Herrington, on brink of state record, wistful over Harrison’s closing
Farmington Hills – John Herrington knows he is closing in on the end of his legendary coaching career.
And what a career it has been. He has been Farmington Hills Harrison’s only varsity football coach since the program was established in 1970. He has led the Hawks to a Michigan-record 13 state championships while compiling a 425-104-1 record. With six more triumphs Herrington will set the state record for coaching wins.
Herrington, 76, is preparing for his 48th season with the knowledge that Harrison’s doors will be closed following the 2018-19 school year.
“We’re just going to make it the best two years that we can, but I wouldn’t lie to you that it doesn’t affect me,” Herrington told The Detroit News last week. “It caused tremendous stress when we first found out it was closing (two years ago). We’ve accepted it, but the elephant is in the room every day. I get up thinking about it.”
The Farmington school board announced in 2016 that Harrison, on West 12 Mile Road, would be closing due to lower district attendance.
“It’s just a shame,” Herrington said. “We have such a beautiful facility and it’s going to close.”
At the Harrison football field, there is a monument saluting the team’s state championships, and another honoring Herrington’s late wife Fran, who passed away in 2001 when Harrison was in the midst of its longest winning streak in school history (36 games, from 1999-2002). The memorial was made possible by a donation from former Harrison and Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton.
When Harrison’s closing was announced, some players transferred or decided to start their high school careers at other schools, leading to a rare mediocre 5-4 season in 2016. Harrison missed the state playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Now, Herrington eyes a return to the postseason and a deep playoff run. Harrison’s last state championship came in 2010, and that was also its last title game appearance. The Hawks were 10-3 in 2014, advancing to the Division 2 state semifinals.
If Herrington is able to get those six wins for the state record, he will surpass another legend, retired Birmingham Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa.
“I won’t say that it won’t mean something,” said Herrington of the record. “I’m very good friends with Al and to be in the same category as him makes me proud.”
Herrington enters the season feeling healthy, something he couldn’t say two summers ago when he was in the hospital for 13 days after having his bladder removed.
Sure, at times Herrington gets tired, but he stays on track with energy drinks.
“Whenever I get tired in the afternoon I’ll drink one and I have to admit, yes, it works,” said Herrington.
Harrison has some talented players this season, led by Notre Dame-bound linebacker Ovie Oghoufo and returning quarterback Noah Hendricks.
“It would be big-time for Coach Herrington to get the record, but he wants a state championship more and that’s what we’re going to try and do,” said Oghoufo. “I learned a lot from him since my freshman year, really to take losses as lessons because we’re not used to losing.”
Hendricks won the job in a three-way battle for the quarterback job last season and feels more comfortable at the position now.
“I’ve improved a lot since last year,” Hendricks said. “Last year I wasn’t very accurate. Last year I was kind of nervous, but I’m more comfortable playing in front of Coach and this year I hope to make him look good. I want to help him get the record for most wins and reach the state championship game.”
Loaded with talent
When asked to name the top players who have played for him, along with his top team, Herrington rattled off the names of quarterbacks Mill “The Thrill” Coleman and Drew Stanton and running back / defensive back John Miller without hesitation.
Then, it was on to receivers Agim Shabaj, Aaron Burbridge and Devin Funchess, and fullback / linebacker Nick Williams.
“You know I can’t limit it to five,” he said. “But, Mill, Drew and John Miller are definitely the top three.”
Without a doubt, Herrington has developed countless players into stars throughout the decades, a reason the Hawks have reached the state title game in each of his five decades of coaching.
Miller played in the early to mid-1980s when Harrison won its first two state titles (1981, 1982) before he moved on a first-team All-Big Ten career, helping MSU claim the 1987 Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win over Southern Cal.
Coleman led Harrison to consecutive state championships in 1988-89 before playing for the Spartans. He has been a long-time assistant coach with Harrison.
Stanton arguably played during the best period in Harrison history, when the Hawks won five straight state titles (1997-2001), leading them to consecutive 14-0 records in 2000 and 2001 before moving on to play quarterback for the Spartans.
Herrington’s best team?
“The top team is 2000 when Drew was a junior,” said Herrington, “and they were really good the next year, too.”
Shabaj and running back Marcus Woods were on that 2000 team, as well, and the Hawks crushed East Lansing 42-0 in the Division 3 championship game. In 2001, the Hawks beat Fruitport 28-6 for their fifth straight state title.
“We beat Saginaw in the semifinals in 2001, led the whole way (31-14),” Herrington said. “It was a great game and they had a great team with LaMarr Woodley, who was the best defensive player we’ve ever played against.”
Burbridge and Funchess played for Harrison’s last state championship team in 2010, also the Hawks’ last undefeated team (14-0). Burbridge played for the Spartans and Funchess moved on to Michigan; Funchess is now a receiver for the Carolina Panthers.
Herrington says he stays in touch with many of his former players, including Stanton and Funchess.
In fact, Funchess hosted a clinic at Harrison earlier this summer.
“Funchess was out here and had 350 kids for a camp and it was amazing, all free,” said Herrington. “Jameis Winston came up and helped out with the quarterbacks. Pretty neat to have a Heisman Trophy winner here.”
Coleman, who played quarterback and receiver for Michigan State after graduating from Harrison, has enjoyed his 30-year relationship with Herrington.
“He’s obviously been a fixture here at Farmington Hills Harrison with the program and the school for a long time,” Coleman said. “Coach Herrington lives and dies with Hawks football. One of the things I’ve learned from him in terms of coaching and just being around him is just the consistency in making things very simple to understand.
“I remember one time I asked him, 'When did you really see yourself becoming a good coach?' He told me he thought he really started turning the corner when he stopped trying to do everything, meaning he didn’t try to do special teams, didn’t try to do defense.
“He just focused on offense and he delegated more and trusted his assistants. He trusts his assistant coaches and gives them ownership in what they do. Everybody is open and guys aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and that’s been working for him for a long time.”
Coleman is especially grateful for how Herrington helped him understand how to read defenses.
“Some of the things we would talk about back then, I see him telling the same thing to the players now, and that’s how I talk to some of my players, as well,” Coleman said.
“He likes to keep to what he knows. The joke with him is that he’s using the same system he used in 1972. It’s pro-style with power and play action. He can change it up and make it look a little different, but it’s the same plays.
“Some coaches will go from a spread offense one week to a power offense to a wishbone, but he’s been true to his system. If you know what you’re doing and things aren’t going well, you know how to correct them.”
Coleman, 45, is a certified financial planner who remains an assistant coach at Harrison while also coaching his son’s youth football team, the North Farmington/West Bloomfield Vikings.
Coleman hoped that his son, Mill III, now a seventh grader, would be able to play for the legendary coach.
“That’s all he talked about, playing at Harrison, and when he found out the school was closing he got upset about it,” Coleman said of his son. “He plays receiver and running back; he’s a skilled guy. It would have been something for him to play at Harrison for Coach Herrington in a couple of years, but that’s not going to happen.”
Career leaders in football coaching victories in Michigan (* active):
Al Fracassa (430 wins): Royal Oak Shrine (1960-68), Birmingham Brother Rice (1969-2013) – 430-117-7
* John Herrington (425): Farmington Hills Harrison (1970-2016) – 425-104-1
Tom Mach (370): Detroit Catholic Central (1976-2016) – 370-94
Mike Boyd (361): Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes (1965-68, 1970-2012) – 361-116-1
* Herb Brogan (331): Jackson Lumen Christi (1980-2016) – 331-82