Tom Young was the perfect coach at the perfect time.
When Young came to McPherson High in the fall of 2006, he inherited a football program that had lost its way under a myriad of coaches after having last experienced success under Tim Wesselowski in the late 1980s.
Young could very well have declined the MHS offer. After all, he had coached for 35 years at Hanover, Wellington, Derby and Leavenworth. There was really nothing more for him to accomplish, having pulled off a rarity in that he coached teams to state championships at three schools (Hanover, Wellington and Derby). His Hall of Fame credentials were cemented.
And McPherson was a football coaching graveyard. The most career wins by a coach prior to his arrival was Ross Estes, who had 31 from 1954 to 1961. Only Wesselowski and John Hoffman had been able to coach teams to winning seasons on four occasions, Hoffman coaching for six years and Wesselowski for five.
Young knew of McPherson from his days of coaching at Derby, where his teams routinely had their way with the Bullpups. He had carved out a reputation there of being one of the best coaches in the state, where football was as wildly popular as basketball was to McPherson.
That was the other catch. McPherson always has and always will be considered a “basketball town” first, as the 12 boys and eight girls state championship banners will attest. Many coaches had tried and failed to build a consistent football program here, often leaving frustrated that they couldn’t get the best athletes out because they were specializing.
But Young tackled this new challenge with a plan. His first season resulted in a 6-4 record, which turned out to be his low-water mark of wins at MHS except for 2013 when the Bullpups were 6-5.
More importantly, though, the Bullpups made the playoffs for the first time since 1988. It would become commonplace.
Young’s second year resulted in a 9-2 record and it was game on.
Young’s arrival coincided with a cycle of talented athletes who were coming through the system. And he was able to persuade even the basketball players to play football. The more the Bullpups started to win, the more kids wanted to be a part of it.
Young was fortunate to have an amazing run of quarterbacks at his disposal. It started in 2006 with Tucker Hawkinson, a powerful runner who led a crunching ground game.
After that season, though, Young decided to change his philosophy, which had been to pound the football. He had a terrific passer in Kolin Walk and a good group of receivers. The Bullpups began filling the air with footballs and were exciting to watch. After losing its 2007 opener 17-7 to Hutchinson, MHS scored reeled off three straight games of 50-plus points and later had three more of 39 or more. And the fans were flocking to the games in droves.
Joel Piper replaced the graduated Walk and put up huge numbers in his two years. MHS scored at least 35 points in nine of their 12 games in 2008. In 2009, they scored at least 30 points in all but one game, that, naturally coming against longtime thorn-in-the-side Hutchinson.
Once Piper picked up his diploma, Tyler Matthews took over. A transfer from Goddard, Matthews became the most prolific passer in MHS history. Again, the Bullpups were burning out the scoreboard, scoring at least 40 points in eight of 11 games in 2010. In 2011, MHS again scored at least 30 points in eight games.
Matthews was a U.S. Army All-American and he handed the ball off to Kyler Kinnamon. Kinnamon was the most successful three-year starter in MHS history and could both run and pass. He broke the MHS single-season rushing record as a junior but still managed more than 4,300 yards passing in his career.
It wasn’t just quarterbacks Young produced as MHS had a bevy of 1,000-yard rushers. In fact, seven of Young’s nine years produced a 1,000-yard back. There were also some great receivers, as Christian Ulsaker and Jordan Hart were picked for the Shrine Bowl as both went over 1,000 receiving yards, including a school-record 1,481 yards by Hart on 2011.
Young even produced an NFL player at MHS, Tanner Hawkinson. He was a tight end and defensive end for the Bullpups, but bulked up to start 48 straight games for the Kansas Jayhawks at offensive tackle. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fifth round and is now in his second year with the team.
Young’s final year may have been his best coaching job. The Bullpups were thin at a lot of positions and the team was socked with injuries. It also faced perhaps the toughest schedule in his tenure. But MHS closed 7-3, including upset wins over Buhler and Hays, both of which were Top-5 teams.
For all of his football accomplishments, Young was first and foremost a teacher. He loved going to practice and watching his team develop right before his eyes. He let his coaches coach, one reason his staff has remained consistent for most of his nine years. His weight training program has benefitted all students, not just football players. The days of MHS players getting pushed around ended and Young always talked about how his teams had to "play physical.”
What always impressed me most about Young is the respect his players gave him. I went to countless practices in nine years and never did I see him go on a rant or belittle a player. He was always calm and composed during games and I think that helped his players stay on an even keel.
McPherson was fortunate that Young came along when he did. Who knows what those nine years would have been like with another coach. While I think they would have been successful, the Bullpups wouldn’t have reached the rarefied heights like they did.
When he stepped down today, he did so with a 75-22 record, one that may never be duplicated at MHS.
Young can now enjoy retirement with his family. After 44 years, he’s earned it.