Herrington's Record Run Filled with Thrills

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

October 12, 2017

FARMINGTON HILLS – John Herrington soon will stand alone as the winningest football coach in Michigan high school history.

Herrington, 76, is in his 48th season as head coach at Farmington Hills Harrison. He spent eight seasons as an assistant at North Farmington. He is the only head coach Harrison has had.

Herrington and Al Fracassa of Birmingham Brother Rice currently are tied for the most victories at 430. Herrington will pass Fracassa on Friday if the Hawks, coming off their biggest victory of the season, 17-14 over Oak Park, can defeat Berkley at Harrison.

Fracassa’s record stands at 430-117-7. He retired following the 2013 season. Herrington’s record is 430-104-1. The next active coach within shouting distance is Herb Brogan of Jackson Lumen Christi. His record is 337-83.

It will be Herrington’s name at the top of that list, but the number of people who have had a hand in this accomplishment is in the hundreds, if not a thousand or more.

Coaches like his longtime friend Bob Sutter, Herrington’s defensive coordinator for 34 seasons; John Witkowski, Steve Dolloway and current coaches like offensive coordinator Jon Herstein and defensive coordinator Dave Thorn all have contributed mightily to the success of the program.

Then there’s the players. Harrison boasted some of the best and most talented teams in state history including the Mill Coleman-led teams of the late 1980s and the Drew Stanton-led teams in the early 2000s.  

“As a player, every player, every Hawk, feels they contributed,” Coleman said. “Coach doesn’t like to talk about (the record). We tried to get him to talk about it after the Oak Park game. He said, ‘Yeah, it’s a great win but we want to get into the playoffs.’”

Harrison is 5-2, and a victory over Berkley would clinch the program’s 33rd MHSAA playoff appearance. It also would clinch for the Hawks at least a share of the Oakland Activities Association White title.   

This has been a special season in many ways. School administrators and others helped organize the return of many of Herrington’s players to be a part of the season-long celebration. For the first home game, players from the 1970s were asked to come back. The players from the 1980s were asked to attend the second home game, and so on.

Well-wishers are pouring in from all over the country. 

“This week we’ll have players from the 2000s,” Herrington said. “Last week I think we had like 70 (for the Oak Park game). And I’m getting all kinds of emails.”  

Herrington coached in some of the more memorable games of the last 40 years. There was the 1989 Class B Semifinal against East Grand Rapids that became known as the ‘Ice Bowl’ because the artificial surface at Atwood Stadium in Flint was completely ice-covered, making playing conditions quite challenging. Harrison won that game, 3-2. The following week, inside the Pontiac Silverdome, Coleman led a comeback over DeWitt that even longtime MHSAA historian Dick Kispaugh called one of the greatest games he’d seen. After trailing 21-0, Harrison won 28-27 on Coleman’s 9-yard touchdown run with 1:34 left. DeWitt had taken a 27-21 lead with 2:20 remaining.

“I came from Albion after my freshman year,” Coleman said. “It was great to play for Coach. Yeah, it was a big change for me. Harrison was a perennial state championship team then. Been there, done that type of thing.

“It was pretty systematic. That’s what stood out for me. Plus the attitude of the players. (You were) expected to win. It was pretty laid out. It was pretty comforting for me, too. I noticed the amount of time the staff put in, with meetings and stuff. We had a pretty in-depth scouting report. Still do.”

Coleman has been around the program since his professional career ended in 1998. As an assistant coach his main responsibility, quite naturally, is working with the quarterbacks. Coleman, whose name is splashed seemingly all over the MHSAA record book, is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in state history. He won two MHSAA titles, lost in a Class B Final as a sophomore in 1987, and it was his ability to turn a busted play into something special that earned him the nickname “Mill the Thrill.”   

One can’t overlook Harrison’s first two titles. The Hawks defeated Muskegon Catholic Central, 7-0, in the 1981 Class B Final, then the next season the Hawks went to double overtime to defeat Dearborn Fordson, 17-14, in the Class A title game. Those teams were led, in part, by all-state running back/defensive back John Miller, who would go on to play at Michigan State. Miller started for four seasons and was the last of four brothers who played at Harrison.

“Following in my brothers’ footsteps, playing for Coach Sutter and John, it was a dream come true,” Miller said. “I was 7 or 8 years old when I got to know John, running around, chasing footballs, just being around my brothers.

“(Herrington) is a remarkable man and coach, but also as a teacher. He cared about his players more than he did about the games.

“I remember coming off of that Class B title. We moved up to A, and that was quite a jump for us. We knew we would be good, but we also knew we couldn’t do just the same old thing. We had to do things a little different, on offense. We had Dave Blackmer, who started at fullback and linebacker, and Kenny Kish at quarterback. (Kish) was really good and a great guy. It was a matter of getting all of the right skill guys together. We had a lot of great athletes, maybe not great at one sport, but guys who played multiple sports. I was a senior on that ’84 team and it might have been one of John’s best, but we didn’t win it.”

Fordson gained some revenge that season, defeating Harrison, 9-7, in a Class A Semifinal.    

