Bush Legacy: Culture of Opportunity

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

April 6, 2018

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

CHELSEA – For the first time as Chelsea High School athletic director, Brad Bush has to hire a football coach.

What’s more, he has the unenviable task of replacing himself.

“I would say that nobody cares more about Chelsea football than I do,” Bush said. “It’s important to me that we find the very best person we can.”

Bush has coached the Bulldogs for 21 seasons. But, his coaching background goes much deeper than that.

He played at Ypsilanti High School for Hall of Fame coach Bill Giarmo, graduating in 1988. After playing quarterback at Cornell University in the Ivy League, he returned to Michigan, graduating from Eastern Michigan University, and started coaching for Bill Kohn, another inductee to the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Bush then went to East Kentwood to coach with Giarmo.

Through his own playing days, coaching with those legends of the game and absorbing everything he could from afar, Bush has developed an impressive culture at Chelsea.

“Friday nights in Chelsea are a big deal,” he said. “We want to keep that tradition.”

Bush became the varsity head coach at Chelsea in 1997. At the time, Chelsea had only two playoff appearances. Bush’s Bulldogs went 3-6 that first season. After that, Chelsea didn’t have a sub-.500 finish for 15 years. The Bulldogs have been kept out of the playoffs only once since 1998.

Chelsea has had only three head coaches since 1965.

“I’m fortunate,” Bush said. “I went for a few more years than the other guys. It’s a great place to coach.”

Temperance Bedford head coach Jeff Wood was an assistant with Bush at Ypsilanti during the 1990s and said he thought then that Bush was going to develop into a great head coach.

“We knew he was going to accomplish greatness, not only as a football coach, but as a father, husband and professional in education,” Wood said. “Brad has always won and lost with great class and dignity. He’s a true Hall of Famer.”

If Bush never coaches at Chelsea again, his lasting legacy might be that culture surrounding the Bulldogs program. It’s known for its large number of football players, from middle school through the varsity, and a system that ensures every student athlete on every team leading to the varsity will play in every game. Teams at the middle school, freshman and junior varsity levels all start 22 players each game – with no two-way starters. For a Class B/Division 3 school, that isn’t the norm.

“We’ve had the same philosophy for 20 years,” he said. “Everybody plays in every middle school, freshman and junior varsity game. That’s how we do it. We start 22 kids on every level. Our kids know they will have the opportunity to play.

“Every kid on every level is going to play in every game. On most nights, we play more kids than the other team has players.”

While every school loses some athletes, or potential athletes, along the way, Bush said this system helps maintain a student’s interest in the sport. Often, he said, a player who may not necessarily be a starter as a freshman will learn the game, develop and turn into a starter by senior year.

“We feel that, over time, with repetition and practice, a kid will become an expert at his position,” he said. “For us, this is a big piece. … That was my thing here. I didn’t invent it. I absorbed it, watched it at other places.”

It’s tough to argue with the results. Chelsea won or shared Southeastern Conference championships in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The Bulldogs won seven District championships during the Bush era and played in the 2015 Division 3 championship game, falling to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s at Ford Field

He said he learned how to build a program from Giarmo and how to coach a football team under Kohn. Bush was quick to credit his assistant coaches who have remained with the program for years and helped build the culture. He said the program has sacrificed win-at-all-cost at the lower levels with the goal of developing varsity football players.

“You have to manage it,” he said. “That’s why you need a great staff. We have been lucky here with a great, dedicated group of guys. They always have the ultimate goal in mind.”

Bush said he won’t hamstring the next coach into running his system, but anticipates whoever is hired will buy into the culture after seeing what it’s about.

“The next coach has to run it the way he wants to run it, but I do believe we have created a culture here and we’d like to maintain that. You want to hire the right person who is going to handle the kids the right way.”

In addition to coaching at Chelsea and leading the entire athletic program, Bush also is heavily involved in the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association as a past president, serves on the Michigan High School Athletic Association football committee and has served on the National Federation football rules committee. He’s coached in all-star games and is a true believer in high school sports.

His record at Chelsea is 169-60.

“I have great energy,” Bush said. “I love coaching. I have a great passion for it, but I also know when you need to do certain things. I felt this was just the right time for the athletic department and the football team. It wasn’t one thing that led me to this.

“I love the game. I’m going to be very much involved.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTO: Chelsea's Brad Bush coaches his team during the 2015 Division 3 Final at Ford Field.

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)