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.
SOUTHFIELD — Normally, having students come up and say they won’t be in school the next day might have a school administrator seething and ready to reserve seats in the detention room.
But if there ever was a time to allow it, this was the moment.
Following a 36-32 upset of Belleville that stunned many around the state in the MHSAA Division 1 Football Final on Nov. 26, Southfield Arts & Technology senior quarterback Isaiah Marshall said he and other players made it known, “Don’t expect us in school on Monday.”
After all, the game was played and ended late on a Sunday night, the team achieved something nobody else in the community had done, and there were celebrations that needed to begin.
And for the record, the players were back in school Tuesday.
Whether it’s been in school or outside the halls of Southfield A&T, it’s been a week of historic celebrations and congratulations after the Warriors captured the first MHSAA Finals championship in school history.
Marshall said that remained the case when he attended the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis on Saturday.
“Everywhere I go, there is someone congratulating me,” he said.
Over their final decades before the schools merged in 2016, Southfield High School and Southfield-Lathrup High School had plenty of talented teams with numerous players who went on to play big-time college football and even in the NFL.
But none of those good teams was able to advance to a state championship game, let alone win it all.
“There was a lot of people that texted me and talked to me and said they graduated from the 1980s,” said Marshall, pointing out that one former player who reached out was Nic Jones, currently a member of the Kansas City Chiefs who graduated from Southfield High. “There were a lot of older people that used to go to Southfield that told me that they couldn’t do the job. They were proud of us that we could do it for them.”
Marshall said that after the game was over Sunday, he and other teammates congregated at his house at 3 a.m. to watch a replay of the game.
It was only the first time this week the replay was watched.
“We watched it that day and the day after,” Marshall said. “I think we’ve been watching it the whole week.”
A parade Saturday will start at noon at the building that housed the old Southfield-Lathrup and finish at the current school, which was the home of Southfield High before the merger. A&T then will host a celebration in the school gymnasium from 1:15-2:30 p.m.
Players will certainly soak it all in while they can, because it won’t be long before they split up.
Marshall will soon sign to play in college for Kansas and will be enrolling early there. He plans to take his last final exams at Southfield A&T next week and head to Lawrence the first week of January.
Teammate Jalen Todd will do the same as he is also committed to Kansas, while Tashi Braceful will enroll early at Toledo.
But long after this year, it’s a group that won’t be forgotten in the community, or the state after it pulled off the upset of a Belleville team that was riding a 38-game winning streak and was two-time reigning Division 1 champion.
No doubt, future reunions should be memorable and festive.
Even Marshall admitted his still rubs his eyes in amazement over what his team did.
“Yes, I still do,” he said.
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T players enjoy the first moments after their Division 1 championship win at Ford Field. (Middle) The A&T band plays during a break in the action. (Below) Fans celebrate in the stands during the victory over Belleville. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)