At times, Park View High School's coaches are so intense it's scary.
A couple of examples:
* Earlier this season, members of an opposing program were rumored to have criticized the seven-man staff--and the Patriots' defense--during the week leading up to the game. Park View uncorked a 41-0 rout.
* Two summers ago, 10th-year coach Mickey Thompson led a small group of his coaches to Colorado specifically for a single-wing coaching clinic, and assistant Ricky Ware did extensive research on the offensive scheme via the Internet.
So on the surface, the Sterling school's coaching staff looks like what it is: a catalyst for the team's No. 5 ranking in the Washington area, its Virginia AA Northwestern District title, its 11-0 record and its 72-38 mark over the course of Thompson's 10-year tenure.
But it's also much, much more. Just look closer.
Look closer, and you'll see a group of men whose age differences span three decades sharing a spacious office they have adorned with a pool table and a sofa. "It's really a unique mix of personalities. Two of the guys," said defensive coordinator Pat Elliott, referring to Ware and assistant Matt Griffis, "I'm the age of their father."
Look closer, and you'll see a group of men smart enough to nurture every player's individual self-esteem, one week giving the team's top offensive honor to a nonstarter who scores a late touchdown in a lopsided game--even though a teammate put up huge numbers in the same game.
Look closer, and you'll see that--unless you're playing them--they're not so scary after all.
A Unique Bond
Thompson had never played football until he started high school at Broad Run in 1973. He was a good athlete who played golf and basketball, and he was tall for his age. A first-year assistant coach for the school's football team at the time was Jerry Smith, who persuaded Thompson to join the football team.
Thompson became an integral member of the team as an offensive and defensive lineman. He also developed a close relationship with Smith, who became the Broad Run head coach before Thompson's senior year.
"He was very much a player's coach," Thompson said of Smith. "It was one of the best times of my life. You look back on that and say, 'I'd like to do that for some of my players.' "
Thompson went on to play at the University of Virginia. After graduation, he returned to Broad Run and served as Smith's offensive and defensive line coach. Thompson then moved on to Orange County, where he coached linebackers and tight ends for three years, before arriving at Park View in 1985 to coach wide receivers and defensive linemen. He became the head coach in 1990.
Smith, meanwhile, remained the coach at Broad Run for 22 years. After the 1997 season, when the team went 5-5, he resigned. The school had hired a new principal and a new athletic director, and according to Smith, "I realized there were transitions going on at the school, and for me to continue to do the program I wanted to do wasn't possible."
A few weeks after Smith's resignation, Thompson called him and asked if Smith would be interested in returning to coaching as an assistant. Smith was a bit reluctant at first, then warmed to the idea and eventually accepted the job coaching defensive tackles and tight ends.
Smith said the staff has made him feel welcome, and he hasn't had any problem accepting a lesser role.
"It was a transition for me, because all the problems and little headaches I don't have to worry about," Smith said. "I just have to show up."
"He brings a nice, fiery kind of attitude to the team," Elliott said. "He's a very unselfish kind of coach. He's not in it for the spotlight."
Before this season, Elliott undertook a big task. The coaching staff had made the collective decision to switch from a 4-3 alignment (four defensive linemen and three linebackers) to a 5-2. So Elliott did a lot of research, read a lot of books and watched a lot of film. In other words, it was a typical offseason for a coach Thompson calls a "perfectionist."
Elliott has been at Park View for 20 years--and has coached football for 28--but before that he was an assistant coach in his native St. Louis. An active member of the National Education Association, Elliott met his future wife at an NEA convention in the late 1970s and moved to Sterling to live with her in 1980.
He started at Park View as a junior varsity coach, then gradually worked his way up under then-head coach Ed Scott. Scott and Thompson have been the only coaches in Park View's history.
"I like being the ideas man, being the behind-the-scenes guy and just being the nuts-and-bolts guy," Elliott said.
"He's just got an overall concept and knowledge of the game that a lot of us didn't have," Thompson said.
Elliott may have come from far away, but it's not as far as Todd Funkhouser, tight ends and defensive ends coach, who is in his fourth year. He was the son of an Air Force employee who moved his family frequently, and Funkhouser graduated from a high school in Germany.
In fact, offensive coordinator Ken Wright is the only member of the coaching staff whose alma mater is Park View. As a senior in 1988, he was the Virginia state pole vault champion. Wright went to Virginia Tech and started coaching at Park View as a college senior on an independent study course and is now in his eighth year on the staff. He and Thompson share the team's play-calling duties in the single-wing offense.
"He's just one of those guys who you know when you first see him that he's a coach," Thompson said of Wright.
The coaching staff, and its team, is a close-knit group that is serious when it has to be but playful almost as much of the time. It's also a group that enjoys the respect, and reverence, of its players.
"It is hard to walk that line between respect and caring as a player between coach and player, but our coaches pull it off," said senior Park View offensive tackle and co-captain Andy Skinner. "They like us; we like them."
On the field during a game, the Park View coaches are animated, screaming directions at players and shuffling substitutes in and out. Members of the staff can be demanding during practice as well, but it's a different story off the field.
"I still try to think of myself as a players' coach," Thompson said. "I try to walk that line all the time between friendship and authority."
"He's definitely a good coach, and I totally respect him a lot," Skinner said of Thompson.
In fact, it was probably Smith who has taught Thompson the most about interacting with his players.
Thompson said Smith and Scott have been the two most influential coaches in his career, Smith for the mental part and Scott for teaching him how to run a practice and a program.
But Thompson just as quickly credits the entire staff for the team's success. "I've surrounded myself with the best possible coaching staff you could have," he said. "I've been able to delegate a lot of things and enjoy this as much as I could."