missing.
This is Defcon 1 people, high alert. Everybody stop. Does Wes have them? Wes? Where’s Wes? Anybody seen Wes? Wes has got them, right?
These are big keys, more metal than the mouths of an entire class of seventh-graders. A locksmith has fewer keys. Florida has fewer Keys.
And they’re gone.
You’d think that just two days before Year 5 of the Clarence “Bam” McRae era is set to start at Mountain View High School, where he’s brought some liveliness back to a once-proud program, that there would be fewer stressors.
But this is the life of a high school football coach, X’s and O’s, exes and woes. A head coach is one part schemer, one part teacher, one part relationship counselor, one part advisor, one part janitor, one part equipment manager, one part father figure, one part brother figure.
Over near Arthur Pack Park, they’ve found all in one in McRae.
You want to talk about missing keys?
Here’s a missing key: stability.
And that’s what McRae has given to Mountain View.
Stability is the key
OK, crisis averted, if you can call it that. An assistant coach had the keys. McRae thought Wes drove off with them, but all is good. Wes is off the hook.
As the sun sets on another day of preparation for Friday’s opener against Salpointe Catholic, McRae surveys the scene.
Newcomers for whom a mustache would be a grand accomplishment grab their game jerseys for Thursday’s freshman game, ogling their numbers. This is a rite of passage. A tableful of players and cheerleaders joke around and take selfies. Seniors with their shirt sleeves rolled up try to flex in the coach’s direction. Maybe they’ll get an extra snap or two.
A standout freshman comes up to McRae and asks if he can play in the freshman game. No? Maybe the JV game?
No, I need you for Friday, McRae says, tussling the kid’s hair. He walks off away happy.
McRae looks happy, too.
He was hired in 2012 to resurrect a program that had once had great success under pioneering football coach Wayne Jones, who started the team in 1988 and led them to a state championship in 1993. Jones retired in 2006 with a career record of 134-76 and the program was left to assistant Paul Schmidt.
Schmidt went 14-18 in three seasons, and the Mountain View administrators decided a change needed to be made. They didn’t know they’d need to do it again the next two seasons, but Justin Argraves lasted just one year before leaving for Tucson High, and his replacement, Larry Branson, also lasted just a year before leaving for Casa Grande.
No doubt that when McRae was hired, they used erasable ink on his door plaque.
But in many ways, this was his dream job. A UA tight end in 2003 and 2004 and a coach who was part of the Wildcats program for almost a decade — Mike Stoops served as a reference for him during the hiring process at Mountain View — McRae has many family ties to the Mountain Lions. His uncle, Robert Summerset, was a coach on the 1993 state championship squad, and his cousin was a captain on that team. When McRae played for the UA, his younger brother played for Mountain View.
So this was a good fit, and it’s proved to be a lasting one.
There have been stumbling blocks: After eight- and seven-win seasons in the his first two years, McRae and his team won six in each of the last two. In 2014, McRae was suspended a game and the team was placed on one-year probation and ineligible for the playoffs after it was determined that McRae had committed a recruiting violation in the transfer of now-Wildcat Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles.
But now it’s full steam ahead, under McRae’s direction.
“I always thought that this was my program from the day I took it over,” he said. “You live the college dream, and then you realize college coaches are fired every five or six years, if they’re lucky.”
Building a program
They say a coach wants to put a stamp on a program. Four coaches in four years leave temporary tattoos.
There is nothing quite like stability for a high school football program, and if anybody knows that around this town, it’s the guy who’ll be across the sideline from McRae on Friday.
Dennis Bene has been leading Salpointe since 2001, and the 2014 Pima County Sports Hall of Fame inductee has the record to prove it.
“You’re using the word program, and I don’t think you have a program when you have that much turnover,” Bene said. “Nothing is established, period, and the kids don’t have anybody to sink their confidence into. You see it often, but you also know it just takes the right guy. A lot of schools have football teams, and not programs, but just with the one guy, and you have a program.”
Bene remembers what it was like to take over the reins of a team himself.
This was a decade and a half ago, but he sees it vividly. He remembers ordering the uniforms, arguing back and forth about the design, and an assistant coach finally telling him, “You’re the head coach; make a decision.”
“That was the moment I realized it was my program,” Bene said.
Bene’s first scrimmage was against Amphi and Vern Friedli, the winningest coach in Arizona history. Bene hadn’t set the ground rules before the game, and Friedli sent the house time after time, blitzing the Lancers until even Bene couldn’t see straight.
“He kept blitzing and blitzing and I was like, ‘Holy hell, what did I get myself into?’” Bene said. “I felt a little bit overwhelmed.”
Now the calm has settled, for Bene, in his 16th year at Salpointe, and for McRae, in his fifth year at Mountain View, too.
McRae has been there long enough that his players are starting to return a little older, a little wiser, the baby fat disappeared. He’ll now have put through an entire senior class of Mountain Lions, and his former players are coming back all the time now.
That, both coaches agree, is the best part of the gig.
“One of the greatest rewards of being a coach, and having tenure at a place, is I’ve got kids, recent graduates who come back just to work out, kids who are playing college football, kids who are married with families, kids working all over the world,” Bene said. “It’s a tremendous feeling of pride when you knew them in high school and now they’re grown-ups having successful lives.”
Added McRae: “With high school football, the best part is seeing kids who’ve gone through the program come back. Those are the most rewarding moments, when you get that return on investment. Everyone thinks it’s a Friday night when you win the game. Not for me.”
And the worst part?
“The flip side,” McRae said. “I try to save everyone, and having walked the path a lot of these kids are walking, I can guide them away from the potholes they face, and every once in a while, you may lose one.”
Yes, that happens. But sometimes they return.
And as McRae has proven, the door will be open for them when they do.
As long as he can find the keys.