But Herrington’s program continued to grow and eventually become one of the storied programs in state history. Comparisons, fair or not, soon surfaced between Herrington and Harrison and Brother Rice and Fracassa, and Detroit Catholic Central and its former head coach, Tom Mach.

Herrington and Fracassa crossed paths eight times as head coaches, with Fracassa holding a 6-2 edge.

But the most memorable Harrison-Brother Rice game took place in 2010 in a Division 2 Pre-District matchup at Harrison. Because both teams were so highly rated, those in the media labelled it as a state championship.

Brother Rice led late and was attempting to run the clock out, but fumbled. Jake Vento scooped the ball up and ran for the winning touchdown. Harrison went on to win the Division 2 title, the school’s most recent.

Fracassa would get the last laugh in the last game matching these two coaching legends, as Brother Rice defeated Harrison, 30-7, in a Division 2 District Final in 2011 – as the Warriors then went on to win the championship at Ford Field. 

Herrington said 52 of his former players became high school football coaches, and he estimates that more than 20 coached at Harrison. One of those is Joe Pesci, a 1994 graduate who was the starting quarterback for two seasons. 

Pesci was one of five Pescis to play for Herrington. Mike was the eldest brother, and he played fullback and linebacker before graduating in 1992. David was the youngest and, like Joe, played quarterback and he graduated in 1999. These brothers also had two uncles play at Harrison.

“I was fortunate when I came out of college (Albion) to coach under (Herrington),” Joe Pesci said. “Here I was, 22 years old, and he made me the head coach (of the freshmen team). We were having a ball. It was a great perspective to see the other side, to see the amount of time the coaches put in. I got to coach my brother (Dave), Stanton, (Agim) Shabaj. To watch his game-planning, it was awesome. That’s when I started to become good friends with John. I still call him once a week. I reach out to him. Not just with things that happen on the field but things in school, too. He’s a good sounding board to have.”

Joe Pesci is the current head coach at South Lyon East.

The most recent accomplishment is but one of many for Herrington. His program has won the most MHSAA football titles (13), tied for the most MHSAA Football Finals appearances (17), and in his 46 years Harrison has had just five losing seasons – and only three since 1972. Twenty-six times his teams have won 10 or more games. Harrison and East Grand Rapids share the record for most consecutive MHSAA titles, the Hawks’ five straight coming from 1997-2001.

“(Herrington) was pretty much laid back when I played,” Coleman said. “Sutter was more of the fiery type of coach. It wasn’t a good cop, bad cop thing. One was fiery. One was laid back. The joke was Coach Sutter was the only one to yell at me in high school. John was an honest coach. He was like that to the parents, too. When they asked why their son wasn’t playing, he’d tell them their son wasn’t good enough.

“He takes losses hard but, like his players, it drives him more to be better. I’ve never seen him say it was somebody else’s fault. But we didn’t lose much when I played. I lost two games, one in a league championship and the other in a state final.” 

The victories have been there for Herrington. The titles, too. But above all else is the stability and the integrity.

Joe Pesci recalled the 1999 season when Herrington and his staff, including Pesci, were made aware that they had used an ineligible player.

“We didn’t know,” Pesci said. “As soon as we found out John turned us in (to the MHSAA). I remember him making the speech to the kids. It was tough to watch him. He put it out there and then said, ‘OK, now how are we going to handle it?’”

Harrison was 3-1 at the time but the forfeits changed that to 1-3. Harrison lost one more game that season and, at 5-4, made the playoffs as an at-large playoff qualifier. Harrison went on to win the Division 3 title with a 42-35 victory over Grand Rapids Creston in the Final.

Harrison will be a big favorite to defeat Berkley but Herrington, true to his word and commitment, remains cautious. “You never know what will happen,” he said, but admitted that to win this much, a program has to be “pretty good.”

The key is the Hawks also have been “pretty good” and much better than that consistently over five decades.

“I remember when I first started, I wanted to do everything, call everything. I did the offense, special teams, made the defensive calls,” Herrington recalled. “After we lost in 1976 (36-27 to Midland Dow in the Class A Final), Sutter came up to me and said, ‘Do you just want me to stand on the sidelines or what?’ That’s when I changed.

“I’d have to say one of my greatest skills is to hire good people, and I’ve had some great coaches.”

Harrison is scheduled to close following the 2018-19 school year, and Herrington said he intends to coach next season but is unsure if he will remain in coaching after that.

What has kept him coaching all these years is the relationships he has maintained and the players he coaches. The games present their own challenges but it is the preparation, the filtering through the scouting reports and the hours of watching game film that test his imagination.

He’s still motivated and continues to enjoy coaching.

“I don’t play golf,” he said, “so what else am I going to do?”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top middle) Farmington Hills Harrison coach John Herrington mans the headset during a 2009 game against Southfield. (Middle top) Herrington raises the championship trophy after leading his team to the Class B title in 1988. (Middle below) Herrington, Dave Condeni (11), Agim Shabaj and Drew Stanton (9) celebrate a fifth-straight title in 2001 at the Pontiac Silverdome. (Below) Herrington enjoys a moment after coaching his 2010 team to the Division 2 championship. 

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.)