During a recent conversation, new Western Heights coach Ed Polly started listing off a number of former Jets players who had gone on to become starters — not at colleges, but at other high schools around the Oklahoma City area.
As he looks at the task facing him, Polly knows what the main challenge is. It's not working harder to convince those kids to stay and play at Western Heights. It's building a program those kids wouldn't want to leave.
Several of the city area's struggling football programs have new coaches this season, with new enthusiasm for turning their team around. But most of them seem to know that coaching isn't among their primary tasks in building a winning football team at places such as Western Heights, Northeast, Northwest Classen, Capitol Hill or U.S. Grant.
Because the players' problem isn't in footwork or schemes or tackling. It's pride — in themselves, their program and their community.
That's the emotion new Northeast coach G.B. Myles tried to appeal to.
Myles, a 28-year-old former college player at Drake, took over at a school that just had its boys basketball and track teams finish second at state. So there are gifted athletes in the building.
In the spring, Myles began walking the halls looking for those athletes who weren't signed up for football.
“I asked them, have you heard people say bad things about Northeast football?” Myles said. “They'd say, ‘yeah.' Well, can you change it? If so, let's prove it.
“We have 32 committed young men on this team right now, ready to do things the right way, and turn the tide for Northeast on the football field.”
Polly has been around OKC football much of his life. He played at U.S. Grant, earning a scholarship to Iowa. He returned and went into coaching, working at multiple schools around Oklahoma City.
At Western Heights — an independent school district in southwest Oklahoma City — Polly is trying to generate the type of community pride that he sees at other programs.
“We have a lot of industrial parks around us, but we don't have the stability of that community around us,” Polly said. “So I'm trying to build it. You need that support.
Pointing to the “Jets” logo on his chest, Polly added: “I want to make this matter. Once a kid puts a Douglass jersey on, he's a Trojan for life. That's what we're trying to find.”
That's the same philosophy for Dan Burgess and his staff at U.S. Grant. Over the summer, they tried to track down former Generals who had played college football in hopes of building some inspiration for their current players.
It's not always easy. The Douglass community didn't evolve to its current state after just a couple of winning seasons. It took years. And a lot of other coaches have tried to generate school pride without sustained success.
But most of the city's new head coaches have been around rebuilding projects before, so they have an idea of how they'd like to attack the challenge.
Northwest Classen's first-year coach, Lloyd Smith — a Moore native and former walk-on player at OU — is drawing from his experience coaching at similar programs in New Mexico and Texas.
“Just about everywhere I've been, it's been similar to this — inner-city schools with older programs that are downtrodden,” Smith said. “That's what I enjoy, going in and giving those kids something to buy into and build, and try to be successful on Friday night.”
Centennial forges ahead without coach Centennial High School in faces many of the same challenges of other Oklahoma City Public Schools, but those issues are on the back burner right now. Head coach Mark Ryan has not been able to coach the team this month because of an illness, leaving assistant Michael Baldwin and a group of volunteer assistants to run practices. “We're not well-staffed, but we've had some coaches volunteer their services for the sake of the kids,” Baldwin said. “It doesn't pay money, but they're out here anyway, and we appreciate all the help we can get.” Ryan had to step away the week before camp opened Aug. 9, and there is no timetable for when he could return. By Scott Wright