LOGAN — It's no secret that Chieftain Nation became accustomed to — and maybe even somewhat spoiled by — a phenomenal run of success that saw the Logan Chieftains pack not one, but two "teams of a lifetime" into a little more than a decade.
Over the past three seasons, however, the Logan football program has went through hard times of almost historic proportions. After the Chiefs went just 6-24 since 2010, changes were on the horizon.
A change has been made in the form a new head coach — 36-year-old Billy Burke, hired last winter to replace LHS graduate and Athletic Hall of Famer Kelly Wolfe — who, being a graduate of (and football standout at) nearby Lancaster High School, was familiar with Logan and Hocking County.
"I hear from lots of people about how excited they are about a new season, a new opportunity, things like that," Burke said in an extensive sit-down interview with The Logan Daily News. "I felt very welcome from the community, the kids and coaching staff in general. I'm pretty happy with the reception of everybody in the community.
"I never thought I'd be head football coach at Logan — I never thought I'd be back in the area since I lived up north for so long — but I'm very happy with the decision we made," he added. "In particular, every Friday for the last couple of Fridays, my boys have been really excited to put on that purple gear."
Burke knows that warm reception will only get warmer with gridiron success... and that it can cool down if success is lacking.
The program probably bottomed out when the 2012 season ended with an embarrassing 49-8 Southeastern Ohio Athletic League drubbing at Warren — which had only beaten the Chiefs four times in the previous 26 years — and a 2-8 record on the heels of 3-7 in 2010 and 1-9 in 2011.
In all fairness, however, there needs to be full disclosure when looking back at the past three seasons: after all those years of football dominance, Logan simply didn't have the personnel to compete with teams such as Lancaster, Pickerington North, Jonathan Alder or Jackson, to name a few.
Logan only had five seniors on the roster when the 2012 season got under way. Probably only Cory McCarty — now a freshman at Muskingum College — would have had a chance at getting substantial playing time on teams from the recent glory years.
By week 10, McCarty was injured — he tried to play against Warren but was forced to depart after four carries in the opening quarter — and several other players were either hurt and/or had already departed the team for various reasons. The team that finished the '12 season bore very little resemblance to football teams which Chieftain Nation had become accustomed.
By contrast, the 2013 Chiefs have a whopping 20 seniors — many of whom will play roles on both sides of the ball — and 49 players in the upper three grades. There are 14 returning lettermen.
Speaking of changes, Burke has changed the offensive and defensive schemes and, in so doing, is doing all he can to change the collective mind-sets of his players.
"The kids have been really receptive," Burke said. "We're learning a new scheme and learning how to compete offensively and defensively within that new scheme. We've worked every day (on) learning how to compete, learning how to handle our successes and learning how to turn a page if something doesn't go right.
"Inevitably, a football game is not who makes the most big plays, but it's who handles lack of success the best... who turns the page and makes the next play," he added.
Observers of Logan's new head coach relate that Burke demands their full attention in all aspects — practices, meetings, film sessions, etc. — and doesn't move on to another topic until he's sure his players have shown they are ready to do so.
To that end, it will hopefully help players not only improve but also cut down on the careless mistakes during games that have plagued the team in the past.
"One thing we say to the kids: if you get one percent better each and every day, add up that one percent over the course of a week, two weeks, and you can see how much better you're getting," Burke revealed. "As the old adage says, 'you get better or worse, you never say the same,' so if they're improving by one percent each day, that's a goal. We have to get better.
"The one percent happens in different ways," he continued. "Sometimes it's purely football technique; other times it's (that) we competed better the next day. The one percent looks a little different each and every day."
Burke said that incremental improvement showed during the Chiefs' pre-season schedule. They struggled in their first scrimmage against Logan Elm but, three days later, fared much better against Circleville, then looked smooth, crisp and focused during last Friday's OHSAA "Jamboree" game against Sheridan.
"I told the kids when I first met them that our football program is a lot like an airline flight: yes, I'm the pilot and, yes, the coaches are the flight crew, but the passengers are the ones who are going to run the plane into the ground or help make for a very nice flight," Burke said. "My point is that they take ownership of the program. This is not my program; this is our program, and I want them to take ownership.
