Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Higher calling


Genoa's Mike Vicars took over a program that had lost 31 of 40 games. The Comets have won 27 straight regular season games.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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GENOA — Mike Vicars quit coaching football once. He was a young man and might have been a tad naive about what happens to coaches whose teams win 14 games in seven seasons. So he was given one of those win-or-else mandates by his superiors. He won, but he was hurt and disillusioned. So, he walked away. We can all imagine how cathartic it may have been to say, hey, take this job and shove it.

At that particular time, the end of the 1994 season, Vicars may or may not have ever expected to be a head coach again. But one thing is clear with hindsight: he decided that if he was, he would do it his way. And his way is that football is merely a tool. It's a step you take to get to the next step.

Frankly, Vicars could be the local vicar. He could be a grief counselor. He could work with at-risk youth. A psychologist, definitely. An academic adviser, certainly. A family therapist, for sure. But he is an educator and a football coach, and in his world — his way, remember — that means he is all of the above. Why bother to win games only to lose at life?

Genoa High School has a proud football heritage, from the days of a pioneer coach named John Roberts to a living legend named Jim Firestone to the more recent success of John Boles. But all was not well in this Ottawa County village. When Vicars arrived before the 2007 season the Comets were a dozen years removed from their last league championship, had never been to the state playoffs, and had lost 31 of their last 40 games.

The 41st game was no different. But nothing has been the same since. Vicars lost his first game but has followed with 27 straight regular-season victories. The Comets have won back-to-back Suburban Lakes League championships and are a mortal lock for a third straight. They will be in the playoffs for a third consecutive season, and a team that has outscored its opponents 426-24 through eight games might well find itself a state title favorite.

“When Mike first got here he had a parents meeting and told us to please be patient, that this was a process,” Bill Skilliter, the president of Genoa's athletic boosters club, recalled with a chuckle. “Well, it was a quick process.”

Vicars has done this before. He left Hilltop High in West Unity (14-6 in two years) for Delta before the 1999 season. Delta also had lost 31 of its previous 40 games, had gone 50 years without a league championship, and had never been in the playoffs. In eight years, Vicars' Panthers went 61-29, won two titles in a league with powerhouses like Liberty Center and Patrick Henry, and made it to the playoffs six times.

It helps to have a little talent, as Vicars will be the first to admit. He had a running back named Nate Kmic at Delta. He coached his three sons, either at Delta or Genoa or both, and Ryan, Derrick, and Marcus were all-star talents. He currently has a quarterback named Matt Bassitt and a two-way standout named Connor Wendt, two parts of an 11-man senior class that is already causing its coach future separation anxiety.

Wendt had the flu last week and was one of 16 players who were out one day. His mother called Vicars to tell him Connor would be out of school and should probably skip practice. He had a 103-degree fever. But mom had a problem. Her son refused to stay in bed, afraid that if he missed practice he might lose his starting job. No matter that he could or would start at running back/defensive back for about any school in northwest Ohio. So Wendt's mom handed off the phone, and Vicars told the kid to relax, get some rest, and quit worrying. Connor finally went back to sleep.

Fortunately, it wasn't Thursday. You see, on Thursdays Genoa players would drag themselves off their death beds to be at practice. If the school buses broke down they'd walk miles from the village or from Clay Center or Martin or Curtice to get to the athletic building behind the high school, near the new 3,000-seat stadium that's already way too small.

The Comets win football games on Friday nights. They solve the world's problems on Thursdays. It's not practice, really, that players would dare miss. It's not even the team dinner that follows. It's what comes after that. Vicars calls it a team meeting. He would rather you not know this, but his players call it the s ance.

After a dinner prepared by local restaurants and paid for by local businessmen and boosters, Vicars hands out game uniforms that he and his wife have personally laundered. The cloth, he calls it. There is a short Fellowship of Christian Athletes presentation, a little life lesson. Then they turn off the lights and fire up a candle that sits in the center of the room. Coaches, including defensive coordinator Tim Spiess, who helped conceive of this session, talk. Seniors talk. An underclassman occasionally talks. Everyone listens. No one leaves unaffected.

“There were times last year when my son Blair would come home at 11 o'clock still in tears; that's how emotional it can be,” said Skilliter, whose son is now a freshman playing at Mount Union College. “It is a significant part of the success of the program. It is Mike developing boys to be men and leaders in the community through sports.”

Skilliter calls Vicars and Spiess “great individuals with great morals who are faith oriented and use that to build character, to mold good citizens and prepare young men for life.”

