Let's Not Forget These Winning Coaches

December 15, 2015

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

Buried deep within the MHSAA’s list of coaches with 200 career football wins is the name Oscar Johnson. Sharp eyes will note that Johnson began his coaching career in 1925 – 90 years ago.

Following graduation from Western State Normal School (today, Western Michigan University) in Kalamazoo, Oscar E. Johnson coached two seasons at Mount Pleasant High School before moving on to Muskegon Heights in 1927. Known by his nickname, like most from the time period, “Okie” coached multiple sports including football, basketball and baseball. After 37 years (1927 to 1963) and six mythical gridiron championships (as well as three Class A basketball titles), he retired and moved to Baldwin.

During a teacher’s strike in 1979, Johnson, now in his 70’s, came out of retirement to coach Baldwin’s football team for four contests, earning three wins against a single loss. In 40 seasons, Johnson’s teams posted 209 victories against 106 defeats and 28 ties.

In 1975, his was the lone name that would have appeared on the MHSAA’s list of coaches with 200 football wins.

In 1980, Bill Maskill, a graduate of Michigan State University and head coach for six seasons at Sheridan, then Galesburg-Augusta for 29 years, was the second to join the list. Jack Castignola, who started his coaching career in Ohio before becoming varsity coach at Monroe Catholic Central and then Trenton, was added to the list in 1981.

They were followed by Dick Mettlach, long of Crystal Falls and that school’s successor, Crystal Falls Forest Park, Jack Streidl who led Plainwell for 37 seasons, and Dick Soisson, who coached for a combined 41 seasons at Owosso St. Paul, Kalamazoo St. Augustine and Kalamazoo Hackett. Each posted his 200th win in 1984. Leo “Smokey” Boyd, who coached 40 years at Standish-Sterling, Saginaw Sts. Peter and Paul and Saginaw Nouvel, notched his 200th win in 1985, becoming only the seventh coach to accomplish the task in 90-plus years of high school football in Michigan.

Only two additional names were added over the next five years. Walt Braun, long of Marysville, joined the exclusive group in 1986. Al Fracassa, who spent a combined 46 seasons coaching at Royal Oak Shrine and Birmingham Brother Rice and turned down the chance to join Muddy Waters’ coaching staff at MSU in 1980, picked up his 200th win in 1988. That brought the list to nine total.

Twenty five years later, the list totals 58 names. So what changed?

Of course, it was the addition of the MHSAA football playoffs, which debuted in 1975.

A look at two coaches helps illustrate the issue.

Fracassa, the list’s current leader in all-time wins with 430, took 29 seasons to tally his first 200 victories. It took only 23 more seasons for him to gain the next 200. Farmington Hills Harrison’s John Harrington took 24 years to total 200 wins, but picked up his 400th after only 20 more.

Between 1960, Fracassa’s first season, and 1988, Fracassa’s teams played an average of 8.30 games a season.  Between 1970, Herrington’s first year and 1993, the year of his 200th, his teams averaged 9.64 games per season.

Between 1988 and 2011, when Fracassa won his 400th game, his teams played an average of 11.61 games a season. Between 1994 and 2013, Herrington’s 400th, his teams played an average of 11.09 games per year. Fracassa’s teams compiled 68 victories in the MHSAA postseason. Herrington’s teams lead the state with 87 victories in the state playoffs.

Simply put, with the arrival of the postseason, it became easier to get to 200.

While no one would debate the accomplishments of any of the 58 gentlemen on the list, all but a few benefit from a baseline that few others who coached only 40 years before them were unlikely to reach.

Of course, those previous years included an amazing array of mentors. In hindsight, perhaps the list should include a mark for coaches from who assemble 150 varsity wins during the regular season only.

Johnson, and many others on the current list, certainly fall within such a category. But so would people like Ted Sowle, who, according to extensive research by former state historian Dick Kishpaugh, compiled a combined 171-47-10 mark between 1937 and 1963 as varsity coach at Grant, Algonac, Cathedral Prep in Erie, Pa., and Grand Rapids Catholic Central. At the time of his retirement from coaching in 1963, he ranked second in the state on the career wins list, behind only Johnson.

Ray Rynberg, a Grand Rapids Union and Central Michigan graduate, began his coaching career at Cedar Springs in 1939. After 12 years, he stepped away from the coaching ranks to pursue a degree in school administration from the University of Michigan. In the fall of 1955 he returned to the sidelines at Grant. He remained for 21 years, compiling a record of 189-62-9 (including seven unbeaten seasons) surpassing Sowle on the list upon retirement following the 1975 season.

Elmer Engel, who is honored in Bay City with his name attached to the city’s beautiful football stadium, also would appear on such a list. A three-year starter at the University of Illinois, Engel arrived in 1950 and installed the T-formation. He worked the sidelines for the Wolves through the 1972 season, compiling a 165-34-8 record and mythical Class A state titles in 1958, 1965, 1967, 1969 and 1972 according to the Associated Press polls ranking the state’s top teams.

Traverse City’s Jim Ooley led the Traverse City Trojans to a 164-56-4 regular season record (and a 179-60-4 record overall). Muskegon’s C. Leo Redmond led the Big Reds to a 156-29-13 record and six mythical Class A state titles between 1923 and 1946. 

Certainly, there are others, many long-forgotten by most to the sands of time, who would qualify for the list. But who are they?

Incredibly successful coaches, like Flint Northern’s Guy Houston, would still fall shy. Playing in the incredibly tough Saginaw Valley Conference, Houston’s teams posted a remarkable 148-41-13 mark in 24 seasons as head coach of the Vikings. Nick Annese, who rolled up a 55-29-2 mark (including 38 straight victories) in 10 seasons at New Lothrop, then led Corunna to a 91-32-3 mark over 14 seasons but falls several games short.

So will many other of the state’s more well-known names, like Lloyd Carr, best known for his years at the University of Michigan, (who served as an assistant at Detroit Nativity and Belleville, before becoming head coach at Westland John Glenn for a few years), University of Nebraska’s Bob Devaney (who spent years 14 years coaching in Birmingham, Keego Harbor, Saginaw, and Alpena) and Colorado’s Bill McCartney (who assisted under his brother Tom at Detroit Holy Redeemer, then served as varsity football and basketball coach at Dearborn Divine Child). All moved on to the college game as assistants before reaching 150 high school wins.

Nick Annese’s son, Tony, who coached at Montrose, Ann Arbor Pioneer, Jenison and Muskegon tallied 169 regular season wins (and 195 victories overall) at the prep level before moving on to the college ranks at Grand Rapids Community College, then Ferris State University.

Can you name others, missing from the list of 200-game winners, with 150 varsity victories in the regular season? If so, contact me at the e-mail address below. 

Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.

PHOTOS: (From left) Longtime Bay City coach Elmer Engel with a player from the 1968 Bay City Central yearbook, legendary Grant coach Ray Rynberg from the Muskegon Chronicle and championship-winning coach Jim Ooley of Traverse City.

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.)