"Part of taking ownership," he continued, "is 'my mind is in the game, not just watching' in anticipation of the next personnel grouping or (the situation), whatever the case may be. Teaching them they are a part of the whole process. Dennis Smathers (a team captain) is a great example; he's taken ownership of the program, and he might not play very much. What kid does that? Usually it's 'I'm just along for the ride right now,' but he still wants a quality flight, and he's doing his best to make that happen."
It goes without saying the Chiefs must be Prepared — yes, with a capital "P" — to avoid a bumpy ride on flight 2013.
"I go by the quote 'the more that you sweat in preparation, the less that you bleed in battle,' " Burke stated. "I've put our kids in some really tough, adverse situations in practice, or whatever the case may be, to teach how to handle that adversity.
"Again, there's always going to be bad things that go wrong in a football game, (so) can you focus on the next play? Can you focus on 'what do I have to correct to be better the next time, opposed to dwelling on the negative of the play I didn't make?' "
If not, Burke noted, a player won't be able to correct his mistake in anticipation of the follow-up play — and because the new offense is sped up, and the defense is based on being able to adapt quickly, another miscue could be the result.
"Our offense is very up-tempo; we're changing personnel groupings and formations all the time, so all kids have to be ready at all times to rotate into the game — especially offensively — at any point and time. That creates a sense of urgency that has to be there on Friday night," Burke revealed. "Friday night is very chaotic. If (a player is) accustomed to (game-night) pressure, through situations in practice, it makes it a little easier. I've stressed to them a lot under pressure to practice so that games can become a little bit easier."
With the opening game now just a few days away, good communication is priority one.
"When we install new things, as long as the kids will talk their way through, we'll slow down (so they can understand, and) if they talk their way through, then they usually have success," Burke stated. "When we forget and don't talk, that's when we run into trouble.
"I think they have picked up on it," he added. "It's the coaches who go back and associate with how they've learned the exact same scheme — but with different terminology, so they have to go back and forth between what they already knew and the new terminology of what is the same play."
Burke was head coach at Division III Medina Buckeye in Medina County from 2007 to 2011, compiling a 26-25 record and making an appearance in the 2009 state DIII playoffs. But being head coach at a smaller school meant having less help; he had to do most of the hands-on coaching himself. Being surrounded by a veteran coaching staff thus means a lot both to him and to the kids.
"I couldn't be happier with the coaching staff being receptive to me and the hard work that they have put in," Burke praised. "It's nice to have a group of guys who are self-starters and who are self-motivated and are constantly working. A lot of the assistant coaches are head coaches in other sports, so they know what it's like to be head coaches — so generally if you want something done, you get it done."
Four other assistants — Pat Walsh (girls basketball), Jim Huntsberger (softball), Josh Sturgell (boys track and field) and Brian Breining (baseball) — are head coaches, and Steve Harris and Nick Maniskas have both logged many years with the LHS football program. Harris rejoins the program after a three-year hiatus.
"When I was an assistant coach, when kids or parents would come up with questions and I had never been a head coach before, I would say 'go ask the head coach,' " Burke said with a smile. Now, "being a head coach, I appreciate guys just taking care of things. (They) make decisions that are best for the group at that particular time no matter what it is. That's what we're always trying to do."
And what they're all trying to do is post more W's and get the Chieftain football program back on track.
"I'm like anyone else in the community; I want Logan football to get back where it's been in recent history," Burke said. "That's my expectation of the program and that's a lot of other people's expectations, too."
After being hired in January, and after having put together his coaching staff, Burke admittedly was chomping at the bit to get started... but he knew he had to wait and be patient.
"The tough part of the off-season is that you have plans of schemes and ideas and fundamentals that you want to put in," Burke said, "but it's (the off-season) and there's nothing you can do. I think spring football (in college) sometimes is just as much for the coaches to be able to get some football back in their blood as much as it is to get kids more practice time. It will be nice to see all your hard work come to fruition and what you've been waiting to see.
"You can't wait to finally see this play or that play in live game-time action," he added. "Well, in February you can draw it up all you want, but you can't use it."
That time has finally arrived.
"I know it's tough for me to sleep sometimes because of the anticipation of the next day and the next things that we're going to do at practice," Burke said. "There is that sense of excitement every single day. Hopefully that never wears off."
Coming Wednesday in The Logan Daily News: stories breaking down the 2013 Chiefs position-by-position on both offense and defense.