CONCORD – Two years ago this week, Concord head football coach Max Clark and the school district faced a difficult decision.
Clark pushed for the school to forfeit varsity games until it had enough healthy players to fill a team. Concord had started the season with 16 players, but injuries had the Yellow Jackets down to nine by Week 3, and pulling up kids from the junior varsity wasn't an option for Clark.
“We had the same argument almost every year,” Clark said. “Do we shut down a couple of varsity games? We even talked about trying to play some 8-man varsity games so we could keep a JV intact.
“In 2014, I got backing from the superintendent and my administration, and I said we just have to do this. If we bring up JV kids, we're just doing the same old stuff. They are going to get hurt, they are going to get discouraged, and we're going to lose kids.
“We took a beating and took our lumps, but we wanted to make sure to keep that JV team intact, which is this year's seniors. They needed to develop that mentality on how to win and be a team, and if we would have just stripped them, we would have been right back where we had been.”
Concord forfeited two games before it was able to field a team for Week 5, and it finished the season 1-8 for the second year in a row and third time in four years.
Since then, it has been a rags-to-riches story. That junior varsity team is now the senior class on the varsity – a varsity that went 7-2 during the regular season last year, lost in a MHSAA Division 7 Pre-District game, and has started the season 2-0 this year.
Already, Concord is gaining attention. The Jackson Citizen Patriot ranked Concord No. 1 in its area “Power Poll,” ahead of No. 2 Grass Lake, No. 3 Jackson Lumen Christi and No. 4 Jackson.
It is uncharted territory for Concord, which has had just two winning seasons since 2001.
“It's a whole new challenge,” Clark said. “Everyone is loving up this No. 1 power-ranking thing, which I don't think I've ever seen before at Concord, but it's just press.
“I tell the team, 'If you are focused on the little things, bad things happen when they're big.' One of their biggest strengths is their confidence, and as long as they continue to work hard, they can relish in that No. 1 and enjoy it. They've never had it here before, and the community is treating them in a phenomenal way. We had an amazing crowd last week at Homer.”
Turning it around
Clark is one of those “glass half-full” kind of guys, although, in reality, he might just feel the glass is always filled to the brim. He grew up in Concord and played on the 2001 team that advanced to the Division 7 Semifinals before losing to Detroit St. Martin dePorres.
To him, coaching is more than a job. It is who he is in a lot of ways.
“I'm 32 years old, and for 17 of my 32 years, I've been a part of this program, whether as a player or a coach or in some capacity,” he said. “A big part of who I am as a person is from what I learned from Coach (Clint) Alexander and the guys that taught us what we know back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I just try to carry that on and bring a lot of that tradition back. I know how important it was to me and helping me become a teacher and a coach and be a good father and a good husband. That's the mentality we're trying to bring to these buys here so they can carry on that legacy.”
Clark is in his fourth season as the head coach, and for the first two of those years, he was not a teacher at the school. It certainly did not help him recruit the hallways for players, and even though he was a local guy, that identity might not have been strong with the younger players.
He landed a teaching job last year. He teaches history and social studies, and it has strengthened his connection with the student body. He also preached a positive attitude, not only to his players, but to the community.
“Maybe it's my personality or my mentality, but I try really hard to be positive all the time,” he said. “I remember my first year. It didn't matter if I was at the hardware store downtown or wherever, if somebody asked me about our numbers, I always told them, 'We're going to have the biggest team we've ever had.'
“Maybe that was the greatest lie I ever told, but the point was that it was about marketing and creating a positive aura around our program, rather than in the past, how there had always been that negativity surrounding the program. We wanted to change that mentality. It's changing, but it's still in the beginning.”
Clark said the first big step was the season finale in 2014 – the season during which the two games were forfeited. Concord blasted Bellevue 62-20 to avoid a winless season. Those tied the most points Concord had scored in a game dating back to 1950 and were more than the combined point total from 2005 and 2006.
“Bellevue had beat us two years before, and I think that made our players believe in our new offense,” Clark said. “That one win really carried us into the offseason.”
Last year, Concord defeated Union City in Week 2 to end a 27-game losing streak against the Chargers. It was the springboard for the turnaround season.
“That was a big deal for the community and the kids, and I think that really tripped the trigger and made them believe,” Clark said.
Senior running back Tony Brooks, Jr., said the victory was a huge confidence boost.
“It made everyone know that we could win,” he said.
History of futility
Concord football has a resume filled with futility. Since 1950, it has a record of 216-363-13.
It has never won a Big Eight Conference title, and the league has been in existence since 1973.
It has an all-time losing record against every member of the Big Eight, and most of those records aren't even close.
It went three consecutive seasons without a win twice and endured losing streaks of 35 and 30 games.
Yet, the school has enjoyed much athletic success in sports like basketball, golf, volleyball and track & field. The boys basketball team won 10 consecutive District titles under coach Bob Urschalitz during the 1980s. But at least one person thinks that might have hindered the football program.
The last time Concord won a conference championship in football was 1964 as a member of the Cascades Conference. Kilbourn Snow was a member of that team, and he has stayed in the community and followed all the teams throughout the years.
“He told his basketball players that if they wanted to play basketball, they couldn't play football,” Snow said. “I remember coming to games back then and all of the basketball players were out for golf, and he was the golf coach, too. We had a golf team that could have probably been a good football team, and they were all sitting on the sidelines. From there, it all went downhill.”