There are places where that might not float. It is why Vicars measures his words carefully when discussing the Thursday night meeting. But Genoa is still small-town Americana, a place that feeds off values and simplicity, and if anybody is uncomfortable with it, then 31 wins in 34 games, to date, and the future elementary school and the stadium mortgage and things like that have all bought him a little slack.

Vicars was 9 when his father died. He told his players about it one night with the lights off and the candle flame flickering, and they all went home in tears that night and kissed their moms and dads and told them how much they loved them because you just never know when it might be too late. Players might talk about personal challenges in school or in relationships, maybe a death in the family, maybe dad losing his job and problems at home.

“Having the lights off sets a mood,” Vicars said. “Guys let their guard down; players see who the other person really is. We all have problems. We all have struggles that relate to life. It draws us all together, and we feed off of it. We talk about a lot of things, and there are times very little of it has anything to do with football.

“Look, we're all stuck at some point in life. I was just getting started and my record was 5-45 after five years (1-19 in two seasons at Holgate; 4-26 in his first three seasons at Ada). A couple years later I was told I had to win at Ada to keep the job. So we went 8-3 and won the conference and went to the playoffs, but I was shaken by the whole experience, by how vicious it became while we were losing. I gave it up. Sometimes you have to humble yourself and ask for help. I visited with Skip Baughman at St. Marys (Memorial) and John Downey at Archbold, two men who built programs on family values and fundamentals and discipline. I learned you have to have faith to stay the course. There has to be a purpose to persevere.”

Vicars found his purpose. When the Thursday night meeting ends players cannot simply get up and leave. Each and every one has to stop at the door and give his head coach a hug.

“Seventy-two hugs every week,” Vicars said, smiling. “It's my favorite moment. I think we have brought a family-type program, a one-ness, and I have been fortunate that the kids have bought in. It's a camaraderie that leads to a work ethic, and it has a lot to do with how we play football.”

Now, you may think some of this is silly and question whether one has anything to do with the other. Jim Firestone, the winningest coach in Genoa history, last walked the sidelines more than 30 years ago, and when he climbs to the top row of seats on the 50-yard line every Friday night he has forgotten more football than most people in the stadium know. And, frankly, he is dumbfounded.

“It is unbelievable to come in and do what this man has done,” Firestone said. “It's impressive to see how he leads kids. When I was coaching, I always thought the key was being surrounded by great defensive coaches. I had one in Dave Hitchen, and when we went 10-0 [in 1975], we gave up 32 points. Mike has a great defensive coach in Tim Spiess and, my goodness, they've given up only 24 points and set up a lot of offense. I watch the strategy, the offensive line blocking, everything, and it's just sound, fundamental football. You know, Genoa had been down for a while and for the first year or so I think everybody's reaction was ‘wow, wow, wow.' Now, we're all getting a little spoiled.”

Vicars' program has a simple motto: Be the Best. And Skilliter said the community has very much taken it to heart. After twice failing to pass a levy to supplement Ohio Facilities money that would fund a new elementary school, the vote passed on the third and final try despite a tough economy and double-digit unemployment in Ottawa County.

And, then, there's the new stadium. Genoa's facilities were in a shambles not too many years ago. The team was losing and athletes were heading for greener pastures via open enrollment or parochial schools. The Comets needed to replace venerable — which is a polite way of saying dilapidated — Bergman Field. But there were no dollars. So the boosters club formed a separate legal entity and borrowed $300,000. Skilliter said the loan will be repaid in full next September, three years ahead of schedule.

“We're already discussing our next project, whether it's locker rooms or stadium expansion or a new field,” Skilliter said. “Anybody who thinks Mike and his program and the climate surrounding football didn't have a lot to do with the levy vote and the ease with which we're handling the stadium debt, well, they're ignoring the obvious. We were really foundering. Now, kids want to come here and be a part of this program. Attracting a coach like Mike Vicars was the end piece of the puzzle.”

A while back, Vicars had to put together the pieces too.

“It takes a long time to figure out what's important and what isn't,” the coach said. “And, really, the only thing that's important is the kids and their development as people. We're in an era where families are broken, and it's not always cool to believe in God or be a good student or a good role model. I don't try to force my values, but I do wear them on my sleeve. It seems like everybody has gotten on the same page off the field, and there's a willingness by these kids to run through brick walls on it. It's a humbling thing.”

Contact Blade sports columnistDave Hackenberg at:dhack@theblade.comor 419-724-6398.

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