Young has reversed MHS' football fortunes

By Steve Sell
August 19, 2014

Tom Young doesn’t get caught up in numbers.

When asked at AVCTL Media Day last week in Wichita what it felt like to be starting his 44th year as a football coach, Young just shrugged.

“I don’t really think about that,” he said. “I think the kids keep me young.”

He had constructed a Hall of Fame-worthy coaching resume long before he arrived in McPherson in 2006. He had won state championships at three of his four previous coaching stops — Hanover, Wellington and Derby. He could have been content with that and ridden off into the sunset.

Still with the coaching embers burning in his belly, he spent two years at Leavenworth where he won only four games, but when the opportunity arose at McPherson, he jumped at it. He had coached against the Bullpups when both teams were in the old Ark Valley League and he knew what kind of athletes the school housed.

As they say, the rest is history.

McPherson was considered a football graveyard. After Tim Wesselowski stepped down after the 1988 season with a 26-22 career record, the lineage for many years to come was forgettable — Randy Linton (5-22 in three years), Rod Wallace (4-14 in two years), the late Karl McGee (20-34 in six years) and David Payne (17-37 in six years).

MHS had become the high school version of KU. It could pile up state championships in basketball and fill the Roundhouse to the rafters, but the unsuccessful football team played to half-empty stadiums and had fans thinking hoops by the time Oct. 1 had rolled around.

When Young took over in 2006, there was initial skepticism. Didn’t he know the Bullpups had enjoyed only three winning seasons in the previous 17 years, the best record being 6-3? Didn't he know many of the best athletes specialized and football wasn't their priority?

It didn’t take him long to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

The Bullpups were 6-4 in his first year and ended an 18-year playoff drought. But that was just a warmup, as his second MHS team produced a 9-2 season, followed by a school-record 10 wins in 2008. 

Playoff appearances became the rule, not the exception, as the Bullpups have gone 8-for-8 in making the playoffs under his guidance. There have been very few empty seats on Friday nights at McPherson Stadium as fans can’t wait to see the Bullpups light up the scoreboard and, more often that not, come away with a victory, which Young has accomplished in 65 of his 87 games.

“I just like getting out with them and watching them improve,” Young said. “I enjoy putting together the staff, the offense and the defense and I have never really tired of it. When I do, I guess I’ll call it quits. But I still enjoy it.”

Young said there are several factors that have lifted MHS from the football abyss.

“Number one, I have had great administrative support,” Young said. “Secondly, our kids have bought into the program and what we want to do. I've been fortunate to have some really good players. And I’ve had a great coaching staff.”

Young has had very little turnover in his staff in nine years, many of whom have been there since Day One. If you attend a Young practice, you'll see that he allows his coaches to coach. There’s no question he has some coaches on his staff who could lead their own program.

Young’s Bullpup teams have been wildly entertaining. His quarterback assembly line has rolled off some of the best players ever to don the Red and White. It started with Tucker Hawkinson in 2006, who was more of an option threat. In 2007, Kolin Walk assumed the command and was a pinpoint passer.

Walk was the beginning of a passing fancy. After his one year, Joel Piper and Tyler Matthews took turns rewriting the MHS passing record book in their two years apiece. Finally, Kyler Kinnamon will be starting his third year as the MHS quarterback and he’s been the best of both worlds as a pass-run threat. 

It didn’t hurt those quarterbacks that some of the greatest receivers in MHS history happened along at the same time, including Shrine Bowlers Christian Ulsaker and Jordan Hart as well as Marcus Houghton, Levi Gerhardt, Nick Gawanda and Treg Fawl. Oh, there was a tight end named Tanner Hawkinson, who is now in the NFL.

Those receivers were augmented by tremendous running backs, including Blake Tillman, Kevin O'Connor, Seth Davenport, Dylan Barrow, Nick Garcia and Austin O'Bannon. Of course, they had to operate behind some terrific offensive lines, including recent Shrine Bowlers Collin French, Garrett Larson and Zach Peterson.

Young always has adapted his strategy to his personnel. When injuries decimated his already-thin running back corps last year, he took his best receiver — TJ Stites — and moved him to running back in Week 5. The move was pure genius, as Stites pounded out more than 1,000 yards in half a season even though he'd never played the position. With Kinnamon breaking the school rushing record at the same time, the Bullpups were committed to pounding teams on the ground.

Young, however, indicated that he’d like to return to the balance that have trademarked most of his teams. He believes his receiving group has made more strides than any other area on the team. Judging from summer and the first day of practice, Kinnamon has a much stronger arm as he’s now carrying about 180 pounds on his 5-11 frame, a far cry from the 150 to 155 he sported his sophomore year. Young would like to limit the pounding he takes, though it's hard to get a solid hit on him because of his elusiveness.

Young did his team few favors this year with the schedule, but he’s never been one to shy away from competition. MHS opens the season on a Thursday at Salina South, which was a play away from winning Class 5A last year. Then Andale has been added for Week 2, a team that ended MHS’ season last year in resounding fashion and is a trendy pick to win 4A Division II.

“We asked for it,” Young said of the schedule. “I wanted to schedule Salina South. We’ll see where we’re at. I know it’s got our kids’ attention. It will be a nice experience.”

Later, the Bullpups have arguably the most difficult district in the state with defending 4A champion and arch-rival Buhler, always-competitive Abilene and new 4A entry Hays, which is garnering a lot of preseason attention in the rankings talk.

Young has been more than just a football coach. He instituted the SPS (Speed, Power, Strength) Program in his physical education classes that not only have enhanced the football program, but all sports. McPherson High is experiencing an athletic run the likes never seen, as the school has swelled its championship banner count to 52.

And he's accomplished everything in his career while remaining low key. Young very seldom is heard, if ever, screaming or ripping into his team. He commands respect on the field and his players oblige. He's proven it's possible to get a point across in a calm, respectful manner and his teams very seldom get silly penalties for being undisciplined.

For McPherson High, Young was the right coach at the right time. He's a future MHS Wall of Famer and his legacy will last far beyond after he walks the sideline for the final time.