Snow has a lot of praise for Clark and said Clark reminds him of his old coach from the 1960s, Van Green.
“He has the same rapport with his players and the same kind of determination,” Snow said. “He is very focused on the legacy of Concord football. They are getting the young kids involved, and on the night the little kids are playing, they run through the varsity and JV players, and the players all stop and clap for them.
“Max has re-instilled that football culture back in the school.”
Another win to build upon
Brooks, who rushed for 129 yards, gained 71 as a receiver and scored three touchdowns last week in an exciting overtime victory against rival Homer, was on the junior varsity two years ago when the varsity had to forfeit two games.
“We would go against them in practice, and we would keep up with them,” he said. “It was frustrating because they only had 13 or 14 guys, and if one person gets hurt, it's going to hurt you.”
The Homer game, much like the Union City game last year, might be a springboard to success, and it gave the Yellow Jackets possession of the Little Brown Jug – the prize in the rivalry.
“It was phenomenal, it felt really good and I was pretty emotional afterwards, I'm not going to lie,” Clark said. “We needed to get over that hump, so I think this momentum will carry us a little bit. That's the goal, anyway.
“We don't want to get lackadaisical at practice because we won. Great teams practice harder after they win.”
This year's team faced a big challenge from the start. Last year's quarterback, Chase Hinkle, was a senior and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Big Eight Conference. Jacob Randall is the new starter, and Austin Hoxie is the backup.
“Chase was a great quarterback, and he did great things for us,” Clark said. “He worked hard in the offseason, so we had designed a lot of stuff that we did around him and his abilities, and we've done the same thing with our new guys.
“Jacob is a good runner and has a lot of ability. He has an amazing arm, and he throws a 90 mph fastball in baseball. But we have depth there. In our first game, Jacob had an asthma attack and had to go out, and Austin went in and goes 5-for-9 and throws a touchdown pass.”
Concord runs a spread-power no-huddle offense with Clark calling all the plays from the sidelines.
“I've never seen anyone use my system; I just holler out plays,” he said. “We have the ability to change the numbers and letter that we use to call the same stuff. It works for us.
“We've been pretty run-heavy the first two weeks. We have phenomenal running backs. We have great receivers, and we can pass when we need to, but I guess if we don't need to pass, we won't. There is that old-school mentality that three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad. So I like to keep it on the ground.”
The players say a brotherhood has developed on the team. That often is seen on winning teams, and Concord does not appear to be an exception to the rule.
“This has been great because the team has such a strong connection,” senior Bradley Hawkins said.
One of the players who can attest to the connection is senior strong safety Montez Brewer, who came to Concord two years ago when Albion closed its high school. All the Albion students were spilled into nearby schools such as Concord, Marshall, Homer, Springport and Parma Western.
“It wasn't a fast connection when I came over, but sports helped a lot,” Brewer said. “Sports helps everyone get closer.
“It's hard that Albion doesn't have a school, but this is a positive thing because we can still do what we love to do – play football. At Albion, there was a point in time when we couldn't even play football because everyone was moving, but now we can play, and we still stay in contact.”
That Concord connection is one of the backbones of the football program.
“I think the biggest mentality is that it's an attitude, and me bringing it every day and keeping the intensity up,” Clark said. “You can't ever have days when you just stop when it's hot. You have to go hard every single day, but at the same time it's making sure the kids love being here.
“You're taking care of them. It's not the old school anymore where the kids show up and work hard because they're afraid. They show up and work hard because they love their coaches and we love them. Love is a lot more powerful, and that's what I learned as a player. We loved each other like brothers as a team, we loved our coaches and they loved us, and then you're willing to work a lot harder.”
Clark knows the job isn't done, but he is changing the football culture. He said last year he learned a hard lesson himself in the playoffs – a game Concord lost at Dansville 28-6.
“I learned something about myself,” he said. “I didn't do a good enough job of re-evaluating our goals after we made the playoffs because all year we talked about just making the playoffs. I think overall there was a little bit of an exhale and excitement that we made it. It was almost like we lost our hunger, and as a coach I learned a lot from that situation. I had never been in that situation as a coach.
“Now, I preach that it's our expectation. Never again will Concord football be happy just to make the playoffs. Our goals this year were one, to win our rivalry games, and we got that do that in Week 1 and Week 2. Now, we have to make the playoffs and win the first Big Eight Conference championship for Concord.
“We want to be the best team to ever play here.”
While that might be a lofty goal, there is another that Clark plans to accomplish and will have more control in doing so.
“If you look at the history of the football program, we've had good coaches come and go,” he said. “Go all the way back to the 70s and Coach (Glen) Stevenson, and they won. In the 60s, they won a lot. In the 80s, they had a couple of years when they won games, and then Coach Alexander came in the 1990s and early 2000s and left.
“I am not going to sit here and say that I'm at the level that they were at – someday, hopefully, I can be compared to those guys – but there a difference between me and those other guys: I'm not going anywhere. My kids go here, I live a block from the school. I love it here. There's nowhere for me to go.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Tony Brooks, Jr., runs for some of his 166 yards against Homer during Concord's victory last week. (Middle top) Nick Stump jumps to block off a potential pass. (Middle below) Concord players celebrate earning the Big Brown Jug awarded annually to the winner of the Concord/Homer game. (Below) Brooks works to break free; his grandfather Gary also was a standout for the school. (Photos by Kilbourn Snow.)