GUTHRIE — No one had any better seat for Guthrie High's past few home games than Rafe Watkins.
Midfield. Third row. Even a coveted chair back.
Watkins hated it.
He had nothing against the view. The people around him were fine, too. That prime seat inside Jelsma Stadium just wasn't where he wanted to be during games.
The football coach who built a powerhouse prep program at Guthrie was banned from the sidelines for the past eight games. He watched from the stands after a highly publicized saga with the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association's board of directors. Guthrie had used a player last season who'd never made a bona fide move into the district, and the team was on the verge of having to forfeit those games and miss the playoffs. Watkins threw himself at the mercy of that OSSAA court in an attempt to save the season.
Darned if it didn't work.
Watkins was suspended and Guthrie went on to win the Class 5A state championship while he watched from the stands.
Now, his suspension is over.
“I am ready to get back,” he said last Friday night as his top-ranked Bluejays warmed up. “That's why we do this ... for the Friday nights. I love during the weeks. I love practice. Even though it's fun to do all that other, this ... “
He glanced around Jelsma Stadium.
“ ... is what you miss.”
The thing is, Friday nights weren't the only thing Watkins traded for his team's spot in the playoffs. His offer to the board cost him more than that.
* * *
Rafe Watkins decided he had to do something.
Sitting in that board of directors' meeting last November, he had a bad feeling about the fate of his football team. Watkins and other Guthrie administrators had explained what had happened — how Clint Simek and his family had moved to Guthrie from Prague, how Watkins had completed and submitted a New Student form to the OSSAA and how he had assumed that form put Simek and Guthrie in compliance.
Turned out, a Resident Affirmation form should've been completed. That would've included the family's plans for its old home, proof that it had completely moved out, and a contract or lease for a residence in its new school district.
Watkins admitted he messed up.
But after nearly four hours of testimony and deliberation, the board ruled Simek ineligible.
Watkins feared his team was next.
That's when he stood up and asked for mercy.
“Suspend me from the playoffs,” he said, “if these kids can play.”
The board agreed, suspending Watkins for eight games, the same number of games as Simek had played while ineligible, and allowing Guthrie to continue its season in the playoffs.
The successful appeal resonated all around the state.
In Guthrie, the news spread quickly via radio broadcast and social media. Kai Callins, then a sophomore speedster, remembers seeing on Twitter that his coach had been suspended but that his season wasn't over.
“Every high school football player wants to win a state championship,” Callins said. “He just gave us an opportunity to live our dreams.”
A coach who was already beloved for taking over a program that had eight consecutive losing seasons before he arrived and winning two state titles in his first seven seasons became even more revered in Guthrie.
The reaction in other parts of the state wasn't quite as positive.
Many angry fans aired their grievances on websites and message boards. There were cries of injustice because the OSSAA rules state that games must be forfeited if an ineligible player is used. There were charges of cronyism since then-Guthrie superintendent Terry Simpson was on the board of directors. (He didn't sit on the board or vote the day of Guthrie's appeal.)
Much of the outrage stemmed from the fact that similar situations in the past had resulted in forfeits, and on appeal, the board hadn't overturned them.
Had Guthrie been shown favoritism because it was undefeated and the Class 5A favorite?
Would the ruling open a can of worms in the future?
“Obviously, rules were changed midstream,” one commenter on NewsOK.com wrote the day that Guthrie was reinstated into the playoffs. “Either they violated the rules or they didn't. The player sitting out ... tells me they did violate.
“Apparently, Watkins has some pull with the higher ups.”
Watkins and his program took a PR hit. Long seen as a blue-collar, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps bunch, they are no longer looked at the same way by some folks in the high school sports world.
Even though Watkins doesn't get on the Internet message boards, some of his younger assistants did.
“There's some people saying that they'd better be checking you for Bluetooth,” they told him last fall.
“What is a Bluetooth?” he said.
The suggestion that he might try to communicate with his coaches on the sidelines and violate the terms of his suspension made Watkins laugh.
“I've still got a flip phone, for God sakes,” he said.
While Watkins heard nothing but support from other coaches, he knows everyone wasn't as positive. He even acknowledges that the episode may have tarnished his reputation in some people's eyes.
“If I did, I can live with that,” he said. “If the general public looks at that and just wants to think that Guthrie is a cheatin' group ... that's fine. You can't change perceptions. All you can do is be true to yourself.”
He pointed to the stadium scoreboard where Guthrie's state championship years are listed. That now includes last season's title.
“That's gratification enough for me,” he said, “knowing that we've been a part of three state championships.”
* * *
Rafe Watkins looked out of place in the stands.
Even though he clapped when Guthrie made a good play and stood when the Bluejays scored a touchdown during a 62-0 rout of Guymon, he mostly sat and watched the game quietly with his chin in his hand. When the moms and dads around him started high fiving, he didn't quite know what to do.
“I'm not used to all this screaming around here,” he joked as the stands filled around him last week. “These ladies get crazy through here. That first night ... they screamed and scared me to death.”
One of those ladies piped up.
“You love it up here,” she chided.
Everyone in Guthrie knows where he wants to be.
Even though Watkins has been able to be around his players and his assistants during the week — he praised them for the way they've carried on in his absence, winning all eight games without him — he hated being apart from them on Fridays.
“It's difficult because he loves what he does,” said Guthrie defensive coordinator Kelly Beeby, who took over the head coaching duties during games. “It's hard because this is the payoff for all the work we put in.”
Even with what this episode cost him, Watkins would do it all again. He'd throw himself at the mercy of the OSSAA court. He'd serve the suspension. He'd take the tarnish.
As long as his players had a chance to keep going, he'd make the tradeoff.
“I promise you, all the good coaches I know would've done the same thing,” he said. “If they could get their team in, they'd say, ‘Sit me down.' That's just a given. By no means was that a big thing to do.”
Now, he's ready to get back and move on.
“Last one?” a man decked out in Guthrie blue asked last week.
“Last one,” Watkins said.
“I'm tired of you bein' here, to be honest,” the man said, motioning toward Watkins' seat.
“Well,” Watkins said, “I am, too.”
Class 5A No. 1 Guthrie (4-0) at Western Heights (0-4)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Western Heights High School, 8201 SW 44, Oklahoma City
Scouting report: Guthrie QB Bryan Dutton has thrown for 482 yards and nine TDs and run for 321 yards and seven scores. ... Conner Howard has four interceptions for Guthrie. ... The 27 points Western Heights scored last week were 20 more than it had scored in any other game this season.